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Squabbling Erupts Among Thailand's Coup Plotters

Squabbling Erupts Among Thailand's Coup Plotters


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Six weeks after a bloodless military coup destroyed Thailand's democracy, squabbling has erupted among supporters of the putsch, amid worries that corrupt politicians are hiding illegal loot while the ruling junta dithers without direction.

"It could all turn into a political farce," warned Campaign for Popular Democracy member Suwit Watnoo, after rifts among the coup's collaborators spilled into the public arena.

"So far, corruption allegations are just that -- unfounded allegations. This makes society uneasy," complained Ongart Klampaiboon, spokesman for the Democrat Party, which benefited from sudden toppling of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government on Sept. 19.

The popular coup also did not stop Islamist separatists fighting in southern Thailand, where more than 1,700 people have died since January 2004, despite the junta's promise to listen to minority ethnic Malay Muslims' demands for justice, equality, autonomy and multiculturalism.

Pojaman Shinawatra, Mr. Thaksin's wealthy wife, successfully scandalized one of the junta's top officials by privately meeting him while her husband remains self-exiled in England.

Her 15-minute Bangkok meeting with Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda raised eyebrows because Mrs. Pojaman was widely perceived as trying to cut a deal for her billionaire husband and circumvent the junta's anti-corruption tribunals.

Gen. Prem, prime minister from 1980-88 and a former army commander, is president of the Privy Council -- the monarchy's top advisory group -- making him one of the closest officials to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose military loyalists staged the coup.

After the meeting, Gen. Prem, 86, insisted their small talk did not include Mr. Thaksin's future return to Thailand.

But Thai media, overwhelmingly supportive of the coup, condemned Gen. Prem for meeting Mr. Thaksin's wife on Oct. 27 because it could give the impression that a sleazy deal was being cut and that the coup leaders were willing to be compromised.

"Prem-Pojaman Meet Ill-Advised," said the headline of a Nation newspaper editorial the next day, after weeks of jingoistic, pro-coup commentary.

"It is believed that the September 19 military coup to topple Thaksin could not have succeeded without Prem's blessing," the paper said.

The meeting "raises the rather disturbing specter of a possible negotiated compromise in the corruption investigation against Thaksin and his cronies."

Thais are anxious because coup leaders have not fulfilled their altruistic pledge to bring Mr. Thaksin and other officials to trial for alleged wrongdoing.

Tribunal officials, however, insist their investigations must proceed according to law, and evidence is scarce because many suspicious deals involved complicated paperwork, loopholes, cash transactions and deniability.

Thais who support the coup demand the junta extradite and imprison Mr. Thaksin for alleged corruption, hundreds of extrajudicial killings committed by police during his shrill nationwide "war on drugs," and other misdeeds.

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin unleashed the coup just before he was to be fired by Mr. Thaksin, who was installing pliant officials in most institutions.

But Gen. Sonthi said corruption, and the king's safety, motivated him to topple Mr. Thaksin's elected government, rip up the constitution, suspend political rights, muzzle free speech, and clamp this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation under martial law.

"I suspect many Thais still lack a proper understanding of democracy," Gen. Sonthi said in a rare interview published on Oct. 26.

"The people have to understand their rights and their duties. Some have yet to learn about discipline."

The U.S. and European Union criticized the putsch, but American Ambassador to Thailand, Ralph "Skip" Boyce, attended the junta's unveiling of a hand-picked National Legislative Assembly on Oct. 20, alongside envoys from Southeast Asian countries.

E.U. diplomats stayed away because the E.U. did not recognize the unelected group.

Washington regards Bangkok as a "major non-NATO ally" and U.S. President George W. Bush had congratulated Mr. Thaksin for helping the CIA capture a suspected, Indonesian-born, Islamist terror-mastermind named Hambali, who was hiding in central Thailand in 2003.

Hambali is currently caged without trial in Guantanamo Bay.

Mr. Thaksin's supporters are meanwhile demanding a show of evidence of his so-called crimes, and permission for him to return home.

The coup leaders claim they need to keep Thailand under martial law and block Mr. Thaksin's return because, during the past five years, he won three elections with up to 16 million votes and could easily destabilize the junta.

Gripped by despair, a taxi driver protested against the coup by hanging himself on Tuesday (October 31), one month after intentionally crashing his cab into a tank, breaking his rib bones.

"I am a taxi driver who has sacrificed himself for democracy," said a suicide note written by Nuamthong Praiwal, 60, according to police.

*************

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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