Saturday, July 14, 2007

Will he run for election?


WILL he extend his power through the ballot boxes?

That’s the explosive question in Thailand for the general who came out of the barracks to seize power and oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on the night of Sept 19, 2006.

This week, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the chairman of the Council of National Security (or CNS as the military junta calls itself), blazed the front pages of Thai newspapers with headlines such as “Sonthi flayed over poll rumour”, “Sonthi has the right to be a politician” and “CNS chief set to run in election”.

On Wednesday, in a television interview, when asked whether he would enter politics, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Sonthi said, “there are many elements involving security of the country – the military, economy, social issues and others.”

“So I have to wait and see before making the decision. I insist that I have not thought about my political future yet. I have two months before my retirement (Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army).” Sonthi’s vague answer is interpreted by certain quarters as proof that the professional soldier harbours intentions to lead a new military-backed political party.

The general’s indecisiveness is a sharp contrast to his announcement on the night of the coup that he did not lead it to pave the way for him to govern the country. And in the past 10 months, Sonthi has consistently insisted that he had no interest in politics.

His recent indecision is giving way to suspicion that Sonthi will do a Suchinda.

In February 1991, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who was the army chief, led a coup to topple Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan.

And 13 months later, after the general election, the un-elected Suchinda was appointed prime minister.

His appointment sparked large protests that ended in a tragedy called Black May where soldiers gunned down hundreds of protesters. On May 24, 1992, Suchinda resigned as prime minister.

Recently, to persuade 61-year-old Sonthi not to replace his military uniform with a political suit after retiring as army chief in the end of September, The Nation published an editorial.

“It is not necessary for Sonthi to enter politics and seek to hold onto power in an attempt to guard himself against possible retaliation from the politicians he toppled,” the newspaper stated.

“As long as his claim to have done everything to save the country is honest and his record as the head of the CNS is free from corruption, he is legally protected from attempts at vengeance. Members of the general public, justice bodies and the armed forces would be on his side if there were any attempts to get back at him.”

During Wednesday’s television interview, Sonthi, when asked whether he was afraid of being the target of revenge, said, “I have no concern. Goodness is my protection.”

Critics warned that if Sonthi, who is the first Muslim in the Buddhist-majority country to take the powerful post of army chief, contested in the polls due late this year, it would invariably taint Thailand’s purported return to democracy.

“Even though he will have retired from the military by then, his candidacy will surely sow seeds of doubts and the Thai public will ask this very serious question of whether military and national security resources will be exploited to help him win the election,” said Suriyasai Katasila, secretary-general of the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

“The Thai public didn’t want the coup to happen last year but most people understood why it had to occur,” said Suriyasai, as reported in The Nation on Monday.

However, Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas, who is an ally of Sonthi, said the general had every right to run for office in elections.

Boonrawd said the objectives of the coup had yet to be fully achieved and the old power clique (a euphemism for Thaksin’s political group) was moving full steam to win the next election.

“It will pour everything into winning the election so that it can come back. Nobody currently has the resources that it has,” he argued.

If indeed Sonthi enters politics, the question on the minds of the electorate will be: Shall I allow a man who undemocratically grabbed power through the bullet extend it through the ballot?

(Published in The Star on July 14, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)