Asia Times:Turn of the political screw in Thailand

Asia Times : By Shawn W Crispin 

BANGKOK – Thailand’s military-appointed interim government is collapsing, exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s political power base is regrouping, and the prospects for a smooth transition back towards democracy through general elections scheduled for later this year are dimming as the country hurtles towards yet another political crisis. Corruption allegations related to private company shareholdings that recently forced several of current Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont’s cabinet ministers to resign now threaten the interim premier’s own standing. The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) this week grilled Surayud on allegations that he illegally acquired land and built a home in a national forest reserve and have sent their findings to the National Counter Corruption Commission. Surayud recently revealed in a Thai language television interview that he was formerly a jon, which in English loosely translates as “bandit”, but had long ago changed his ways.The sudden and dramatic split in the executive and legislative branches of the military-appointed government has laid bare the deep differences in outlook between competitive military camps about the political future. The moderate and increasingly isolated Surayud has remained defiant against hard-liner pressures, vowing despite the allegations against him to see through the completion of his term and keep on track democratic polls now scheduled for December 23.

However it is just as likely that the former army commander and privy councilor will be forced to either resign or dissolve altogether his battered and depleted interim administration. Both scenarios would provide political cause for a caretaker administration – likely to be led by either deputy prime minister for security and last year’s coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratklin, or the NLA chairman, former spy chief and coup-operative, Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri – to push back or even indefinitely delay the elections. The new bout of political squabbling, this time between moderate and hardline forces inside the armed forces, comes at a time when the newly formed, Thaksin-affiliated People’s Power Party (PPP) is now being predicted by various political pundits to garner the most seats at upcoming polls. The earlier front-running Democrat Party has failed to generate enough funds for a successful election campaign and the party’s drive to penetrate the crucial northeastern region has been hobbled by internal squabbling over leadership and strategy, according to sources close to the party.

“The tide has changed completely,” says one political analyst with close ties to the military. “At first [the coup-makers] thought they could destroy Thaksin’s influence but now they realize they’re going to have to live with the guy. It’s like Caesar: everyone is scared of being stabbed in the back and so the hardliners are thrusting first.”

More significantly, perhaps, the interim government infighting comes at a time when Thaksin’s supporters have dangerously upped the ante of their anti-junta propaganda campaign which makes liberal use of the Internet to counter the message of government-controlled media inside the country.

A senior Thaksin adviser told Asia Times Online that recent internal polling surveys allegedly conducted by the military all showed that the PPP would outpace other political parties at upcoming elections, based upon still strong voter support for Thaksin in the pivotal northern and northeastern regions. Asia Times Online could not independently verify the information with the government, but the prediction is in line with many political analysts’ view of the upcoming polls.

The same adviser claimed that the exiled Thaksin is now in the process of negotiating a sort of political “compromise” with sources allegedly close to the royal palace. By Thai law the royal family is above politics, though King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed the installation of a military-appointed government after last year’s coup.

The terms of the alleged deal-in-the-making would potentially include an agreement that the PPP would without interference from the military and with the palace’s endorsement be allowed to form the next government should the party win the most votes at the polls. In exchange, the advisor said, Thaksin would agree to remain in exile in the United Kingdom and a PPP-led government would agree to dissolve itself and hold new polls after serving only two years of its four-year term.

“Thaksin has basically said, ‘We can fight a short war or a long war’ and both sides seem to agree that a short war is more in the national interest,” says the advisor, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the alleged talks.

Potent propaganda
At the same time other Thaksin supporters are bidding to present an alternative history to the official version of events leading up to and following last year’s coup. That includes the particularly incendiary claim included in two well-produced, long-play videos recently posted on Youtube that the palace was coerced by privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda and the presence of armed soldiers in the palace into supporting the military’s putsch.

The polemical videos, one entitled “Defaming the King”, the other “Eliminate the Heir”, also alleged that since the coup Prem has come into conflict with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and that the chief privy councilor recently attempted to stop the royal heir apparent from meeting privately with Thaksin in London.

