Thailand's Military Coup Heralds Shifts in Foreign Ties

THAILAND's military takeover on Feb. 23 has met with a mixed bag of responses from its Southeast Asian neighbors. Burma, where the ruling junta is bolstered by widening economic links with Thai business and the military, applauded enthusiastically. But Vietnam and the regime it backs in Cambodia stand to lose sympathy from the new Thai government, which has strong links to the three-faction Cambodian resistance, particularly the Khmer Rouge, political observers say.

The business-backed government of former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan had sought closer diplomatic links to the ruling communists in Hanoi and Phnom Penh in hopes of broadening trade and commerce in Indochina.

That approach made Mr. Chatichai suspect among other Southeast Asian nations which had united against Vietnam's decade-long occupation of Cambodia. His downfall was met with quiet relief, analysts say.

``He was too much of a maverick for their liking. They felt he was influenced too much by bad advisers,'' says a Singapore analyst who asked not to be identified. ``They are happy there will be a more even hand.''

The Thai military had also grown uneasy about Chatichai's increasingly independent stance in foreign affairs. Since Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1978, the military has backed the Khmer Rouge-dominated resistance coalition as a buffer against what it sees as Vietnamese hegemony in Southeast Asia.

Although the United States and other Western countries condemned the coup and suspended economic assistance to Thailand, some diplomats suggest the departure of Chatichai will put pressure on Hun Sen to accept a United Nations peace plan to end the Cambodian conflict. The four Cambodian factions have accepted the peace plan in principle, but Phnom Penh has balked at finalizing an agreement that provides for a temporary UN administration of Cambodia.

Some Thai analysts, however, say a peace agreement will be harder to come by.

``It's very cynical. The Thai military doesn't care at all if there is a settlement in Cambodia, now that Vietnam is out,'' says Kusuma Snitwongse, head of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies. ``The military has this fixation on Vietnam. They're afraid that if Vietnam's economy is restored, the Vietnamese will come back in force.''

The political collapse of Chatichai also will likely influence Thailand's controversial relations with neighboring Burma. While many Western countries have economically isolated the Rangoon regime for its suppression of a pro-democracy movement, Thailand has sought burgeoning economic ties.

Under contacts launched by former Army Chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Thai companies have landed lucrative logging and fishing concessions from Rangoon. The concessions have boosted the cash-strapped Burmese junta.

Forced out as Army head by Chatichai in a personal confrontation last year, Mr. Chavalit, who has formed his own political party and enjoys close personal links to the current military command, stands to gain from the coup.

The Thai military rulers have established an interim government and pledged to hold elections in six months. ``Chavalit is waiting in the wings,'' says a Western diplomat.

Chatichai was released from military custody on Saturday, after the interim government of businessman Anand Panyarachun was installed. Mr. Anand will lead a civilian Cabinet under an interim martial-law Constitution until general elections next year.

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