Assessing Thai Coup Rumors – ISN/The Irrawaddy

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NEWS ANALYSIS/BANGKOK—Coup-mongering is nothing new to Thailand, but speculation about an impending putsch was revved-up last week when a column of more than twenty armored vehicles was seen on the streets of Bangkok.

The column was on its way from Bang Sue railway station to their barracks in Pathum Thani. Apparently the vehicles are being readied for deployment to Darfur, a dusty and desolate terrain vastly different from anything in Thailand. Thai troops are serving as part of the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in the vast western Sudan province.

It usually takes more than a few armored trucks to mount a coup, however, and, unexpected as the sight may have been, it takes more than a lone armored column on city streets to suggest that a coup is looming.

But with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Europe at the Davos World Economic Forum, and an upcoming February 5-14 visit to the US by Army Chief Gen Anupong Paochinda, the coup gossip has gathered steam over recent days, suggesting that elements in the army could move in the absence of either man.

As University of Wisconsin academic Professor Thongchai Winichakul told The Irrawaddy, “The rumors were based on reasonable analysis” of political developments, along with the fact of “tanks running in the streets.”

Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed by a coup in September 2006 while he was in the US at a United Nations assembly. Although neither he nor his supporters are now in power, his Red-shirts/United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have been pushing the conspiracy theories, and Natthawut Saikua, a UDD leader, has warned that a coup could take place during Gen Anupong’s absence.

Deputy Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha has been the focus of UDD/Red-shirt allegations, with the successor-designate to Gen Anupong portrayed as the puppet master of any would-be putsch.

On the other hand, Thaksin’s opponents are stirring the pot, suggesting that a coup could be for the exiled businessman’s benefit.

Depending on viewpoint, the Red-shirts have been trying to cause splits in the army and trying to “buy a coup,” or disgruntled pro-Thaksin army officers have had enough of the politicized interventions by their superiors, which have to their mind been in favor of the Yellow-shirt People’s Alliance against Democracy (PAD) and in turn the current Democrat-led government.

Paul Chambers, a political researcher at the University of Heidelberg, has written on the role of the military in Thai politics. In an email to The Irrawaddy, he downplayed the possibility that a Red-shirt-oriented coup is in the offing, saying that “Thaksin’s military allies haven’t the ability to carry out a coup.”

Noting that partisan splits in the military are nothing new, Chambers added that he believes the anti-Thaksin majority in the military looks set to be ascendant for some time to come.

Tensions have been heightened by the Jan. 15 attack on the army headquarters, with allegations that Maj-Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, a Thaksin supporter known as “Seh Daeng,” was involved.

Another of Thaksin’s allies with strong links to the military is Pheu Thai Party Chairman Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former army commander and Prime Minister. He poured cold water on coup rumors, implying that these were side-effects of heightened political tensions in the lead-up to the February 26 verdict on Thaksin Shinawatra’s 76 billion baht (US $2.3 billion) in impounded assets.

“I believe normalcy will resume after the completion of the judicial review on this case,” he said, adding that he was confident Thaksin supporters would accept the outcome even if the former Prime Minister’s assets are seized for good by the state.

This placid acceptance would undermine the need for a coup to those in the military who think such a verdict could enrage the Red-shirts and bring renewed street violence in Bangkok, destabilizing the country even further.

While the army is not exactly divided along red or yellow lines, as Winichakul reminded The Irrawaddy, elements in the army may want to act before existing divisions widen and the political temperature goes up in coming weeks. Red-shirt protests are set to take place in several locations in the run-up to the February 26 ruling.

Dr Federico Ferrara, a teacher at Singapore’s National University and author of the forthcoming book “Thailand Unhinged: Unraveling the Myth of a Thai-Style Democracy,” says the Red-shirts hope to harness “parts of the military in their revolutionary struggle or at least undermine the military’s ability to repress it.”

If either scenario is true, and if the Red-shirts intend to intensify protests in the coming weeks, the army may want to nip this in the bud, according to Ferrara.

However, there are also reasons for the army not to act.

Chambers believes that anti-Thaksin army leaders have no reason to act: “the anti-Thaksin Queen’s Guard faction that currently dominates the military has no reason to carry out a coup against an Abhisit government that agrees in many ways with it.”

But with the government looking shakier after the failure to agree on constitutional reform, anti-Thaksin elements in the army want to stall the election that would ensue if the governing coalition led by Abhisit’s Democrat Party falls apart.

However the army had a chastening experience the last time it ruled directly in 2006-7. It may not have the inclination to rule once more after being subjected to scorn and ridicule, even from coup backers, for its governing record, Ferrara said.

In the meantime, the 2008 Internal Security Act gave the military increased scope to intervene in civilian affairs, reducing the need for a more overt political role. It may be that dominant factions in the army see their optimum role “under a very weak coalition government through which they can exert quite a bit of power,” according to Chambers.

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