By Rodney Tasker
BANGKOK - Former Thai foreign minister Prasong Soonsiri was often asked over the past year why he didn't go into full retirement and give up his behind-the-scenes political activities. In response, the former head of the National Security Council and US Central Intelligence Agency-trained old military intelligence hand would take a puff from his ever-present pipe and smile wryly: "Not until I have accomplished my mission, and that is to get Thaksin out of power."
The spry 79-year-old seems to have completed his mission after prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's overthrow in a bloodless coup on September 19. But now, though he was a central behind-the-scenes figure in the coup and is currently a leading member of the new military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA), he and many others are still jittery about the possibility of Thaksin's return from self-imposed exile and an attempt to overthrow the new leaders, Prasong told Asia Times Online in an exclusive interview.
"Thaksin has an immense amount of money still here, and his network of political and business cronies, who benefited from the spoils of his term in power [from 2001 until the coup] are still in place, and remain a threat," Prasong said.
"Thaksin may be too scared to come back now, but he has the money and loyal fixers to lay a framework for his return. So Surayud has always to be on his guard," he added, referring to interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander and member of the Privy Council, which advises His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
While Surayud and coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratklin's Council for National Security (CNS) remain generally accepted by most Thais as honest brokers and committed to their stated intention to return the country to democracy by 2007, still all is clearly not well with the military-appointed administration.
For a start, several anti-coup groups, including one led by Marxist academic and social activist Giles Ungpakorn, suspect that Surayud, his cabinet and the majority of members of the hastily appointed NLA want a new Constitution Drafting Assembly to draw up a new charter to allow for a non-elected prime minister, prohibited by the 1997 constitution. If that happened, it would open the door for Surayud to remain premier, or allow for another figure with a military background to take over after general elections.
All those now in power have steadfastly denied such an intention, but even the People's Alliance for Democracy, the powerful group that led tens of thousands to demonstrate against Thaksin for most of this year, are concerned that neither Surayud nor the ruling generals have a clear agenda. Some even wonder whether CNS members are quietly planning to form their own political party - perhaps even with acceptable remnants of the now-splintered former-ruling Thai Rak Thai party - to retain for the military some form of permanence in politics.
But the worst thunderbolt to hit the interim government was this week's "Black Tuesday" move by the Thai central bank to impose capital controls to rein in the unrestrained strengthening of the Thai baht, which had the unintended consequence of driving foreign investors out of the stock market, which shed a record 14% in a single day. Although the market regained 11% of its capitalization the following day, the appointed government's credibility had been severely battered in the eyes of foreign and domestic investors.
Things were not meant to be thus. The new military-appointed government was supposed to tackle the four main points stated by the coup makers in their putsch to bring down Thaksin: corruption, constitution-meddling to erode the powers of independent institutions, social polarization, and subversion of the beloved monarchy. Thaksin was in effect to be cocooned by charges of financial malfeasance, ranging from blatant corruption to tax evasion, and wounded by accusations of human-rights abuses, such as what happened with the killing of some 2,500 drug suspects during Thaksin's 2003 war on drugs, and his government's heavy-handed dealing with Muslims in the insurgency-plagued south.
But the CNS generals so far appear too intent on national reconciliation and bent on labyrinthine legal procedures in their legal prosecution of Thaksin and his cronies. As coup maker Prasong commented: "Surayud is tough, but too polite."
Coup maker's resume
Prasong hasn't always been as polite during his political career. Although a former intelligence operative, he has long been politically active and is widely perceived as a staunchly nationalistic, somewhat right-wing, influential figure. It is widely recognized that he has a privileged relationship with the palace, mainly through his strong ties with Chief Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda. It is said by palace insiders that he is viewed favorably by King Bhumibol as a true nationalist and pro-monarchist.
Prasong likes to do things quietly, in line with his espionage background. But his dislike for Thaksin - whom he viewed as a corrupt leader who disrespected the monarchy - was often made public. That animosity dated to 1994, when Thaksin took over Prasong's position as foreign minister after a shift in the composition of the then-ruling coalition.
More recently, Prasong successfully fought and won a civil case brought against him by Constitution Court judges whom he had publicly accused of being in collusion with Thaksin in overturning Thaksin's corruption conviction in August 2001. If he had been found guilty, Thaksin would have been barred from holding political office for five years.
