Generals find they may have picked the wrong horse
One of the most frequently asked questions these days is one that General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, chairman of the Council for National Security (CNS), always gives a straight answer to.
But the problem is that the answer always has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
As tensions between CNS generals and the Surayud government grow, there is increasingly widespread talk about the need to change horses in midstream. The only thing that seems to be holding the coup-makers back is the lack of an alternative to Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont.
When the generals who staged the September 19 coup picked Surayud to head an interim government, they were placing their bets on someone based entirely on his resume - an honest former Army chief known for his professionalism. More importantly, as their former military boss, the generals believed they would be speaking the same language as Surayud.
In retrospect, the generals are bringing themselves to admit that they hadn't done enough homework. Their only concern at the time was Surayud's proximity to the Royal Family. His ability to lead the country in its most critical time was not an issue. Sonthi and his military peers, of course, will not say that they made a mistake. For them, Surayud was probably the most sensible choice in the circumstances. But they underestimated the magnitude of the problems he and his government would have to face.
The generals naively saw a scenario in which, after being driven out of power, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra would simply fade away - just like practically all of his predecessors who were ousted from office. Surayud and his hands-off style of leadership would then have an easy ride in slowly guiding the country back again to parliamentary democracy after a new constitution was promulgated.
But things just didn't turn out that way. Not only did Thaksin refuse to go quietly, he has also been showing every sign that he is still a power to be reckoned with. Worse still, many of Thaksin's political and economic legacies need to be cleaned up. So what were supposed to be Surayud's strong assets - his honesty and military professionalism - have turned out to be insufficient in dealing with the complicated situation at hand.
As the interim government drags its feet, the CNS generals are the ones who are feeling the heat. The lacklustre performance of the government and the lack of leadership on the part of Surayud was largely responsible for rising discontent among the people, especially those in the rural areas who are more or less still under the spell of Thaksin's populist policies. The pro-Thaksin groups who have been rallying in Bangkok over the past few weeks are also being emboldened by what they see as Surayud's indecisiveness and emerging rifts between him and the coup-makers.
The much-publicised lunch between the Surayud Cabinet and the CNS two weeks ago didn't amount to much in terms of bridging the gap between the two sides, even though it was initially seen as the coup-makers' vote of confidence in the prime minister amid reports of their differences. Surayud's reluctance to impose a state of emergency to deal with the anti-coup protests by pro-Thaksin remnants last week has underscored the level of distrust between the prime minister and the military.
While Sonthi and his CNS colleagues publicly denied any rift with their former boss, in private they couldn't hide their frustration with what they see Surayud's sense of complacency. They want him to be more proactive in dealing with the myriad problems that have been cropping up since the September coup, especially issues affecting the livelihood of the grassroots people who are being manipulated by pro-Thaksin elements. Besides, they see him as having dilly-dallied in getting bureaucrats to facilitate the work of the military-appointed Assets Examination Committee, whose primary job is to nail Thaksin and his cronies for alleged corruption and other wrongdoing.
Surayud's announcement last week that the much-awaited general election was tentatively set for December apparently caught the generals by surprise. First, they had not been consulted. And second, it was seen as a rebuff to their assessment that pro-Thaksin forces were out to create havoc to disrupt the smooth transition to democracy.
The generals' biggest concern at the moment probably has less to do with holding a general election than trying to find ways to seal Thaksin's political fate so that he and his Thai Rak Thai Party will no longer be a political threat. And their most immediate challenge is how to pacify the increasingly disgruntled masses disillusioned with the interim government.
The junta watches in dismay as the Surayud government's dull performance is provides pro-Thaksin groups with fresh ammunition to drum up well-orchestrated anti-CNS and anti-government sentiment. And Surayud's commitment to have the election held by December is unlikely ease the pressure.
Surayud may still believe that the CNS generals need him more than he needs them. That may be true - until they can find a viable alternative, of course. At the end of the day, the generals know that the need to save their own necks far outweighs the need to stay loyal to their former boss.