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Thailand Coup Anniversary

Thailand Coup Anniversary

(one-year anniversary on wednesday, september 19)

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- One year after the military toppled Thailand's elected government in a bloodless coup, this Buddhist- majority ally of America now suffers splits over its failure to put ousted officials on trial for alleged corruption and extra-judicial killings.

While coup-empowered generals continue to play politics in Bangkok, and melodramatic musical chairs with military promotions, Islamist guerrillas in the Muslim-majority south fight for independence, targeting Buddhist civilians and Muslim moderates with bombings, arson and beheadings.

"It may be another generation," before Islamist insurgents are defeated, Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the coup leader, said last week.

Elsewhere, a rise of crafty, powerful, anti-coup politicians -- who hope to take power if democracy is restored -- are evoking worry that revenge prosecutions against junta officials may soon wrench this Southeast Asian nation.

"He [Gen. Sonthi] needs assurances that he will not be a target of revenge by the old power clique, which appears to be staging a triumphant political comeback unless something is done to halt the advance," warned the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper's deputy editor-in-chief, Veera Prateepchaikul.

The military said it may allow a nationwide election on Dec. 23 for a new prime minister, but also hinted at a possible bait-and- switch strategy to delay polling until 2008.

Their Sept. 19, 2006 coup kicked out billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra from the prime minister's office, and banned 111 of his political party stalwarts and cronies.

Mr. Thaksin, self-exiled in England, denied all charges of wrongdoing, and is currently battling lawsuits and arrest warrants aimed at him and his relatives, filed by the junta's tribunals and investigators.

The junta said it is sending a delegation to London to demand Mr. Thaksin's extradition, but legal analysts said that ploy may collapse due to a lack of evidence and other legal hurdles.

The junta's generals spent much of the past year strengthening their domination over this capitalist country's political, economic and social life, after awarding themselves amnesty for actions committed during and after their coup.

With half the country under martial law, the military oversaw the writing of a new constitution, narrowly approved by voters on Aug. 19 indicating a major split in support for the coup's goals.

The new constitution allows about half of the senate to be appointed, and increases the power of appointed judges, while diminishing the ability of large political parties to run the type of arrogant, power-block government Mr. Thaksin wielded.

Throughout Thailand, people suffered a sharp downtown in the economy after the junta's confused policies crippled the stock market, dented tourism, shocked foreign investors and swelled unemployment.

Thais are now eyeing the upcoming election, and watching the rise of Samak Sundaravej, a fearsome, "ultra-rightist" politician who recently became leader of a new People's Power Party (PPP) sheltering many of Mr. Thaksin's politicians.

Mr. Samak, a former Bangkok governor now in his 70s, has an extremely combative history within Thailand's brutal and murky political landscape.

He threatens to be a bare-knuckles prime minister if his party and coalition partners win enough votes.

Outspoken and willing to mix things up, Mr. Samak has challenged the junta by promising to cancel their five-year banishment of Mr. Thaksin's 111 political colleagues, dissolve the regime's anti- corruption Assets Scrutiny Committee tribunal, and invite the manipulative fugitive to return home from England.

Mr. Thaksin's former spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, has also become a top enemy of the junta, and recently spent several days in jail for leading an anti-coup protest.

"In my opinion, coup-making should be punished by death," Mr. Jakrapob said in an interview on Aug. 29.

"We would be proposing a death sentence for coup-making. And we may start with this bunch," Mr. Jakrapob said, referring to the junta.

Mr. Jakrapob is a top leader in a Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship -- also known as the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship -- which has attracted thousands of supporters.

The junta meanwhile alleged Mr. Thaksin's government was responsible for a horrific "war on drugs" in which 2,500 Thais died in "extra-judicial killings" during 2003.

"Those who accused Thaksin of ordering the killings definitely supported the drug trade," Mr. Samak said on Sunday (Sept. 16), defending his ally.

Boosters of the coup, and opponents of Mr. Thaksin, voiced dismay that the junta has not put Mr. Thaksin on trial for the drug-related killings, or for alleged massive corruption committed during his five- year reign.

Human rights groups and journalists have also complained about the military's severe restrictions on Thailand's access to text and video Web sites.

"The culture of fear is widespread, more than ever before, especially in cyberspace," wrote columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn on Monday (Sept. 17), one week after being honored by the Washington- based National Endowment for Democracy for preserving press freedom overseas.

"Online users are now subject to police harassment," Mr. Kavi said. Looking at Thailand's emerging political parties, he predicted, "a new vicious circle is in the offing."

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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