Generals lose popular ground with Thais
Last week, CNN viewers across Asia caught a burst of exiled Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra on a prime-time evening show. In an excerpt from an interview taped in Singapore, Mr. Thaksin talked of his political future and the military coup that toppled him last September.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Viewers in Thailand, though, saw a different picture: a rerun of CNN's previous hour of programming. With a nod from the military censors, Thaksin, the twice-elected prime minister, was nowhere to be seen.
Four months after seizing power without firing a shot, Thailand's generals have begun to tack rightward in a bid to consolidate their rule. In recent weeks, the ruling Council for National Security (CNS) has tightened media censorship, revoked Thaksin's diplomatic passport, and lashed out at ally Singapore for meeting with Thaksin.
The tougher stance was prompted by a string of deadly bombings across Bangkok on Dec. 31 that authorities blamed on ousted political players trying to destabilize the country. Over the weekend, police arrested at least 15 suspects, including several military officers, the first detentions in the case. None have been charged so far.
By moving right, the generals may have shored up support from Thais who campaigned last year to remove Thaksin for alleged corruption. But they risk alienating moderates who accepted the coup as a necessary evil to defuse a political stalemate. Analysts say that the regime is also struggling to assert its hold over Thaksin's allies in the civil service and security forces.
"The support for the coup is narrowly based, and it's based on the conflict with Thaksin," says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a professor of international relations at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Everyone knows this is a lame-duck government. It's going to be gone in 10 or 12 months. The bureaucracy knows this. Time is running out."
Having seized power by alleging widespread corruption and abuse of power, the junta has struggled to build a tight case against Thaksin and his family. In part, this reflects the complexity of probing the overlapping spheres of his political and business interests, as well as the complicity of civil servants. A separate trial of his political party, Thai Rak Thai, for alleged electoral fraud began last week.
Thaksin has been traveling in Europe and Asia in what appears to be an effort to stay in the public eye and gauge support from foreign governments. He has denied all corruption allegations and any involvement in the bombings.
To some observers, the impression left is that the coup – the 18th since 1932 – was more about politics than probity. Even opposition politicians who cheered Thaksin's removal are sniping at the military-installed government.
"I think support for the government is slipping. People who want to see decisive action taken against corruption have been disappointed," says Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party.
Mr. Abhisit said that the slow pace of writing a new constitution to replace the 1997 charter has dismayed Thais who want a quick return to democracy. Coup leaders promised to hold elections and hand over power within a year, but that timetable may be slipping. A 35-person constitution committee has yet to start.