Thailand’s Army Still Looms Large in Politics

By Nopporn Wong-Anan
Posted by Bulatlat

BANGKOK – Even though Thailand’s last military coup was 15 years ago, when Bangkok motorists spotted tanks rolling down the street last week, many thought the army was up to its old tricks once again.

“I received more than 10 calls from people saying they had seen several tanks on the street and asking in a shaky voice if there was a coup,” said Jakrapan Kunanyatirakul of FM 91 traffic radio.

“We called the army for an explanation and the answer was it was troops returning from up-country exercises.”

With Thailand mired in a political crisis now in its ninth month and tensions escalating between the army, police, palace and government, the callers could not be accused of being paranoid.

Military chiefs vow the army will stay out of the mess left by April’s annulled election, but with 23 coups or attempted coups during 74 years of on-off democracy, many view their protestations with skepticism.

“Although the chances of success now are much less, it’s almost impossible to dismiss fears of a coup here since we still have many politically active soldiers,” said security analyst Panitan Wattanayakorn at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

In uniform, in politics

While Thailand may have moved on from the time when men in uniform sat squarely in Government House, army meddling in politics — and politicians meddling in the army — remains the order of the day.

In a clear attack on Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in June, top royal adviser Prem Tinsulanonda, one of many former generals turned prime minister, donned his old cavalry uniform to tell cadets their duty was to serve the crown, not the government.

The previous month, shortly after April’s inconclusive election, army commander-in-chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin waded into the fray by letting it be known publicly that revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was upset by the political mess.

In late August, after police arrested a junior army officer near Thaksin’s home in a car packed with explosives, Thaksin immediately sacked General Pallop Pinmanee as deputy director of the shadowy Internal Security Operations Command.

Pallop contemptuously dismissed any involvement in the plot, saying: “If I had wanted to kill him, the Prime Minister would not have escaped.”

Critics accuse Thaksin of staging the attempt to win sympathy from voters.

The alleged bomb plot followed the surprise reassignment in July of more than 100 middle-ranking officers — many of them seen as Thaksin allies — from key infantry posts in the capital.

Some analysts saw the army commander-in-chief’s reshuffle as a pre-emptive move against a pro-Thaksin putsch, given the increasingly high stakes shadow boxing between the army/palace establishment and Thaksin, a populist politician and former policeman who made a fortune in the telecoms industry.

Others read the opposite: the military was clearing the way for intervention against Thaksin.

“There is no unity among the armed forces now,” political scientist Prayad Hongtongkhum said. “But many unit commanders realize coups are outdated and will only make matters worse.”

Sept. 19, 2006

Posted by Bulatlat

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