The generals have done their part, now it's time to fade
"We just had no idea what to do next." This is not the kind of confession one would expect from the general who just overthrew a democratically-elected government and took over the country.
But when General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, leader of the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), which has now been renamed the Council for National Security (CNS), sat down with a group of senior journalists at his headquarters last week, he made no pretence that he had a blueprint for how he and his military colleagues would manage the affairs of the state while waiting to transfer power to an interim civilian government.
It's no surprise then that the initial euphoria among those opposed to the Thaksin administration, who welcomed the coup d'etat, quickly turned into disappointment. The smiles and flowers for the soldiers guarding strategic positions in Bangkok and other cities couldn't hide it. The generals were professional in executing a coup plan, but knew next to nothing about managing public expectations.
The coup-makers either knowingly or unknowingly committed one blunder after another. And some of these mistakes have the potential to come back to haunt both the plotters and the country. They gave Pol General Kowit Wattana carte blanche to overhaul the annual police reshuffle list despite the fact that his record as police chief is a big question mark. The result: many of the proteges of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been left in place. Kowit's own men were given undeserved promotions.
The generals' ambiguous posturing on allegations of corruption and abuse of power by members of the Thaksin administration prompted serious doubt concerning their political agenda. And reports that one of the coup-makers was in constant contact with Thaksin reinforced suspicions that there had been no unity among the CNS members from the beginning. Worse still, some of the legal experts tainted by their association with the old regime were recruited to help draft the provisional constitution and other legal documents.
Their apparently half-hearted decision to set up an assets investigation committee with only limited power and staffed by people with questionable backgrounds was probably the last straw. Only last-minute prodding and a chorus of criticism by prominent public figures forced the generals to take a U-turn and revamp the committee. Though the move did help restore confidence that justice would be served in corruption cases, the damage had already been done as far as the junta's image was concerned.
So when Sonthi admitted to the journalists last week that he and his military friends were not "professionals" when it came to seizing power, he was not only trying to be frank, but was also confessing that he was a hostage of the situation he had been instrumental in creating. Or, perhaps worse than that, some of his comrades-in-arms had been less than sincere in throwing in their lot with him.
But Sonthi in particular must be credited for being responsive to criticisms and suggestions. While his CNS colleagues might have seemed insensitive, Sonthi was quick to make adjustments when actions taken by the junta ran into opposition. Stripping Kowit's power to appoint police personnel and the revamping of the assets investigation committee are two encouraging examples.
Giving the committee the power it needs is a crucial first step in the right direction. But it is also necessary for the CNS to lend all necessary support to the committee if it is to carry out the job effectively.
Claiming not to be "professional coup-makers" is certainly no excuse for Sonthi and his junta friends not to take responsibility for whatever potential mess arises after the coup. It's incumbent upon the coup-makers to live up to the expectations of the people who wanted to see those who plundered the country brought to justice and all traces of the Thaksin regime removed before they wreaked any more havoc on the country. After all, weren't these among the sins that the generals cited to justify their power seizure?
With privy councillor General Surayud Chulanont's installation as prime minister on Sunday, the coup-makers may feel less pressured now that an interim civilian government with more semblance of legitimacy will be taking over. But that's only the beginning of a long road paved with formidable challenges.
By picking Surayud, the generals are gambling on the former Army chief's reputation of incorruptibility and professionalism - a far cry from Thaksin's record as a gullible and unethical political leader. But past records are no guarantee of future success.
Surayud needs all the help he can get to move the country forward. His first and most daunting task is to bring about reconciliation - which is necessary to repair the damage of Thaksin's divisive rule. It is being made more difficult by the fact that much of Thaksin's legacy is still in place and it will take a strong political will to dismantle it all.
While the role of the military council headed by Sonthi should be confined to an advisory capacity and the maintenance of security, it also needs to make sure that the new civilian government can run the country without worrying about threats from the old order. A clear division of labour is necessary to ensure that the new government is free from military interference.
The September 19 coup has been generally described in diplomatic circles as a "step backward" for Thai democracy. With the transfer of power to a civilian government and the appointment of a well-respected former general as its leader, it looks like a half-first step toward restoring democracy has been taken.
Surayud and his soon-to-be appointed Cabinet should be left to cover the rest of the distance without the generals breathing down their necks.