P.S. Suryanarayana

The recent coup has left Thailand unsettled. The challenge for the new leadership is to heal the divisions.

MILITARY COUPS against elected governments invariably lead to a power shift. The new military junta in Bangkok is, however, fighting shy of proclaiming a power shift in Thailand. Instead, the coup coterie, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, has pledged loyalty to the country's beloved constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and promised to transfer power back to civilians by October next year. In the process, the coup leaders, now calling themselves the Council for National Security (CNS), have hardly concealed their game plan.

The CNS is indeed revealing its option, not yet a firm choice, of steering the military establishment towards a balance-of-power role in any future system of governance.

This is evident from the reaffirmation by the CNS, on October 5, to enforce martial law as long as it deemed necessary. The clarification followed a courtesy call on the CNS-appointed "civilian" Prime Minister, Surayud Chulanont, by the United States Ambassador, Ralph Boyce, in Bangkok on October 2. Significantly, despite frowning on General Sonthi for having staged the coup on September 19, the U.S. has not reversed its three-year-old decision to treat Thailand as "a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) ally."

India, in tune with its political line of not exporting democracy, has taken note of the Thai developments without any specific value judgment.

Uncharted terrain

Now, by appointing Mr. Surayud, a former Army chief, as Thailand's interim Prime Minister on October 1, the CNS is walking a tightrope. The political terrain remains uncharted. But the junta's task has been made easier by a surprise decision by the deposed Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, on October 3. From his home in self-imposed exile in London, Mr. Thaksin quit as the chief of a political party he had twice led to convincing election victories.

Having toppled Mr. Thaksin, when he was away in New York to attend the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, the military has already begun to gamble on reinforcing its new hold on power. Mr. Surayud is reckoned to be popular among the people despite his military vintage. For the junta, a parallel priority in fielding such a person is to address the international concerns over the coup and defuse the sporadic signs of resistance in the public domain at home.

Mr. Surayud's credentials as a military-friendly "civilian" at the highest echelons of Thai society are known. Not long ago, after his exit as the army chief, he donned the robes of a Buddhist monk for some time. And, more importantly, he was a member of the Privy Council when the CNS handpicked him for this sensitive post. His track record, which was laced with his publicised acknowledgment of the primacy of democracy over the role of the armed forces in national politics, was a factor in his becoming a member of the King's Privy Council in the first place.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who holds a "revered position" under Thailand's constitutional jurisprudence, had intervened twice, in 1973 and 1992, to put the country back on the democratic course. Absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932 and Thailand has so far had 16 basic statutes, including the now-abrogated "people's Constitution" of 1997. Mr. Thaksin, who is known to have won the minds and perhaps also the hearts of Thailand's large segment of poor, was the first to win a democratic election under the 1997 Constitution.

The political evolution of General Sonthi as the coup leader is evident from the sequencing of the nomenclature of the CNS itself. The CNS was at first the Council for Administrative Reform and later the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) under Constitutional Monarchy and also more simply the CDR.

The "democratic" element has been replaced altogether by the accent on a "security" function in the context of a promise, now being affirmed by Mr. Surayud, for elections and a government of the people's choice. The substance behind this semantic evolution of the coup leaders' identity is that General Sonthi can, if he so desires finally, opt for a political role for the armed forces in a future constitutional set-up. Such a "praetorian role" was known to Thailand itself until the 1970s and to Indonesia until the late 1990s.

The CNS has now got a post-coup "interim edition" of a "constitution" promulgated under the authority of the King, who endorsed General Sonthi's coup without any delay that might have led to a power vacuum. This "interim" document is noteworthy for entrenching the CNS as the main arbiter of power for the present and for upholding the dignity of the monarch as the nation's unifying force. Sovereignty remains vested in the people, and the King stays as the supreme commander of the military forces.

Steadying influence

Under this "interim" framework, the march of political events, from now onwards, will be determined, at one level, by the moves of Mr. Surayud, who had in 2000 warned against the formation of any "praetorian" group with political ambitions. At a higher level, General Sonthi has retained ample space so that he could continue to call the political shots. Above all, though, the anti-Thaksin forces among the people had, before the latest coup, wanted the King to intervene in national politics. As a result, the King remains the "all-steadying influence" in Thailand's polity.

In this macro-level political context, many factors have been cited for Mr. Thaksin's downfall charges of corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and political insensitivity to the perceived human rights abuses in his campaigns against Muslim "insurgents" in the majority-Buddhist kingdom and against suspected drug traffickers as also terrorists and common criminals.

Chris Baker, a noted commentator on Thai politics, had drawn attention to Mr. Thaksin's "presidential" style as a negative factor during his tenure. For, constitutional monarchy has been consistently exemplified by an immensely popular King.

Give also the King's rare but decisive political interventions in the past on the side of democracy, scholars such as Duncan McCargo now say they do not foresee "the doomsday scenario" of a long-term military entrenchment under a person such as General Sonthi.

A reluctant coup leader or not, General Sonthi's action, like Mr. Thaksin's pro-poor politics before that, has left the country unsettled, as noted by authoritative Thai sources. Mr. Surayud, therefore, faces a daunting challenge to heal these divisions.