Thailand pulled from the brink
Surayud's refusal to declare emergency rule the right choice to soothe tensions in volatile times
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has brought Thailand back from the brink of another dangerously slippery slope. His decision to put a proposal to impose a state of emergency on hold could prove crucial for the political survival of the interim leadership - his own government and the Council for National Security (CNS). Some may say it has done little to boost his image and improve the overall situation, but Surayud undeniably has demonstrated good faith and consideration for the state of the country. And he has done it knowing that his relationship with the CNS could grow more estranged.
The interim leaders and their supporters are being given a taste of their own medicine. To declare a state of emergency would mock the ongoing campaign against ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, but that is the smallest of the problems it would present. Such a drastic measure would darken the already gloomy political atmosphere and compound the economic misery generated by the country's crisis. Doubts would grow, locally and abroad, over the motives of the interim leaders. Moreover, nobody could be certain if increased military power to cope with simmering dissent would make things better or worse.
Rumour has it that the CNS seriously wanted to impose a state of emergency, citing the nature of the anti-coup protests that brought together supporters of Thaksin as well as activists and villagers who regard the September 19 military takeover as a major setback for democracy. The protests have seen some elements directing fierce political attacks against Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda. The CNS, it is said, has become worried that the relentless assaults on Prem's character could snowball into a major confrontation. There has also been concern that anti-coup elements, if allowed to gain a more solid foothold, could be transformed into a large-scale campaign against the new charter draft.
Yet many analysts believe that a state of emergency could play into the hands of those with ill intentions. One scenario has the interim leadership provoked into taking drastic action, thus arousing greater turmoil, which could end in further upheaval. Another scenario has the interim leadership taking full advantage of the special powers and uprooting anyone it considers an enemy. One thing is certain: neither scenario bodes well for our wobbling nation.
As prime minister, Surayud is empowered to declare a state of emergency. On Thursday, he insisted that the situation had not deteriorated to the point that such a risky move was warranted. Emergency powers would allow authorities to ban public gatherings, impose curfews and censor local news reports. Exercising those powers at a time when Thailand is desperately digging itself out of a crisis and trying to formulate a national consensus on a new charter would threaten to disrupt the already shaky process entirely.
The country is now in the middle of some dangerous brinkmanship. Surayud's bold decision to cross the CNS only provides a brief respite. He did not rule out reconsidering the option, and observers foresee a very volatile political calendar ahead. The PTV protests will continue. Legal decisions on the future of the Thai Rak Thai and Democrat parties are imminent. Major military reshuffles are on the way. The constitution-drafting process is plagued with internal problems as well as public mistrust. The economy is showing few signs of quick recovery, and the first anniversary of the coup is approaching.
Suddenly, the December election dates that Surayud pledged to keep seem like a very long way off. How much longer can he withstand the pressure? Pessimists see a similar ominous mix of situations occurring now as took place before the October 1976 Thammasat massacre and after the 1991 coup. The country, bruised and fractious, is ploughing through the uncertainties and into unknown territory at an uncontrolled speed. Surayud may look more isolated following his decision to put a state of emergency on hold and some might consider this to be discouraging. Yet it might be a development that, ironically, can generate some hope amid all the despair. At least it was a brave and sincere decision, one that took into account the ultimate interests of his country. In turbulent political times, we have seen such decisions backfire, of course, but under the present circumstances, when practically everybody else is thinking about total control or revenge, our nation requires every act of selflessness it can get.