Choice of New Premier Cools Down Thai Unrest
New leader promises to keep those with military ties out of Cabinet
BANGKOK — IN a historic but perhaps temporary setback for the Thai military, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has appointed a caretaker prime minister who will hold elections soon to restore a broken democracy.
The surprise election of the nonpartisan Anand Panyarachun on Wednesday, instead of a strongly favored pro-military politician, Samboon Rahong, has averted a potential repeat of last month's violence in which troops gunned down dozens of pro-democracy activists in Bangkok.
Mr. Anand, a respected businessman and former diplomat, also was chosen by the military as a "neutral" prime minister in February 1991, after a coup deposed an elected but unpopular government. He told Thais in his farewell address last March not to expect "a knight on a white horse" to take care of them.
Now, in national crisis, he has been recalled after momentous events have rocked the balance of power in Thailand. After March elections, ex-Army Comdr. Suchinda Kraprayoon maneuvered to become prime minister, touching off bloody civil strife that led the king to reprimand General Suchinda, who resigned May 24.
Anand faces difficult tasks in restoring the country's image and economy, passing a government budget, holding clean elections within four months, and coping with public demands for punishment of military leaders who ordered the May 19-20 massacre.
Anand earned high praise for his year as prime minister and his ability to stand up to the military. He promises not to name any elected politician or anyone with military connections in his Cabinet, a sign of the low public opinion of both the military and political parties and the public faith in technocrats and the king.
The revered king indirectly influenced the choice of Anand and will assist him by delaying the signing of a new constitutional amendment that requires a prime minister to be an elected member of Parliament.
The amendment was passed by Parliament on Wednesday, just hours before Anand was appointed by the king and House Speaker Arthit Urairat in a move that few in Thailand expected.
"The support for democracy came from very high up [the royal palace]," says Thammasat University professor Likhit Dhiravegin. Anand himself said he will govern "with the help of His Majesty and his advisers."
With elections expected by October, many pro-democracy advocates hope that the influence of both the military and of bribe money on voters may be diminished by a more politicized population.
"The No. 1 campaign issue will be the killing of civilians by the military," says Suchit Bunbongkarn, dean of political science at Chulalongkorn University. Parties will have less money, and their ability to buy votes from poor rural Thais will be less, he adds.
But while opposition parties may gain more seats in Parliament, civilian politics may not become much less corrupt or less self-serving as to end military influence, says Dr. Likhit.
"The old military method of using a facade of democracy for its own power will be more difficult, but another decade will be needed to build up a larger middle class that can oppose the military," he adds.
In fact, he predicts that former Army Chief of Staff Chaovalit Yongchaiyuth, now head of the opposition New Aspiration Party, may win more seats in the election and could become the next prime minister.
Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai, whose bid to form a government failed last week, may also gain in the election.
"We will have a good chance for better democracy if the opposition parties know how to exploit the new mood of the people," says Kaewsan Athipho, a law lecturer at Thammasat University.
But he adds, "The king, the military, and big bureaucrats will still pull most of the connections in Thailand. Will there be basic change? Not likely."
A test of the military's political strength will come if Anand tries to remove or put on trial the top brass held responsible for ordering troops to fire last month.
Anand says he would pursue "quiet negotiations" in investigations the massacre. But he said nothing about possibly challenging an amnesty decree issued by Suchinda for the military before the general resigned.