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Thai headhunt going nowhere

The junta now finds that throwing out a govt is easier than building a new one, reports Aditya Sinha. Your take?

india Updated: Sep 25, 2006 03:36 IST

The paradox of a military coup in a middle-income country like Thailand is that while the urban citizenry treat it as a novelty, the junta is now finding that throwing out a government is easier than building a new one, without a Constitution to guide them.

Sunday saw the Royal Plaza, where the Government House is being guarded by M41/A tanks, thronged with people eager to get a personal piece of history. It looked like a national holiday, with Bangkokians, many of them wearing the royal-yellow colour, treating the centre of Tuesday night's political turmoil as a picnic spot. The semblance of a 'yellow revolution' masked the fact that Tuesday's military coup, which ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was exactly the opposite.

The difficulty facing the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy, as it is called, shows in the daily headlines. Each day announces a new candidate for the post of interim prime minister, which the junta, headed by army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, promised would be appointed two weeks after the coup. The interim government will help draw up a new Constitution over the next year, in time for elections around October 2007.

Over the past few days, the names of technocrats with a background in economics have been floated, but the buzz in Bangkok is that they are politely declining the offer. Former WTO chief Supachai Panitchpakdi, who is at UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), has a year to go in Geneva and is reportedly not keen to return.

The other candidate favoured by the business community was Bank of Thailand Governor M.R. Pridiyathorn Devakula, but the army has reportedly rejected him as he is too independent-minded.

"They are now looking at lawyers or those with legal experience," says constitutional expert Kittisak Prokati of Thammasat University. "It appears that their priority now is a legal justification for the coup d'etat."

As a result, the new front-runners are Supreme Court president Charnchai Likhitjittha and the president of the Supreme Administrative Court, Ackaratorn Chularat.

"I expect that on Monday, the junta will give an interim constitutional order to start the process for a new Constitution," says Kittisak.

The military knows there is pressure on them. "No one knows the capability of the group," says Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn of Chulalongkorn University, who counts several of the coup officers among his former students. "That's probably why they say they will hand over soon to a new government."

And seeing that the new prime minister will need to be politically savvy, strong in economics, close to the military and also have a good legal understanding, it is no wonder that many candidates are politely turning down the offer, says Panitan. "They know that how long their honeymoon with the public will last depends on how strong the interim government looks."

Kittisak does not think making a new Constitution will be difficult. "What will be hard will be making it acceptable to the wider people," he says.

Knowing the trouble ahead, it is not a surprise that Thaksin is waiting in the wings, and the big surprise this weekend was the revelation that his wife Pojaman, who was thought to have fled to Singapore on Monday with some of his cash, is still in Bangkok. She had apparently hid in a house in Phaholyothin area of the city, and is now at their Chan Song Lah residence in Bang Phlat. With her is son Panthongtal and younger daughter Paetongtarn.

Sources close to Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party said Pojaman was active in party affairs, and that sometimes irked senior faction leaders.

With her control of the family's finances, and her presence in Bangkok, the junta will find it harder to dismantle Thaksin's party.