Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

King holds key to success of takeover in Thailand

The coup is at least partially a reflection of the military's dissatisfaction with deposed PM Thaksin's attempts to appoint his cronies to positions of power

By John Aglionby  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Tanks on the streets, television stations going off the air and generals claiming to have seized power were events that many thought had been consigned to history in Thailand. Or so most of the country thought until Tuesday.

For, despite the political crisis that has engulfed the country over the last nine months, no one predicted the impasse created by opposition to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's alleged corruption and abuse of power would end with anything other than a democratic outcome.

A general election was expected in November to clear the air polluted by a flawed poll in April. That election had followed nine months of demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.

Leaders on both sides of Thailand's political divide had been preaching peace and vowing not to resort to violence or extra-constitutional tactics.

Military commanders insisted they and their troops would stay out of politics.

It is still too early to explain exactly what precipitated the dramatic turn of events in Bangkok on Tuesday, which revived memories of the last coup in 1991. But over the last few weeks there have been signs of the military's growing frustration with Thaksin.

Thaksin, a former police colonel, for years has been trying to flood the top ranks of the armed forces and police with relatives and friends. For example, one of his cousins, General Chaiyasith Shinawatra, was army commander until August last year.

He was replaced by General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who quickly demonstrated he was anything but a Thaksin acolyte. A few weeks ago, Sondhi publicly lambasted Thaksin's uncompromising approach to solving the insurgency in the three predominantly Muslim southern provinces that has left more than 1,700 people dead since January 2004.

Four bombs last weekend in the tourist city of Hat Yai, north of the violence-ravaged provinces, indicated the trouble was spreading, while a significant escalation in attacks since June in the three provinces had spurred no change in government policy.

On Aug. 24, a car was discovered packed with 80kg of explosives outside Thaksin's home. He immediately branded it an assassination attempt and blamed people in the military. The evidence collected was not definitive and senior officers were rounded up without investigators producing much in the way of answers.

The spat between Sondhi and Thaksin centered on the latest reshuffling of the military. As in the past, Thaksin wanted to promote his buddies into key positions. As of Tuesday, the list had yet to be approved.

But there are deeper issues and forces at work. The yellow ribbons the soldiers in the streets tied to their guns and tanks provide a clear demonstration of where their loyalty lies -- namely to deeply revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and not to any politician.

One of the undercurrents to the months of turmoil has been the king's unspoken but obvious dissatisfaction with Thaksin, analysts say. It is this that partly triggered the troops' move.

"The forces loyal to Sondhi have acted in defense of the king and taken Thaksin to task for his perceived illegitimacy," said Titinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Since he took office in 2001, Thaksin has steadily eroded the independence of institutions that were meant to act as checks and balances on executive authority. The most notable example is how he flooded the senate with his loyalists and thus got his supporters appointed to bodies such as the elections commission and the constitutional court.

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