The sophisticated clips go on to accuse Prem of systematically gathering sensitive – and not always flattering – information through informants close to royal family members that have later been widely distributed to the general public, most recently in the form of a VCD, in a bid to influence the royal succession.

Adding to the intrigue, the clips also noted that the new military-drafted and referendum-mandated constitution includes a new provision which would give the privy council sole discretion in selecting the next monarch if the royal succession is not decided before His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes and that the advisory body would with no specific delineated time limit hold authority over the throne until its decision was handed down.

The Thaksin advisor told Asia Times Online that he was “consulted” in both videos’ production, but that certain claims made in the clips were not based on fact. The polemical clips cleave closely to the accusations and allegations leveled against Prem by the anti-junta and pro-Thaksin protest group the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), whose senior members were temporarily imprisoned in late August for their role in staging a raucous demonstration in front of Prem’s private residence.They also bid, as the UDD has attempted through its protests, to drive a wedge between the palace and Prem and to establish Thaksin as the true defender of the crown, and play in particular on his known close and cordial ties to the Crown Prince. Through a personal spokesman, Prem denied the various allegations specific to the video clips and has said repeatedly said that allegations that he was behind last year’s coup were “repetitive, baseless and provocative”.The ministry of justice is now in the process of obtaining a court order which for reasons of national security would allow officials to censor or block access to the on-line material. However more than a month after the clips were first posted on the video-sharing website Youtube, as of today, they were still uncensored. “The timing of the videos is a red light warning,” said the political analyst with ties to the military. “The CNS is not speaking with one voice and the political situation is going to get messier before it gets better.”

Elite settlement
Against this tumultuous backdrop, some political analysts detect signs that after a disastrous year in office, in which various policies have attracted international criticism of the country, that the coup makers may be falling out of palatial favor.

One strong signal that some sort of compromise with Thaksin may indeed be in the offing was the recent abrupt and unexplained halt to the strongest corruption case against Thaksin, involving his wife’s purchase of a government disposed plot of land in Bangkok. Others in Thaksin’s camp point to the government’s apparent refusal to allow anti-Thaksin protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul to return to the country after he gave a controversial speech which touched on the monarchy in California last month.

The senior Thaksin advisor says that if the PPP wins and is allowed to form the next government, it would immediately move to amend the new constitution, including removing the amnesty clause for the coup-makers and their associates, and drive to prosecute top coup makers for extra-constitutionally toppling Thaksin’s government.

He also said they would aim to legally diminish the power of the privy council, particularly by making the body’s president, currently Prem, but in the future likely to be Surayud, a more ceremonial and less powerful position.

The privy council only achieved its prominence in recent years, after Prem resigned the premiership and joined the monarch’s advisory body in 1988 and as King Bhumibol became more reclusive. The coup-makers appear to be on guard against just such a move. Earlier this week the NLA tabled a bill which aimed to extend the country’s already strict lese majeste laws, which bar media criticism of the royal family and include jail terms for transgressions, to protect privy council members from criticism. The bill was suddenly dropped for unclear reasons.

The creeping notion that Thaksin’s political proxies represented in the PPP are on the verge of a comeback and with apparent vengeance on their minds is no doubt stoking concerns among senior military officers directly involved in staging last year’s coup. Military hardliners who feel strongly that the interim government has not done enough to purge Thaksin’s influence lost a march last month when the more moderate Gen Anupong Paochinda was recently appointed army commander over the more fervently anti-Thaksin Gen Saprang Kalayanamitr.

Disappointment over that hotly contested appointment could explain the mysterious bomb blast in front of army headquarters in Bangkok on October 1, coinciding with the first day Anupong assumed the post. And hardliner fears of a Thaksin comeback almost certainly explain this week’s strong censure of Surayud and his interim administration by those who until very recently were considered to be his political allies.

Yet if military minds believe that they can manufacture the fall of Surayud’s interim government and use the subsequent political fallout as a pretext to indefinitely delay promised elections, unlike the widespread popular support they enjoyed directly after toppling Thaksin they will likely face strong popular resistance to their refusal to step down and restore democracy.

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