General Prem's failure to halt political infighting prompts Thai coup

The military coup that has removed Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda from the premiership of Thailand demonstrates again how the Thai military sees itself as a safeguard against ineffectual government.

The April 1 coup also shows the many gauntlets a Thai government must run to survive. To retain military support, it must demonstrate it has effective backing among the half-dozen-or-so jousting political parties in the country's faction-ridden parliament.

This is where General Prem, also Army commander in chief, fell down. His failure provided the rallying excuse for Gen. Sant Chitpatima, deputy Army commander in chief, to oust Prime Minister Prem, dissolve parliament, and abrogate the Constitution. Promising early elections, General Sant, a close associate of General Prem, now heads a revolutionary council that includes Navy and Air Force commanders.

Thirteen months ago General Prem himself took power when his predecessor, Gen. Kriangsak Chamanan, seemed incapable of effective rule.

As prime minister, General Prem created a coalition government comprised of both the Thai Nation Party and the Social Action Party. Called "Mr. Clean" because he was relatively untarnished by charges of corruption. General Prem had a good measure of success in orchestrating this coalition cabinet (known as "Prem 1") until early this year.

But then bickering between the Thai Nation Party and the Social Action Party became so severe that the latter withdrew.

Prime Minister Prem was forced to draw up a second cabinet known as "Prem 2," relying heavily on both the Thai Nation Party and the Democrats. Prem 2 lacked much of the economic expertise of Prem 1. Few people predicted it would be cohesive, harmonious, or long-lasting. Indeed, there was widespread speculation that if it did not hold together, a military coup would intervene.

An early announcement by the new government declared the revolutionary council was necessary because the political situation was unstable. It said the government was weak because of intermittent bickerings between political parties.

It also said that power was seized to prevent another group of military officers from plotting to set up a dictatorship.

Still unanswered was the question of what relationship, if any, there was between all this plotting and General Prem's acquiescence in the Indonesian commando raid on a hijacked Indonesian airliner at Bangkok airport. The hijacking, preceded by a visit to Thailand by Indonesian President Suharto, may have kept General Prem from guarding his flank.

If the new government does call elections, as promised, it could face problems in coalition building, as did Prem 2. It will need to persuade capable economic managers that it will back them if it to regain the momentum of Prem 1.

It must also decide how much continuity to follow in foreign affairs, since Thailand is the frontline state resisting what many in the region see as Vietnamese expansionism.

At issue will be whether to keep the present foreign affairs team headed by Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila. Also at issue will be whether to keep Thailand's unbending hardline policy toward Vietnam or change tactics for a political solution in Cambodia, as advoca ted by some Malaysian and Indonesian circles.

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