Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tanks in the night spark coup talk

Thai Takes

TWENTY-TWO V-150 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) rumbled into the streets of Bangkok on Monday night. And – not surprising for politically-jittery Thailand – the immediate assumption was the military had launched a coup.

It turned out that the APCs were decommissioned from an operation in the country’s restive southern provinces and were on their way via Bangkok to Pathum Thani (a town north of the Thai capital) for maintenance.

The next day the military apologised for causing panic and for not informing the public about the movement of the APCs.

It also denied that the army would stage a coup.

“It is out of fashion to talk about a coup,” said army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

On the contrary – thanks to recent events (such as the crack in the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led coalition government and the mysterious slap-in-the-face grenade attack on the office of the Army Chief General Anupong Paojinda) and conjectures (involving surprise, surprise Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup) – it is once again fashionable to talk about an imminent coup.

This week Thai English-language newspapers ran coup-related news articles (No impending coup, Anupong insists) and opinion pieces (Coup, what coup? and Full circle to another military coup?).

The Nation also Tweeted: “Here’s one for 2day: A 14-yr-old nephew of Pojaman’s told his school friends to ‘get out of Bkk’ on Feb 26. (Translated: Here’s a rumour for today – A 14-year-old nephew of (Thaksin’s former wife) Pojaman told his schoolmates to “get out of Bangkok” on Feb 26 (which is the day the Supreme Court decides on the 76bil baht (RM7.6bil) that was seized from Thaksin after the 2006 coup).

But a coup by an Abhisit-friendly military against the Abhisit-led coalition government? Mind boggling.

But this is Thailand. And there is such a thing as a “friendly” coup.

In his Friday column in the Bangkok Post, Abhisit’s cousin Suranand Vejjajiva, who served in the Thaksin Shinawatra Cabinet and is now a political analyst, wrote:

“The general analysis among political pundits is that, with pressure over the verdict on Thaksin’s 76bil-baht assets case to be handed down on Feb 26, the Red Shirts (a pro-Thaksin movement) could escalate their rallies and become uncontrollable.

“Riots could turn violent and there would be sabotage. The top brass have been dissatisfied with PM Abhisit and the Democrats in controlling the situation. There have been signs lately that they are distancing themselves from the government.

“Given the circumstances, if another putsch is to be carried out, it could be the first one in history with the intent of getting rid of the opposition rather than to overthrow the government. It is Thaksin who is the target, not Abhisit.

“Thaksin is viewed as a nuisance, and definitely a threat to the military’s security if he ever manages to stage a comeback. In addition, Thaksin is still widely popular, with polls indicating that if an election were held today, Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party would win more than 200 seats, if not an absolute majority in Parliament.”

The anticipation of a coup is the thing that I will miss the most when I end my stint in Bangkok as The Star’s Thailand correspondent (which began a month before the Sept 19, 2006 coup). Almost every other month since I’ve lived in Thailand, tongues have wagged that a coup was imminent.

Though the political pundits and fortune tellers have been wrong on their coup predictions, Thailand has seen:

a) A judicial coup (the court removed Pro-Thaksin Samak Sundaravej as Prime Minister for moonlighting as a chef in a television cooking show).

b) A TV coup (army chief General Anupong – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – appeared on television to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law and Samak’s successor).

c) Several “silent” coups (including the Abhisit-led government declaring a state of emergency to allow the military to crack down on the Red Shirts protest during Songkran, the Thai new year, in April 2009).

Today as I fly back to Kuala Lumpur, I wonder whether there will be a coup in Bangkok tonight.

(Published in The Star on January 30, 2010)