SURAYUD HAS THE RIGHT CREDENTIALS
As interim prime minister, career soldier's qualities could restore national stability
Amid the unstable situation after the coup, the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) desperately needs an interim prime minister with power and charisma to ensure that everything remains under control.
The CDR has faced difficulty in finding the most suitable person to fill the top post. Its dilemma has been whether to give priority to boosting international confidence or enhancing reconciliation in the country.
Anand Panyarachun, who became prime minister in 1991 following a coup, told Newsweek recently that this month's coup was similar to the one in 1991 but with an added dimension.
"When the government disappeared from the scene [in 1991], there was no fear it could make a comeback. But over the past five years Thaksin Shinawatra and his party have become too powerful. They have consolidated their hold over the government machinery and certain sectors of the armed forces and parliament. So I think it's a more precarious situation," Anand said.
Anand's words echo the concerns of Privy Council member General Surayud Chulanont about the remaining parts of Thaksin's regime.
Surayud warned that if the ousted prime minister returned to Thailand, it could create further rifts in the country because there would be clashes between his supporters and opponents.
"Myself and several other people understand that supporters and opponents will clash on the day that Thaksin returns home. It would be a big commotion. Therefore, we want the military council to speed up national reconciliation," he said.
Those concerns raised by two prominent figures might help the CDR easily decide which one would be its priority - international image or national stability.
The CDR has already decided who it wants to lead the country, but has declined to reveal the name.
"The military council has agreed by consensus and made our choice for prime minister. We are confident that he will be acceptable to the public," Admiral Satirapan Keyanon said.
It is believed that the CDR has decided to place national reconciliation at the top of its agenda. If so, who will be the person who could destroy Thaksin's regime and foundations?
Having looked at two strong candidates - General Surayud and Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development - the former is likely to be the one chosen by the CDR.
One has a good international image while the other has more ability to bring peace to the country.
Supachai has a sound standing among the international community. A respected technocrat with a clean record in Thailand's national politics, his appointment would definitely be received positively by the international community.
Moreover, the former World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief was the first person to have crossed over from one of the Bretton Wood institutes - which include the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and WTO - to become the head of a key UN organ.
Just last week, his name surfaced among the UN Permanent 5 members (USA, UK, China, Russia and France) as a possible candidate for UN secretary-general, replacing Kofi Annan when he steps down in the coming weeks. But his strong point is not enough to ease the chaos in the country.
Surayud, on the other hand, is deemed a clean, well-respected professional soldier who built his career through the Special Warfare command. He is well liked and respected by the men who served under his command.
His selection to lead the interim government would reflect the desire by the CRD to disband the foundations that Thaksin had laid over his years in power, as well as neutralise the cronies associated with the Thai Rak Thai Party.
Although himself a career soldier, Surayud is seen as the man who put the public at ease and reassured them that the military was not interested in holding on to power.
His term as Army chief helped put to rest the ghost of the May 1992 uprising in which scores of civilians were killed. His strong support of the then Third Army chief Lt-General Wattanachai Chaimuenwong during the stand-off with the Burmese junta during border clashes made the Army the source of comfort for the public.
More importantly, Surayud is seen as a man who has the sophistication to deal with the complexities behind the ongoing insurgency in the Malay-speaking South. Thaksin was deemed to be too dogmatic in his approach, emphasising law and order instead of tackling the root cause of the historical resentment behind the violence.
If the interim PM post goes to Surayud, he could help to justify the CDR's first reason for staging the coup - that Thaksin's government had brought about severe and unprecedented disunity in Thai society.
If Surayud could get strong candidates for his cabinet, he could ease international concerns about the coup and maintain the strength of the economy.
A European ambassador said the international community would be closely watching to see who was appointed to the three important positions in the interim government of prime minister, finance minister and foreign minister.
"The three must not disappoint the public and must work independently from the military council," he said, adding that the CDR should step down after the interim government is set up.