Sunday, October 01, 2006
NEW THAI PM SWORN IN SUNDAY
few hours ago, it was reported that His Majesty has approved the interim constitution, paving the way for the Council for Democratic Reform to submit a name for the position of interim prime minister, who will assemble a new civilian government. The constitution takes effect immediately, and reserves a role for the Council in the interim period (until elections next year). The Council will become (yet another name change!) the Council for National Security.
Gen. Sonthi vows that the CNS will not interfere in the operation of the new government -- as long as things proceed smoothly -- but will serve the PM in an advisory role in national security matters. However, the constitution retains the military council's power to sack the PM should things go haywire. It's the season for not wishing to institute an all-powerful PM position, apparently, until the checking and balancing systems, and independent oversight bodies get repaired in the next permanent constitution. That will be a project for the next 6 months or so.
It's a shame that this ultimate role will be retained, because it will surely be played up by the foreign media as a point to discredit the next government. But it probably doesn't matter much, because acceptance will only come after our next elections anyway. The Generals are showing that they prioritise national interests above foreign opinion, and I suspect most citizens would agree with that.
The new prime minister will be retired General Surayud Chulanond, indicating that acceptance by the Thai people is more important than acceptance of foreign governments and media. The choice will likely spur speculation about a 'return to military rule' or similar narratives, while the other widely mentioned candidate, Dr. Supachai Panichpakdi would have been more popular with the international community. Gen. Surayud retired from service three years ago as a well respected professional officer, and was then appointed to the Privy Council (HM the King's advisory council).
I expect to see parallels being drawn, in the days ahead, with Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon's deft sidestepping (in 1992) from his military command into the PM's chair following fair elections that year. Nothing could be further from the truth, but one cannot expect outsiders to know the difference. While Suchinda was known to be a greedy, duplicitious power-grabber, Gen. Surayud gained his reputation in reforming the military culture, a strong committment to democracy (he was appointed Army Chief by the Democrat Party-led government of Chuan Leekpai in 1998), and was known to have no political ambitions. I think the majority will feel comfortable with him in the role of a latter day Anand Panyarachun, until our next elections.
Khun Anand, a respected businessman and diplomat, was appointed to lead the civilian government after our last coup in 1991, returning briefly to steer the ship following the bloodshed after the 1992 election (when Suchinda's ploy was foiled by a popular uprising). Most people remember his administrations as the most professional, reformist and trustworthy one in memory. He gave an interview to Newsweek magazine this week, which I can't find on their site, but it was quoted in both The Nation and Bangkok Post newspapers. Well worth reading the thoughts of this reluctant prime minister as he details some of the similarities and contrasts between situation then and now. A short teaser here, as he responds to a question about the damage to Thai democracy:
I am a little surprised at the international reaction. I just received a visitor from England, and he was telling me that what he sees on the streets, what he hears when he talks to people here bears no resemblance to what's been written in (foreign) newspapers. It is a pity that those who write these stories are not here, too.One may quibble with a couple of points Khun Anand makes in the interview (mainly with the statement that there's no censorship - a couple of websites have been closed, but the papers are certainly quoting opposing viewpoints without apparent interference), but it accurately reflects the general feeling as I've experienced it.
Another issue is this week's withdrawal by the US of certain aid programs to the country. The criticism of democratic powers was of course to be expected. The halting of the US programs is mandated by American law in such cases, there isn't any discretion possible for some military to military assistance. But waivers were exercised to retain counter-terrorism and humanitarian portions. Thailand, and the Thai military, have been a ready ally in the war on terrorism, and one hopes the western countries will not push Thailand away. Thai military personel have contributed in both Afghanistan and Iraq (and in capturing Hambali and other terrorists). There have been no changes to the country's foreign policy as a result of the coup. The retention, to the extent legally possible, of US-Thailand assistance programs in counter terrorism is a good sign.
Regarding the southern insurgency, and how the new reality will impact on that issue, Chester had a good analysis this week (Wai The Belmont Club), drawing largely on a piece by Michael Sheridan writing in The Australian. I think I've found the best foreign reporter in Bangkok right now in Mr. Sheridan, thanks to Adventurous Chester -- who reminds us of something many foreigners are unaware of.
It was through cunning and realpolitik that Thailand avoided becoming a European colony while every single one of its neighbors did so in the last 300 years.Sheridan's very perceptive article is here. I'd quote from it, but then I'd need to leave something out -- it needs to be read in full. Chester's other source, by Zachary Abuza, I'm not quite so sure about. Dr. Abuza has some interesting insights into the southern problems (he's about to publish a book on the subject). The interesting parts are some of his insights, which can't be separately verified. But I really wonder, for someone apparently specialising in Thailand affairs, when he writes of the country's senior statesman, Prem Tinasulandonda (presently Chairman of the Privy Council), but gives his name as "Prem Tinsulrad". Huh? This is probably the most internationally known Thai figure still living, he's in all the history books. "Pa Prem" the Thais call him, and his name is always given as Prem Tinasulanond (phonetic: Tin - asule - anon). You just can't get that from "Tinsulrad" -- it would be like saying the first US president was George Washingmachine.
Well, the ceremony appointing Surayud Chulanond as Thailand's 24th prime minister has been televised just now at 5pm, with His Majesty's approval making it official. The secretary general of the CNS has promised that the Council will step aside and let civilians govern the country. Under the new interim constitution, a national assembly representing all social sectors will select a constitution-drafting body to write a permanent document, which will be put to the public within 30* days of its completion.
That's the plan. We'll be watching how it goes.
* - originally read "45 days" - now corrected as per the actual document, which states, "no sooner than 15 days and no later than 30 days after the draft constitution is made public."