Thai Cabinet Shake-Up Is Seen as Bid to Placate Military

THAILAND'S Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan struggles to rebuild his political career under the watch of a skeptical military. The beleaguered Thai leader unveiled a new six-party coalition Dec. 15, in what political observers see as a last-ditch effort to stay in power. The alliance followed Chatchai's rapid-fire resignation and reinstatement a week earlier.

In his new government, Chatchai has dropped an outspoken minister who had disagreed with the country's preeminent generals. But the premier, who has 18 months left in his term, remains shaky, analysts say.

``The military believes it is the watchdog of the politicians,'' says a Western diplomat. ``Chatchai seems to be on the wrong side of the military.''

Thailand's military is uneasy with a new breed of businessmen-politicians. Since 1932, when the country changed from an absolute monarchy to rule by Constitution, military or former military officers have been in charge - engineering 16 coups in 60 years.

Then, in 1988, Chatchai, himself a former Army officer, became Thailand's first elected prime minister in a decade. With a growing economy, the pro-business government won widespread support by raising pay for government workers and laborers and dispensing lucrative contracts.

During the economic boom, however, Chatchai's government came under fire for vote-buying and corruption. The prime minister's family-dominated Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party profited from business deals ranging from telecommunications systems to Bangkok's planned mass transit system, his opponents said.

The real blow, analysts say, came when the Gulf crisis hit. Oil prices jumped and the economic boom collapsed. The Thai stock market, from which many members of the military had profited, plummeted as the overheated economy sputtered.

``Quite clearly, Saddam Hussein was at fault,'' writes Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a Bangkok political analyst and former Chatchai adviser, referring to the Iraqi president. For the first time, ``the Chatchai government has been forced to govern without any political buffer provided by perceived economic prosperity, and to take the necessary but highly unpopular steps to raise oil prices and curb inflationary pressures.''

``Life is getting too expensive. Prices keep going up, up, up,'' says Thana Charoonvit, a teacher. ``We need government to do something for the people.''

In recent months, Chatchai's skirmishes with military officials erupted into a confrontation about the generals' influence over politics. Chatchai outflanked Army chief Chaovalit Yongchaiyut last summer, forcing him to retire and then bringing him into the Cabinet. Two months later, General Chaovalit quit after he came under attack from Chalerm Yoobamrung, another Cabinet minister. Now heading his own party, Chaovalit has emerged as the prime minister's main challenger.

Chalerm drew the general's wrath in a skirmish over the Army seizure of a radio truck under the minister's control. The military then launched a fusillade of criticism against what it called pervasive government corruption.

After failing to placate the military by demoting Chalerm, Chatchai finally was pressured to resign and reconstitute his government without the controversial politician. He says the new government's ``most important policy will be honesty.'' Although the military is not happy, Thai analysts and Western diplomats do not expect the Army to step in again in an outright takeover. The military does not want to risk political turmoil and the resulting disruption of the economy in which it has a hefty investment, political observers say.

For most people, however, Thailand's political machinations provide entertainment but have little impact. ``This Chatchai is running the government like a family business,'' says a merchant. ``But it would be the same no matter who's in power. Our lives go on.''

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