If anyone, Prasong should know what the coup plotters first envisaged, because the former air force squadron leader was one of five serving or retired senior military figures who hatched plans to oust Thaksin as early as July, he told Asia Times Online. Interestingly, the five original plotters, while obviously including army commander Sonthi, did not include former prime minister, army commander and now chief of the Privy Council Prem.
The highly respected Prem was widely regarded by the media as the backbone of the September 19 coup, though he is now quite active with the new military rulers. Nor did the original five coup makers include Surayud, who was only informed that he would be appointed interim prime minister by the coup makers about a week before he took office "somewhat reluctantly", as he later told the Thai press.
"The coup was the only way we could see to rid Thailand of Thaksin - our only option," Prasong said. "It was not planned because we thought Thaksin was planning his own coup to bolster his military status, but just to stop him. We considered other options, but this was the only way we could think of to stop him."
Prasong and other military sources have also painted a picture of the events leading up to the September 19 coup. First, the commanders of all the armed services - army, navy and air force - were summoned to a meeting with King Bhumibol at his Hua Hin palace, his normal residence, south of Bangkok. Strangely, Supreme Commander Ruengroj Mahasaranont failed to show up for the meeting. Ruengroj was suspected of being too close to Thaksin, and later appeared to teeter on the brink of loyalty to both sides as the coup started.
He was known to be in telephone contact early that evening with Thaksin, who at the time was in New York for a United Nations General Assembly meeting and was contacting his classmates from defense army pre-cadet school Class 10 warning that something was being hatched. It was Ruengroj whom Thaksin chose to head the military in his botched plan to declare a state of emergency shortly before Sonthi launched his coup.
Only two army region commanders - the key Bangkok-based 1st Army's Lieutenant-General Anupong Paochinda and the northern 3rd Army's Lieutenant-General Saprang Kalyanamitr - were trusted commanders involved in the coup. Anupong was regarded by some as a Thaksin man, but sources say he is also close to Queen Sirikit, and that in the end persuaded him to go along with the coup. Saprang sent troops to Bangkok to back the coup, along with Lopburi-based soldiers from the Special Forces Command - once commanded by Sonthi, and Surayud before him.
The sources say that just before moving out the troops in Bangkok on that evening, Sonthi sent tanks to the gates of the 1st Army Division, 4th Cavalry Command, in Bangkok, and 2nd Cavalry Command, based just north of Bangkok. All were commanded by Thaksin's Class 10 classmates, and had to be neutralized to preempt a possible pro-Thaksin counteraction, the sources say.
But as Prasong now says, despite the coup's success domestically and quiet support from many foreign governments, including the United States, the Assets Examination Committee and National Counter Corruption Committee, both selected by the ruling generals, have made little progress toward any solid legal measures against Thaksin and his cohorts.
Prasong even attacked Surayud - a known friend - for about 45 minutes in the NLA two months after the coup, saying his government had failed to move in any meaningful way against the Thaksin group, nor addressed the other three points they laid down as reasons for the coup. At a later NLA session, Prasong also accused Pridiyathorn for backing off in dismantling the two- and three-digit state lottery introduced illegally by Thaksin "because of the money involved". Soon afterward, Pridiyathorn froze the lottery, perhaps in reaction to Prasong's still-strong influence.
But to maintain the new government's popular legitimacy, Thailand's new rulers need to move faster in prosecuting Thaksin and his cronies. The two main opposition parties, the Democrats and Chart Thai, also want the CNS to remove martial-law restrictions on political activities, to allow them to gear up for next year's elections. Both parties' leaders have been noticeably absent from the public arena since the coup.
Perhaps one reason is the strong, unequivocal support for Surayud's government expressed by King Bhumibol during his nationwide address on the eve of his December 5 birthday. Such overt royal backing means that anyone strongly criticizing Surayud could be construed as finding fault with the revered monarch's judgment. And in Thailand, given the people's almost universal adulation for their king, no politician, particularly in the current political climate, is willing to take that chance.
Rodney Tasker was a longtime correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, where he covered the ins and outs of the Thai military throughout the 1980s and 1990s and famously predicted the 1991 coup. He is semi-retired in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.