Thailand's Soldier-Politicians Likely to Sway National Election
THAILAND'S military is once again a controversial pivot in politics at home and in Southeast Asia.Skip to next paragraph
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Thailand votes this Sunday in the first parliamentary election since the military ousted an elected government in a bloodless coup last year. Thai generals are taking center stage in determining who rules, Thai and Western analysts say.
With the vote expected to be close and indecisive, the country's soldier-politicians hope to broker a coalition or appoint the next prime minister.
After months of avoiding politics, junta leader Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon said this week that he wants the top civilian political job. That has stirred protests because General Suchinda is not formally running for office.
But shifting party loyalties have thrust Gen. Chaovalit Yongchaiyuth, himself a former controversial armed forces chief, into the limelight as a surging rival. Whoever becomes the leader will have to fashion a deal with the military, observers say.
"More than ever, the military sees itself as the guardian of the state," says a Western military analyst. "This paternalistic view of society will be with Thailand for a long time."
"You have to admit that at times the voice of the majority is not always correct, because everyone is intent on protecting their own interests," Suchinda told the Bangkok Post recently. "Whatever we thought ... should be done for the benefit of the country ... we tried to do."
Sunday's election has evolved into a battle of personalities and a scramble to keep military authority intact. At one point, Suchinda seemed solidly positioned to take over civilian political power at the head of a three-party coalition created by paying politicians to switch parties. But military infighting has revived General Chaovalit's chances.
Public resentment over Suchinda's power play, along with Army suspicions of a fast-moving Air Force chief who hints at political aspirations, could make Suchinda delay political ambitions and compromise with Chaovalit.
The military says such posturing is part of its role as political arbiter. In predominantly rural Thailand, the military is widely respected for its authority.
Yet, increasingly, the generals are being challenged by a disapproving urban elite, outspoken intellectuals, regional politicians, and businessmen gaining clout from Thailand's economic boom.
"This uneven political development is affecting other national security pillars such as the economy, social psychology, and military stability," says junta spokesman Col. Banchorn Chawansin, who rejects criticisms that military interference itself undermines Thailand's political and economic stability.
"Thailand is too grown up to be disturbed by any minor interior problem," he says.
Among Thailand's neighbors, the Thai armed forces are also a closely watched political player.
On the border with Burma (now called Myanmar), the Thai Army confronts Rangoon troops besieging ethnic Karens and Burmese dissidents in the frontier rebel headquarters at Manerplaw.