Reformers Look to Thailand's King

Opposition parties lack enough seats to form government and would need nod from the king

THAI activists plan fresh protests June 10, three weeks after dozens or more were felled by military bullets. This time, however, they hope for a little help from a newfound "activist."

He is King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, who, despite past aloofness from politics and legal limits to his powers, revealed his willingness to stiff-arm military rulers when they go too far.

The king will not be on the streets, of course, but from the throne he could play a role behind the scenes, either directly or through proxies, to influence the choice of a new prime minister which is expected June 12 from House Speaker Arthit Urairat.

"The future of Thailand now depends on two men: the king and Arthit," says Thammasat University law lecturer Kaewsan Aphipho.

If the pro-military candidate, Samboon Rahong, is chosen as prime minister, as both the top brass and the military-influenced Parliament now prefer, it could spark a revolt from a public still angry over the May 19-20 military massacre on the streets of Bangkok. The crackdown in May ended only after King Bhumiphol took an unusual step and called in the prime minister, Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, for a televised royal scolding.

General Suchinda, leader of a military coup against an elected government last year, crawled on his knees before the king and later resigned his post.

The king also arranged the release of opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang and insisted on a peaceful solution between the military and pro-democracy forces. But the military leaders who ordered troops to fire on protesters are still in power and influencing politicians, forcing pro-democracy activists to look once again to the king.

"The king does have some bargaining power," says Surin Pituswan, a Democrat Party official.

In addition, the king has a self-interest in avoiding another coup, which is a possibility in coming days if protests erupt in more violence. Pradit Charoenthaithawee, a royal physician and rector of Mahidol University, warned recently that a coup would be a serious affront to the monarchy since the king has asked for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The alternative to Mr. Samboon as prime minister is opposition leader Chuan Leekpai, head of the Democrats. But the four opposition parties lack enough seats in Parliament to form a government and may need a leg up from the king.

Pro-democracy activists are uneasy about a monarch intervening in politics but they see little recourse against the military. The extent of the king's intervention in May was unprecedented in the 60 years since a military coup overthrew Thailand's absolute monarchy and replaced it with a constitutional one.

This king, who has reigned since 1950 as head of the 209-year-old Chakri Dynasty, has quietly built up immense popularity which enabled him to influence the military to some degree during political crises in 1957, 1973, 1976, and 1981. But generally the king has tried to stay above the fray of coups and politics to maintain his image as a neutral symbol of Thai unity.

Open criticism of the king is illegal in Thailand but many Thais have begun to debate the monarch's role in the current crisis.

But most of the talk about the monarchy is still indirect for fear of committing lese majeste. In a newspaper column on June 4, for instance, former Army officer M. L. Plai Kitiyakara, wrote about how the Spanish king had acted as an "umpire" over the military. And on June 3, a group of dissident soldiers passed out leaflets which stated that military leaders had acted against the words of the king in 1956 when he asked the military to stay out of politics (which they have not done).

Many Thais now express some disappointment that the king did not intervene sooner to stop the bloodshed in the May crackdown, and some are bitter that he failed to force the top generals to leave the country.

"The king has relied on a popular base up to now, but with the recent rise of a middle class, it could be eroding," says John Clammer, Southeast Asia expert at Sophia University in Tokyo. "At this point the military needs him as much as he needs them."

Also the king appears to have initially condoned an amnesty decree issued by Suchinda just before he resigned that lets the military off the hook for the killings.

"We just don't know enough about this symbiotic relationship between the king and the military," says a leading politician who prefers anonymity. "While some of us were disappointed that his actions were `too little, too late,' the king is right now our best hope."

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