Singapore — Now that the dust is settling on Thailand's failed April 1 coup, the question arises: How great is the damage to Southeast Asia's frontline state?
In Thailand and in other parts of Southeast Asia, there is concern that the coup attempt and the way it was suppressed may have damaged the country's stability. At issue is whether it has undermined the chances for effective government an weakened the unifying force of the Thai monarchy.
These questions affect all of Southeast Asia, for Thailand serves as a buffer against some 200,000 Vietnamese troops occupying neighboring Cambodia.
In Thailand itself even many of those who opposed the coup are uneasy about the results.
One concern is that even with the strong royal backing he has received, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda will be unable to lead a government capable of tackling the country's economic and social problems. If this happens, General Prem, often seen as a weak political leader, could face a new groundswell of opposition.
There is also concern that this coup, the 14th since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932, will scare off foreign investment by suggesting an unstable political climate.
Some, such as Chulalongkorn University law lecturer Nathee Thongdee, have said one unfortunate result will be to scare away high-caliber civilians from participating in government because there is no future in politics dominated by Army officers.
One unanswered question is what the affect will be on the morale and strength of the Army.
A number of promising majors and lieutenant colonels, all from the 1960 class of the Chulachomklao Military Academy, participated in the coup attempt. If they are permanently removed from advancement in their careers, younger, untried men will have to be promoted to lead Thai armies facing Vietnam.
Prime Minister Prem must decide how thoroughgoing a purge to order. The deeper the purge, the greater the cost in disunity, resentment, and damages to Thai defenses.
On April 15 it was announced that General Prem had sacked 14 more colonels, mostly commanders of combat regiments in the First Thai Army. [Earlier it had been reported that more than 100 officers who had taken part in the coup had been detained for trial by a military court.]
So far it is unclear exactly how those implicated will be dealt with. An investigating committee headed by Gen. Saiyud Kerdphol is heading the probe, which military leaders have said will lead to civilian trials. Degree of coup involvement and time of surrender are some factors to be considered.
A big issue is whether the Prem government will follow the 1977 example when Gen. Chalard Hiranyasiri was executed for a bungled coup. There is a widespread feeling that extreme punishments would create more problems than they would solve.
Former Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan has been quoted as saying he believed the government would not take serious retaliation against the conspirators in order to restore national unity. He suggested that the government pardon the conspirators "if it will unite the country."
But former Prime Minister M. R. Kukrit Pramoj is said to have commented on a proposal for pardons by warning that "anyone who wants to stage a coup will always think that he will escape punishment if his attempt fails."
A major concern is that any future plotters may have learned an undesirable lesson from the April 1 failure. This is to use bloody tactics at an early point to ensure success.
Another concern is that the royal family, having openly supported Prem, has set itself up as a possible target for future coups.
Under this reasoning, future plotters might possibly seize the royal family to ban it from playing a political role. Thus, although the King today appears more influential than ever, he may also be more vulnerable than ever.
Behind all this is the necessity to tackle the country's social and economic problems. It was partly General Prem's apparent inability to mobilize an effective coalition government of bickering parties that led the young Turk officers to enlist the leadership of Gen. Sant Chitpatima in a coup attempt.
General Sant is known for his contacts with liberal intellectuals, though some critics say he corrupt. His followers proclaimed goals of nationalizing banks, promoting agricultural development, and ending the power of influential Sino-Thai families.
Now restored to power, General Prem must disprove that contention. But he has on his hands a divided Army, and quarreling civilian politicians who have appeared less eager than ever to administer the country.
Hanging over all of this is a widespread sense of unease that the the revered monarchy, long a unifying force, may be in jeopardy.