One year after seizing power in a bloodless coup, Thailand's military rulers appear to be paving the way for a return to an elected civilian government. Elections have been promised for Dec. 23 under a new constitution approved last month in a national referendum.
But the power-sharing arrangements in that charter, coupled with a controversial new security act, suggest that the generals aren't ready to return to the barracks. Instead, say political analysts, foreign diplomats, and human rights advocates, Army commanders are determined to stick around to prevent a political comeback by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is living in London.
This tactic could backfire, though, if the junta overplays its hand in shaping the post-election scenario. Politicians are itching to get back to work and take control of an economy that is listing after a series of policy missteps. Any efforts to cling to power, such as a draconian security law or postponing elections, could undo the military's claim to be a stable force that is leading Thailand out of its crisis.
"If the performance of the military in the last year is anything to go by, it's not up to the job of managing Thailand. The more active they are, the worse they look," says Michael Montesano, assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
Among other measures, the proposed security bill empowers the Army commander to detain suspects, ban meetings, freeze assets, and search homes. State agencies would come under Army control during an emergency, and officials would be immune to prosecutions for any human rights abuses committed during this period. Many clauses are similar to a 2005 emergency decree imposed in southern Thailand to curb a separatist insurgency there.
"The Army is in a quandary ... because it needs legal channels and constitutional channels to maintain control after the election," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Thailand's new constitution permits the military and other unelected officials to check the powers of elected representatives via the appointment of half of the Senate and other independent bodies. It also requires the government to provide adequate military weapons and equipment in order "to protect and maintain national independence."
But politicians have already vowed to amend the charter after the election and tinker with its restrictive clauses. And former lawmakers from Thai Rak Thai – who were banned from holding public office for five years when their party, which was funded and founded by Mr. Thaksin, was dissolved by court order in May – want their proxies to overturn the dissolution decision.
In response, military hard-liners have pushed for the passing of the internal security law. Critics say the proposed legislation, which reengineers a cold-war-era Army directorate to tackle loosely defined threats, would undo constitutional safeguards on civil rights and undercut democracy.
"The question is, why does the Army chief need these powers? Obviously it's to deal with any prime minister that the army doesn't like. It gives them control over the country," says Jon Ungpakorn, a former senator who has lobbied against the bill.
In an echo of events in Pakistan, coup leader Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratglin is widely expected to enter politics after he retires as Army chief on Sept. 30. Political leaders have reportedly offered him a security portfolio in a future cabinet, and analysts say he may also run for parliament in an Army-dominated constituency.
A replacement for General Sondhi has yet to be named amid intense jockeying over annual military promotions. Bangkok newspapers have tipped Gen. Anupong Paochinda, who commanded key Army units during the coup, as the front-runner.
Whoever takes over faces a challenge common to all coup leaders: finding political leaders who can be entrusted with power.
That excludes former lawmakers in Thai Rak Thai. Some 180 loyalists have regrouped under the leadership of Samak Sundaravej, a veteran politician. This group mounted a vigorous campaign last month against the new constitution, which was approved by a lower-than-expected margin of 58 percent.
Faced with this defiance, the military has courted politicians in other parties, including heavyweight defectors from Thai Rak Thai, who are angling for a spot in any future coalition government. But that ballast may not be enough to thwart a repackaged Thai Rak Thai that can count on Thaksin's popular appeal and well-oiled election machine.
Human rights groups, lawyers, and academics have loudly opposed the bill, which was approved by the cabinet in June and sent for review to government lawyers. The interim legislature is expected to table it for debate in the next few weeks.
Analysts warn that the junta is determined to pass some form of security law, but some opponents say that as the election draws closer, the bill will prove harder to pass, given the junta's waning popularity. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a respected former general, has already agreed that the security directorate should be controlled by the prime minister, not the Army chief.