Thais Renew Call for Premier's Resignation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A CONFRONTATION between Thailand's new government and thousands of street protesters continues despite a weekend compromise aimed at easing the country's most serious political crisis in more than a decade.

Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, the former armed forces chief appointed prime minister last month even though he did not run in the March 22 national election, has faced a week of demonstrations in what has become the strongest challenge to Thailand's all-powerful military since massive student protests in the 1970s.

General Suchinda's foes, including establishment politicians and political activists who first confronted the military as students in a 1973 popular uprising, have called for his resignation.

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On Saturday, the government won a respite when Chamlong Srimuang, the popular former governor of Bangkok and a leader of the Palang Dharma (Righteous Force) party, ended a five-day hunger strike and the government and opposition parties struck a deal to end the impasse.

The agreement to amend the Thai Constitution reportedly includes a provision that the country's prime minister must be elected and not appointed.

Mr. Chamlong, who had previously demanded that Suchinda resign within a month, eased his demands yesterday and said he would not set a deadline for removing the Thai leader.

Demonstrators stayed in the streets, although in smaller numbers than the crowds of more than 100,000 who turned out last week. Many protesters say they have continued their demonstrations because of uncertainties over whether the government would honor the compromise or whether the new amendment would apply retroactively to Suchinda.

The government reinforced its troops confronting the crowd and warned yesterday that the demonstrators would be dispersed if they did not move and make way for a planned religious procession during a Buddhist festival.

The Army-administered television station reported that Interior Minister Air Chief Marshal Anan Kalinta "said that if the demonstrators refuse to comply with the request, it will be necessary to disperse the rally."

The standoff was triggered last month by Suchinda's appointment as premier by a coalition of five pro-military parties following an inconclusive election. The general stepped down from his post as military commander to take the top civilian position when the previous appointee, Narong Wongwan, was accused by the United States of involvement in drug trafficking.

But upon becoming premier, Suchinda, the latest general to take power in what has been a 60-year cycle of coups and confrontation, faced a developing force in Thai politics. The standoff has drawn out many former student activists who first cut their political teeth in a prodemocracy revolt that overthrew a military dictatorship in 1973.

The following period of open politics ended when Thai soldiers opened fire and killed scores of protesting students while seizing power in a 1976 coup.

Today many of the former activists are merchants and professionals with young families. They join a politically aware middle class that has emerged during Thailand's economic boom of recent years. "You see this picture. I was there," says businessman Dan Nopprapun, holding up a newspaper picture of the 1973 protests. "And after I close up, I go out there and sleep with the protesters every night because we want Suchinda out."

Suchinda also faces the rising star of Chamlong, a retired Army officer and Buddhist ascetic, who is respected by a majority of Bangkok residents, the press, intellectuals, and professionals for his integrity. Chamlong has been a figure of controversy for his past links to officers who staged coups in 1976 and 1981.

His announcement of a hunger strike was a turning point in protests against Suchinda and fueled the massive demonstrations that commanded the city last week.

Still, Thailand's soldier-politicians remain on top in a country dominated by feudal politics. Despite the protests in Bangkok, the military commands respect in the countryside.

The country's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej also plays a powerful behind-the-scenes role. Prominent pro-democracy activists petitioned the king to end the crisis by advising Suchinda to call a new election, and he reportedly had a hand in convincing Chamlong to end his fast.

Even if Suchinda survives the turmoil, many Thai and foreign analysts question how long he will last. The general has repeatedly insisted he will not step down.

While facing an outside challenge, Suchinda also has to withstand military threats from within. Suchinda is beholden to his successor as armed forces chief, Air Chief Marshal Kaset Rojananin who helped Suchinda overthrow an elected government in a coup last year and positioned the general to take the country's top political job.

As political turmoil spread last week, Kaset refused to rule out the possibility of another coup.

"At some point, Kaset will call in his debts," says a Western diplomat, pointing out that the military chief expects the new government to restore recent defense cuts. "That will determine how long this government lasts."

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