Confronting the Military in Thailand

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Protests against Thailand's ruling junta spilled onto Bangkok streets over the weekend, with an estimated 13,000 demonstrators calling for the resignation of the military leaders who masterminded a bloodless coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last September. The marches were the largest show of dissatisfaction to date against coup architect Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin and junta-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont. While the bulk of the protesters came from within Thaksin's followers, they also included a wide range of other interest groups, a worrisome sign for a government already under scrutiny from overseas investors and businessmen worried about the kingdom's stability. The fear is that the tensions between civilian protesters and the military government could explode in violence and even further damage Thailand's image and prosperity.

The political situation was exacerbated late last month when a tribunal hand-picked by the junta dissolved Thailand's largest political party — Thai Rak Thai (TRT), which had been founded by billionaire Thaksin — as punishment for committing electoral fraud. Although the ruling generals have promised to hold elections by the end of this year, removing the nation's most popular party from contention threw Thailand's democratic future further into question. Indeed, during the weekend marches, emotions overflowed and a few demonstrators clashed with police, even beating up an ex-Senator who had been critical of Thaksin. On Sunday, the junta blamed the TRT party leadership for the violence, urging the group's large and mostly rural electoral base to respect the ban on their party.

But the rallies spanned a far wider spectrum than just Thaksin acolytes. Democracy advocates have taken to the streets to decry the use of army tanks over ballot boxes. Anti-poverty campaigners who claim the junta has not adequately addressed the plight of Thailand's rural poor have raised their voices, as have employees of community-radio stations banned from the airwaves by the junta. Legal activists, including a veteran former judge, have condemned what they believe is deteriorating judicial freedom under the military leadership. And Buddhists, who are upset that their faith was not designated as the national religion in the draft of the post-coup constitution, have also rallied against the military government. "The anti-junta coalition has gathered critical mass," warns Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "This is a pent-up situation, and it's going to get worse."

Certainly, the anti-coup movement makes for peculiar bedfellows. One of the mobilizers of the weekend protest was Weng Tojirakan, a respected democracy activist who had been vociferous in his criticism of Thaksin before the military overthrow. "I do not support Mr. Thaksin, but the junta destroyed democracy," Weng says. "The junta is a monster and is evil, even more than Mr. Thaksin."

The interim government has also drawn criticism for failing to quickly prove corruption by the former P.M., even though his alleged graft was a major rationale the generals gave for staging their putsch. (On Monday evening, a junta-appointed investigative committee announced it had ordered the freezing of Thaksin's domestic bank accounts, estimated at more than $1 billion.) More generally, many Thais blame the coup leaders for a series of economic missteps that dented Thailand's international reputation, as well as for scrapping the previous constitution and presenting a new draft that drew little from public consultation.

The anti-junta coalition has vowed to continue holding protests until the coup leaders resign. On Monday, 5,000 Buddhists thronged in front of the Thai Parliament, some participating in a hunger strike to draw attention to their call for a state faith. It's unlikely, however, that this coterie of generals will bend to such wishes — or relinquish their own power so easily.

More possible, perhaps, is either a counter-coup against the interim government — hardly a confidence-booster for believers in Thai democracy — or heightened clashes between anti-junta protestors and army troops. In a worrisome precedent, similar pro-democracy marches back in 1992 ended with soldiers firing on unarmed protestors, killing dozens. "To be fair to the military, they have been disciplined and patient so far, but for how long?" asks political scientist Thitinan. "They are trained to respond by force. If it turns more violent, it will be bad for Thailand economically — and for how it is viewed by the world." With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok