Friday, July 01, 2011

Coup maker’s party in the race for Thai polls


IT was a scene reminiscent of the Happy Coup in 2006 where elated Bangkokians showered the soldiers with roses.

Arriving at a makeshift stage in a Buddhist temple in Samut Prakan, about 20km from Bangkok, retired General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin was mobbed by about 100 Thais – mostly women – who excitedly presented him with red roses on Wednesday night.

It was a warm reception for coup maker-turned-politician at his campaign stump in Samut Prakan, a town located at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River to the Gulf of Thailand.

It is typical of Thai politicians to be showered with roses by adoring fans.

In 2006, Army Commander Sonthi launched a coup which brought down the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept 19, 2006.

The 64-year-old former general, who retired in October 2007, is now the head of Matabhum Party (Motherland Party).

His party is targeting Malay Muslim voters living in Thailand’s deep south provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani.

After his campaign speech, in an interview held behind the stage, Sonthi, speaking through a translator, said in Thai that he was in politics because he did not want Thailand to be politically divided.

“I don’t want my country to be separated by Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts,” he explained.

“If you are not red and yellow, then what’s your colour?” I asked the smiling general.

“If you mix red and yellow what you get is ....” he said, pointing to his orange-coloured Matabhum t-shirt.

Kevin Hewison, the director of the Carolina Asia Centre in the University of North Carolina, said Sonthi had always claimed not to be interested in politics.

“But after the coup – I’m not sure if he was the major player running the coup but he became the head of it – he kind of liked the power he had,” said the Australian who is an expert on Thai politics.

“And it looks like the changes made in the 2007 Thai constitution give small parties more (bargaining) power.

“Sonthi is the head of a very, very small party which might win four or five MP seats and he might get a minister post out of that.”

Sonthi does not regret launching the 2006 coup.

“It was the people who wanted to coup. And it is the duty of the army to protect the county,” the soldier, who is economical in his answers, said.

Asked if he was afraid that Thaksin would return to Thailand and take revenge on him, Sonthi smiled and said: “Not at all. It all depends on the population.

“If they love me they will protect me.”

There was no indication the former general feared for his life as he was lightly protected during his visit to Samut Prakan.

Unlike the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has complained he was hounded by the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts during his campaigning, Sonthi said he was warmly received wherever he went.

Sonthi said he formed Matabhum as his mission was to solve the violent conflict in the three restive provinces.

“A big party would not fully focus on these provinces,” he said.

“Just allow the locals to solve their own problem as they know who the masterminds behind the (killings and bombings) are.

“They can report to their village heads on who these people are.”

The retired general, who is a Muslim, added that he did not agree with the government’s policy of sending soldiers to quell the violence in the three provinces.

Sonthi believes the Malaysian Government fully supported Thai­land in solving the bloody conflict in the Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia.

“Kuala Lumpur wants it solved as soon as possible as they know the violence can affect them along the border,” he explained.

The former general expects his party to win about 15 out of the 500 MP seats up for grabs.

Asked which party he would support once the votes were counted, Sonthi said, “I will join (the coalition government) which has the same mission and vision as my party.”

In Thailand politics, that is the code phrase for: “Regardless of political ideology, I will join whichever party that forms a coalition government.”

Interestingly, the coup maker is willing to support Pheu Thai headed by Yingluck, Thaksin’s youngest sister.

A political analyst said, “Not a surprise as this is Thailand.”

Sonthi is gunning for a minister post which complements his job experience – Defence Minister.

“If not, then maybe a minister post where I can help to build up society,” he revealed.

On Sunday, Sonthi hopes Thais living in Malaysia will return to their homeland to vote him back to the seat of power.