By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 1, 2007
BANGKOK, Jan. 31 -- The leader of Thailand's ruling military junta vowed Wednesday to hold democratic elections before the end of the year, saying the army would immediately hand over control to a civilian government following the inauguration of a new prime minister.
In his first interview with a Western newspaper since leading a coup in September, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin sought to ease mounting concerns that the army may have long-term designs on power.
"The elections will happen this year," he said, dressed in a navy blue business suit decorated with a royal broach honoring Thailand's revered king. "As for the role of the army after the election, once we have a new elected government, the army will withdraw and return to their units to be a professional military."
Sonthi, 59, delivered a broad defense of the coup and the junta at a time when concerns over political and economic instability are growing in this Southeast Asian nation of 62.5 million people.
The Sept. 19 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was initially embraced by political opposition leaders and pro-democracy advocates, who had assailed Thaksin as a corrupt autocrat attempting to manipulate the constitution to prolong his rule. But the junta's popularity has ebbed in recent weeks following an escalation of violence with Islamic separatists in the south, a series of bombings in Bangkok, slow progress on a new constitution, and the adoption of populist economic measures and capital controls that have alarmed foreign investors.
Under Thaksin, Thailand was one of the Bush administration's closest regional allies in fighting terrorism, particularly because of its aggressive battle against insurgents in the largely Muslim south of this majority-Buddhist nation. But the new government controlled by the military's Council for National Security -- headed by Sonthi, himself a Muslim -- has toed a far more tolerant line.
Pressing for national reconciliation, the military has offered apologies for past excesses in the south, and the council-appointed caretaker prime minister -- a former general -- has sought to engage Muslims in dialogue. Despite such measures, fighting in the south appears to have increased since September, according to a study by Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Sonthi said Wednesday that the policy of engagement would not change. "The use of force, a hard approach, will not do any good," he said.
Yet the sense of insecurity is ballooning here, in large part because of a series of nine bombings on New Year's Eve that killed three people and wounded 27 in Bangkok, the typically peaceful capital.
Sonthi said the bombings appear to be unrelated to the conflict in the south. Although 19 suspects were quickly arrested and questioned, all were released this week after authorities determined they were not connected to the incident. In other violence, unknown assailants used grenade launchers in a failed attack this week against a Bangkok newspaper.
The junta initially blamed Thaksin loyalists for the New Year's bombings, an accusation that Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon living in exile in Europe and Asia since the coup, has strongly denied. Others have blamed that incident and other violence on disgruntled police or military forces opposed to the junta. Sonthi said authorities did not yet know who was responsible, but suggested the attacks were "politically motivated" and aimed at damaging the military government's credibility.
There are signs that such a strategy could be working. Opposition leaders who effectively endorsed the coup have begun to openly criticize the junta. "The very least that a military regime can do is provide security and enforce the law," Abhisit Vejjajiva, head of the Democrat Party, said in an interview Wednesday. "But we are seeing that they cannot even do this."
A committee of council-appointed officials has been attempting to hash out a new draft constitution to pave the way for elections by September. Despite Sonthi's assurances, analysts say the process has been slow, raising the specter that elections -- and the restoration of democracy -- could be delayed.
Even with a constitution and elections, Thai opinion leaders have said, the nation may have to accept a sort of quasi-democracy, at least initially. One proposal being floated would create a senate with some members appointed, directly or indirectly, by the military.
"Thailand is not likely to emerge from this with a pure, Western form of democracy," said Panithan Wattanayakorn, a professor of political science and defense at Chulalongkorn, suggesting that the government could be "watched over by the military" in some way.
Business leaders have jumped on the military government for mismanaging the economy, particularly by imposing capital controls meant to stem a rise in the value of the Thai baht. Announced suddenly in December, the controls prompted a one-day stock market dive that abated only after the measures were eased.
From exile, Thaksin has remained a vocal figure on the world stage, and a major thorn in Sonthi's side. In a flurry of recent interviews in Singapore and Tokyo, Thaksin denounced the junta while also calling on it to promote national unity and restore democracy, two concepts he himself was accused of flouting during his tenure.
"Thais have enjoyed democracy and do not want to be under a dictatorship," Thaksin told Japan's Asahi newspaper this week. "They can be patient and tolerant about such things to some extent, but not for too long."
Thaksin has vowed to stay out of Thailand for now, telling reporters he fears attempts on his life there. Sonthi responded Wednesday by saying that Thaksin is simply trying to divert attention from investigations here expected to lead to charges linking him, his family and his close associates to vast corruption.
Sonthi maintained that Thaksin was welcome to come back to Thailand -- but at his own risk.
"During the Thaksin era, there were hundreds of thousands of Thai people coming out to protest him and his government," Sonthi said. "It is very dangerous for a man to have hundreds of thousands of people disliking him. I cannot say whether or not it is safe for him because of this reason."
For Sonthi, the problem appears to be that the junta is increasingly being viewed by many Thais as having overstayed its welcome.
"I didn't like Thaksin, and I was glad to see him go," said Chaianant Ngeuykham, 53, a vendor whose shop sits near the site of one of the New Year's Eve bombings. "But it's time for elections. It's time for the military to let go."