Indecisive Thai coup hurts royal prestige; war possible

A coup attempt in Thailand has brought the threat of a civil war to this strategic Southeast Asian nation and put the prestige of its respected monarchy in jeopardy.

At this writing the political outcome remaind confused, with reports that the opposing generals were holding negotiations to reach a peaceful outcome.

Although Gen. Sant Chitpatima, leader of the April 1 coup, still appears to be in control at this writing, the ousted premier, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, is claiming royal support. He says King Blumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit are under his protection in the northeast of the country, which is his political stronghold.

Loyalist radio also read a statement said to be by the Queen denouncing the coup leaders as dictators.

General Sant, who led the coup, accused General Prem of exploiting the royal family's visit to its palace in northeast Thailand and using them as pawns.

"Their action is most detrimental to the monarchy," General Sant is reported to have said.

The question now is whether Thailand's national unity will be damaged by these attacks on the royal family.

If the King and Queen are later perceived to be on the losing side, their standing could be harmed. This could be bad for the country, since the royal family provides a respected symbol of national unity.

If General Prem finally prevails, the question will be asked: How did the King and Queen appear (uncharacteristically) to get caught in a diplomatic cross-fire between opposing military factions.

This is just one of the implications of the indecisive coup that is unusual for Thailand. If the confrontation between General Prem (based in Korat in the northeast) and General Sant (based in Bangkok) persists, there is, of course, a danger of civil war.

That would weaken Thailand as it faces Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. It would send ripples of concern throughout noncommunist Southeast Asia. And it could cause heavy casualties since thickly populated Bangkok could be the battleground.

Many analysts would say such a civil war would be contrary to the Thai way of doing things. Indeed, one possibility is a negotiated settlement between General Sant and General Prem. This could result in a new form of military rule dispensing entirely with civilian government.

But already this incomplete coup seems uncharacteristic for Thailand.

Most Thai military coups are carefully organized in advance. Their initiators quietly seek the acquiescence, if not the enthusiasm of the royal family. After a fait accompli, the losers gracefully give in.

In Thailand a weakened leader is an invitation to coup plots. What was unusual this time was that the impatient Young Turks led by general Sant moved with such inadequate preparati on for the coup.

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