THREE weeks after a military crackdown left hundreds of pro-democracy protesters either dead or missing, Thailand is bracing itself for another possible storm.
Renewed protests and violence could easily erupt in the coming few days, analysts warn, if a caretaker government names a new prime minister who is close to the military top brass.
Tensions remain high in Bangkok and troops are at the ready in what was once considered an emerging democracy in Asia. All the key players, from a hesitant king down to disgraced young Army officers, are charting new political waters for Thailand. "The Thais have been through traumatic events that will inevitably diminish the power of the military," says a Western diplomat. "But for now the top brass are hanging tough."
The four opposition parties, tapping the outrage of the middle class over a May 19-20 massacre, are trying to break the military's long hold on Parliament by promoting Chuan Lookpai, the respected leader of the Democrat Party, as the next prime minister. "The public thinks that with so much uncertainty, Chuan is a healing candidate, a reconciliator of sorts," says Democrat Party official Surin Pitsuwan.
Military leaders, however, who are on the defensive after last month's killings, are relying on support from the large peasant population and a Thai tendency to let bygones be bygones. They back a leader of the ruling pro-military coalition in parliament, Somboon Rahong of the Chart Thai Party.
The military's choice may be legal but lacks legitimacy, say opposition leaders, who must win over one of the five ruling political parties in order for Mr. Chuan to gain a majority in parliament. Working in Chuan's favor is the fact that protests may break out if the military's candidate is selected, and both the monarchy and some factions in the military stand prepared to prevent another wave of killing.
The final choice, depending on tense bargaining now underway, is expected to be announced within days by Arthit Urairat, acting prime minister and House Speaker. "Members of one group have mouths but no guns while those of the other group [military] have guns and think they have authority," says Somchai Phakaphasvivat, a Thammassat University lecturer.
Even though Thailand has lacked a functioning government since parliamentary elections on March 22, Mr. Arthit delayed seeking a new government until after tomorrow, when Parliament is expected to pass two constitutional amendments.
The two measures were forced on the military by King Bhumibol Adulyadej after he intervened to stop the violence on May 20. One requires any prime minister to be an elected member of Parliament while the other limits the powers of the military-controlled Senate. Parliament may also take up an appeal by the opposition to overturn an amnesty decree issued by Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon just before he was forced to resign as prime minister on May 24. The decree absolves anyone from legal responsibility for the
violence last month.
OPPOSITION leaders hope to exploit and contain a widespread public sentiment for retribution again three top generals: General Suchinda, Supreme Commander and Air Force Marshal Kaset Rojananil, and Army Chief Gen. Issarapong Noonpackdee.
"The military remains a threat, but their room for maneuver is now small," says Mr. Surin. "We can't push them to the wall, so we have asked for a two-track process. The military should be left to clean up itself and we civilians will clean up civilian politics."
Other opposition figures believe the military may stage another coup, as it did in February 1991, if civilian politicians get the upper hand. "The military will come back to power, one way or another," says Prinya Thewanaruemitkul, secretary-general of the Student Federation of Thailand. "I would grant another 10 years of military intervention."
Still, the military has faced social opprobrium and small splits in the ranks during the past three weeks. Soldiers are told by officers to wear civilian clothes outside military camps to avoid attack. Reports of soldiers being killed in southern Thailand are widespread. Wives of officers are being shunned by friends, and some doctors refuse to treat military personnel.
"They are really hunkered down," says a military analyst. The staff of Thai Airways is openly calling for the removal of the airline's chairman, Air Force Marshal Kaset. And some young military officers are circulating a letter demanding a cleanup of top brass to restore the military's image. "Young officers understand the big role that political stability plays in the booming Thai economy," says the analyst. But, he adds, the only chance of an internal split is if soldiers are asked again to shoot at ci vilians.
One explosive issue is whether the military killed and disposed of an estimated 500 to 1,000 people missing since the protests. "Even if the opposition takes over, it will face immense public pressure for a real accounting of what the military has done," says the Western diplomat. But if the military is backed into a corner, he adds, the question is what it will do to retain power.