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Thailand unlikely to have seen its last coup. Coups seen as fast track for officers to top of military hierarchy

By Paul Quinn-JudgeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 1985

Bangkok, Thailand

In a break with post-coup tradition, the Thai government has arrested about 30 men following the attempted takeover of Sept. 9. They include a former prime minister, Gen. Kriangsak Chomanand; a former armed forces supreme commander, Gen. Serm na Nakhon; and a number of labor leaders.

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The large number of arrests appears to indicate the government's embarrassment over publicity in the wake of the coup attempt. But many observers, both Thai and foreign, feel that the government's investigation into the affair has so far unearthed only part of the story behind the attempt. And though the last uprising failed ignominiously, there is no sign that military coups are a thing of the past. Last week's events once again underlined the political power and influence of Thailand's military.

The government investigation has so far failed to uncover any sign of what one experienced coup organizer, Col. Prachak Sawangchit, calls the ``invisible man'' -- a senior officer who theoretically was involved in planning the coup attempt and could have provided -- but didn't -- the firepower to ensure the attempt's success.

``Kriangsak, Serm, and the others were professional soldiers,'' said Colonel Prachak, an associate of Col. Manoon Roopkachorn, who is said to have planned the latest coup attempt.

``And they were professional coup leaders. So why only 22 tanks and 500 men? Impossible. There must have been some very big VIP behind the scenes,'' Prachak added.

Many Thai and foreign observers doubt that the investigation will look too hard for Prachak's invisible man.

``If the investigation pinpointed big military people, the officers concerned might feel themselves pushed into a corner,'' said Supatra Masdit, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party, which is part of the coalition government of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda (a former general). This could result in another attempted overthrow. But, Ms. Supatra continued, senior officers are careful to cover their tracks when planning a coup. ``They usually make sure that only their aides make contact with coup organiz ers.''

Prachak, who was dismissed from the Army along with Colonel Manoon after leading an unsuccessful coup attempt in April 1981, says that Manoon had discussed a coup with him five months ago.

``Manoon believed the country needed major surgery immediately,'' said Prachak. Prachak says he agreed with Manoon's main grievance -- the weakness and indecision of the prime minister. ``Every day that Prem is our prime minister the country is weaker,'' Prachak said.

But he felt a coup would be impracticable: The former officers involved in the 1981 coup attempt -- the so-called ``young turks'' -- did not control enough men.

Prachak says that Manoon was pinning his hopes on the outcome of the annual military promotions -- long a catalyst for coups in Thailand. ``Manoon said that if some senior officers are unsuccessful in the reshuffle, they should support [a coup],'' he explained.