Generals lose popular ground with Thais

Last week, CNN viewers across Asia caught a burst of exiled Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra on a prime-time evening show. In an excerpt from an interview taped in Singapore, Mr. Thaksin talked of his political future and the military coup that toppled him last September.

Viewers in Thailand, though, saw a different picture: a rerun of CNN's previous hour of programming. With a nod from the military censors, Thaksin, the twice-elected prime minister, was nowhere to be seen.

Four months after seizing power without firing a shot, Thailand's generals have begun to tack rightward in a bid to consolidate their rule. In recent weeks, the ruling Council for National Security (CNS) has tightened media censorship, revoked Thaksin's diplomatic passport, and lashed out at ally Singapore for meeting with Thaksin.

The tougher stance was prompted by a string of deadly bombings across Bangkok on Dec. 31 that authorities blamed on ousted political players trying to destabilize the country. Over the weekend, police arrested at least 15 suspects, including several military officers, the first detentions in the case. None have been charged so far.

By moving right, the generals may have shored up support from Thais who campaigned last year to remove Thaksin for alleged corruption. But they risk alienating moderates who accepted the coup as a necessary evil to defuse a political stalemate. Analysts say that the regime is also struggling to assert its hold over Thaksin's allies in the civil service and security forces.

"The support for the coup is narrowly based, and it's based on the conflict with Thaksin," says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a professor of international relations at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Everyone knows this is a lame-duck government. It's going to be gone in 10 or 12 months. The bureaucracy knows this. Time is running out."

Having seized power by alleging widespread corruption and abuse of power, the junta has struggled to build a tight case against Thaksin and his family. In part, this reflects the complexity of probing the overlapping spheres of his political and business interests, as well as the complicity of civil servants. A separate trial of his political party, Thai Rak Thai, for alleged electoral fraud began last week.

Thaksin has been traveling in Europe and Asia in what appears to be an effort to stay in the public eye and gauge support from foreign governments. He has denied all corruption allegations and any involvement in the bombings.

To some observers, the impression left is that the coup – the 18th since 1932 – was more about politics than probity. Even opposition politicians who cheered Thaksin's removal are sniping at the military-installed government.

"I think support for the government is slipping. People who want to see decisive action taken against corruption have been disappointed," says Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party.

Mr. Abhisit said that the slow pace of writing a new constitution to replace the 1997 charter has dismayed Thais who want a quick return to democracy. Coup leaders promised to hold elections and hand over power within a year, but that timetable may be slipping. A 35-person constitution committee has yet to start.

Thailand is still under martial law. Authorities say they can't relax their grip as Thaksin loyalists may try to stir unrest in rural strongholds, where his populist policies and ebullient style resonated with voters.

In Bangkok, civil libertarians have staged small rallies in defiance of martial law. On Sunday, 600 people marched to the Army headquarters calling for the regime to disband and for the return of democracy. "This is the only way we can express our feelings against the CNS. There is no other way. We have no right of speech," says Jeerawajara Chanatarakulpol, a tour-company owner who joined the rally.

The Sept. 19 coup ended months of political turmoil fueled by peaceful protests over the tax-free, $1.9 billion sale of Thaksin's family-owned telecommunications company to an arm of the Singapore government. When Thaksin refused to go quietly, the military intervened with the sanction of King Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch who has reigned since 1946.

Weary of political gridlock and fearful of violence, many Thais accepted the idea of a royalist coup as a way to rebuild a fragile democracy. But after a honeymoon, the interim government has lost its way, botching a currency-control policy that triggered a stock-exchange crash and failing to calm nerves in the aftermath of the bombs.

A private poll in Bangkok and nearby provinces after the bombs pegged the government's approval rating at 48 percent, down from 90 percent in October.

"The military is not solving anything. It's just creating a new set of problems," says Thongchai Winichakul, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "No matter how horrible Thaksin was, this is not the way out."

The bombings also sparked rows between retired and serving Army officers that raised fears of a power struggle in the military. CNS leader Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratglin went on TV to deny that troops seen moving into Bangkok were staging another coup.

Security analysts and military officers say these tensions reflect the divisions in the junta, fueled by rivalry over who will succeed General Sondhi when he retires as Army chief in September. But they add that the regime has closed ranks.

"I don't see a real split in the CNS, but there are lots of disagreements. They're worried that [Prime Minister] Surayud is moving too slowly," says Panitan, an expert on military affairs.

Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a CNS spokesman, said the "old powers" had spread the rumors of a rift and a coup plot. "People who lost their privileges will try anything to discredit the government....Thai people accept this coup. It will lead the country back to democracy," he says.

Attention turned last week to the broadcast media, after a junta member warned TV and radio stations not to report on Thaksin and his aides, as it would impede "national reconciliation." The largest pay-TV provider responded by blocking the CNN interview.

Critics say the regime is treading the same path as Thaksin, whom it accused of wrecking media freedom. "One of the pretexts to the coup was that the media was one of the sectors that needed rescuing. Now it says it poses a danger to Thai society. It's gone from being a victim to a threat," says Roby Alampay, director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a watchdog group based in Bangkok.

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