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Six Months On Thai Coup Plotters Face Tough Times

Six Months On Thailand's Coup Plotters Facing Tough Times


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Six months after the military grabbed power in a bloodless coup, Thailand faces a worsening Islamist insurgency, a plunging economy, fears of more Bangkok bomb blasts, and widespread despair.

Washington voiced some displeasure over the September 19 coup, but the Pentagon's "non-NATO ally" is considered a productive partner in the "war on terrorism".

Washington and Bangkok have now "reached an agreement" for Thailand to buy 16 second-hand F-16 jet fighters, for 130 million U.S. dollars, according to F-16.net

"The U.S. Congress endorsed the deal on March 6, while the Thai cabinet is expected to approve the purchase of the 16 used F-16 jets soon," said 16.net's report titled, "Thailand, U.S. Agree on F-16s Deal" posted on March 12.

"An official answer to Washington should be made by mid-March," it added.

This Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation was a thriving but flawed democracy under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The billionaire ruled with a repressive hand amid massive alleged corruption, while offering popular inexpensive care for the poor.

On September 19, Thaksin's three-time elected government was rousted by royalist troops who boasted they could clean up government, write a better constitution, heal political hatred, and stage a more pristine election within one year.

The military waltzed into power, cheered by Bangkok's conservative "old money" upper class, the fuzzy logic of top university academics, and an emotional media which suffered under Mr. Thaksin's litigious, erratic behavior.

Thousands of Thais greeted tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees with flowers.

People cutely vogued for family photographs with pro-coup soldiers armed with U.S. M-16 assault rifles, who took up positions around the capital.

Many people still believe the junta will eventually unveil a new, cleaner democracy under the watchful eye of elderly, revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But now, six months later, many of those cheerleaders are sneering complaints, anxiety, and mistrust of the military's ability to run a modernizing country better than seemingly obnoxious politicians, who use treats and ballots instead of threats and bullets.

"I like Thaksin. No like this..." an otherwise light-hearted bureaucrat replied when asked while processing a government file.

A taxi driver echoed popular sentiment:

"Thaksin bad man, but good economy. Military good man, but bad economy. Who can?"

A Thaksin supporter unknowingly mirrored China's frequent response to the ravages of Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution:

"Thaksin some bad, but more good," she said.

An Bangkok Post editorial cartoon showed a junta leader in a tank with weapons melting, after repeatedly missing a big bulls-eye marked "corruption".

The Islamist insurgency in the south, meanwhile, has worsened since the coup.

Amid daily killings, bombings, arson attacks and other assaults, the rebellion descended to a gruesome new low on March 14.

Suspected Islamists stopped a bus in the southern province of Yala, and executed eight Buddhist passengers at point-blank range while sparing the life of the driver because he was Muslim, the driver said.

In a possible retaliation that evening, someone tossed a bomb at a nearby mosque and a tea shop, killing two Muslim civilians.

Bangkok's buoyant bottom-line dropped sharply after the military's regime spectacularly bungled the economy.

The Bangkok Stock Exchange crashed.

In this recovering economy, the baht currency is strengthening much too quickly, officials said.

Foreign investors are investigating China, Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere for possibly safer profits.

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup, insists the junta is purging official corruption, winning Muslims' hearts and minds in the south, and overseeing a new constitution with less loopholes than the previous 1997 "people's" charter.

Since January 2004, more than 2,000 people on all sides have died in the southern insurgency.

Most are Muslims killed by security forces as suspected rebels, or by Islamist insurgents as suspected informants.

The dead also include Buddhist clergy, civilians, investors, teachers, rubber plantation workers, shopkeepers, and others -- as well as troops.

Invisible minority ethnic Malay-Thai rebels gain strength by not identifying their leaders.

The rebels are frightening Buddhists into fleeing, so Islamists can take over Buddhists' businesses and homes in the southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.

Muslims are a majority along Thailand's southern border with Muslim-majority Malaysia.

"We don't have enough manpower to look after the area," the coup-installed prime minister, retired general Surayud Chulanont, said in an interview published Friday (March 16).

"We don't even know who the [rebel] group's leader is. And it would be an exaggeration if I say I know how big the group is," Prime Minister Surayud said.

"But it is obvious that the army, police and paramilitary rangers in the deep south are unable to provide even the minimum security expected by a peaceful population," said a Friday (March 16) editorial in the Bangkok Post, which earlier boosted coup leaders.

"The insurgents are gaining the upper hand, and are capable of attacking military as well as civilian targets with impunity," said a Thursday (March 15) editorial in The Nation, often friendly to the junta.

In the south, "Martial law is still in force, alongside an unpopular Emergency Decree granting police and military officers immunity from prosecution," Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a Thursday (March 15) report titled "Southern Thailand: The Impact of the Coup."

"The interim government has made almost no progress on providing justice for past abuses, and credible reports of torture and extrajudicial killings persist," it said.

"The country was heavily polarized, and the bloodless coup was a benign intervention," Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram told the European Union on March 14 in Nuremberg, Germany.

Thailand entered 2007 with nine bomb blasts in Bangkok which killed three people and injured 38 others, including eight foreigners, during New Year street celebrations.

Coup leaders could not conclusively identify anyone for the explosions, but some warned Bangkok could be hit with more assaults before democracy is restored.

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

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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