Surayud survives barrage and hangs onto job by a thread
Fresh from a medical check-up, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has renewed energy to fight back. Yesterday he played down rumours that he might step down.
Although his morale has eroded, he vowed to stay on and fulfil his duties until the general election in December of this year. But he did not rule out the possibility of resigning if things get out of control.
Prior to the prime minister's news conference yesterday, rumours were swirling around the capital that there might be another coup, and that Surayud would finally cave in to political pressure and call it quits. The rumoured coup would not have been in support of the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, because his men in the military have been removed to inactive command posts, albeit with higher ceremonial ranks and pay. If the coup were to have taken place, it would be aimed at removing Surayud.
The coup rumours came because relations between Surayud and the Council of National Security (CNS) have deteriorated. Some members of the CNS would like Surayud to leave office as they feel he has failed to produce results and has not been decisive enough in the political heat. The economy has been hit by a lack of confidence. Investors are giving the government a hard time. There are fears of further political violence. Surayud does not seem to be able to get anything done and things have drifted without direction. There has also been speculation that former prime minister Anand Panyarachun might succeed Surayud.
But in a recent meeting with General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the Army chief, and other military top brass, the prime minister sent out a clear message: "Don't ever think of launching another coup. If you utter only one word, then I am ready to resign."
That is the dilemma, and one that the military top brass does not want to initiate. They had hoped Surayud may leave office of his own volition. But how could Surayud resign, without fulfilling his responsibility to save the "Thaitanic" and guide it safely to the shore? How could he ever return to the Privy Council as a failure? The election is only six months away, but for Surayud it seemed as if he had to travel on foot for another 100,000 miles.
Two weeks ago, Surayud played hard ball against the CNS by refusing to go along with the military leaders' plan to issue an emergency decree. The CNS wanted the government to declare a state of emergency so that it could take on remnants of the previous regime, which were going after Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda. The mob had sparked the fire and the CNS wanted to put it out quickly before it spread out like wildfire in the North. Surayud was blamed for not getting tough enough against the mob.
Surayud not only refused to declare a state of emergency, he also nailed a flag on the ground by announcing a date for the next election, which will take place on either December 16 or 23 this year. This cooled down political pressure somewhat, but the CNS was quite mad at him for his double play.
At present, the political scene is quite confusing. You don't know who is after whom. But supporters of the ousted prime minister are going after General Prem. And some members of the CNS, particularly General Saprang Kalayanamitr and General Sonthi, have been singled out for attack. The People's Alliance for Democracy, which played a catalyst role in bringing down the Thaksin regime last year, is about to regroup and may aim its big gun at Surayud. There is also infighting for power within the CNS. And mob violence could erupt any time to destabilise the political scene even further.
Mob violence is what Surayud is most concerned about. "I shall rely on political means to solve the conflict peacefully. I shall never resort to other means to inflict more problems to the country," he said. What then are the problems? He replied: "If the problems cannot be resolved and when there is physical confrontation and violence, I shall keep up my word (to resign). In my whole life, I do not want the Thai people to confront each other until lives are lost. I shall try to do my best to prevent it from happening."
On May 30, the Constitution Tribunal will rule whether the Democrat Party and the Thai Rak Thai Party should be dissolved because of charges that they made serious violations of electoral laws. Chances are high that both parties will be dissolved, leading to an open field in Thai politics.
If the election is held on schedule, Chuan Leekpai will have the best chance of winning and becoming prime minister for the third time. The New Democrats are seen as a compromise for national reconciliation, a role they played well after the May 1992 tragedy. Somkid Jatusripitak, who earlier had the potential to become prime minister, was tricked into betraying the Thai Rak Thai Party and accepting a post as a Surayud government envoy on the sufficiency economy philosophy. He was forced to resign shortly afterward. It was an act of political assassination.
Let's hope that Surayud can lead Thailand to the next general election. The country cannot afford another coup or to change horses in midstream. We cannot trust the military, nor can we trust remnants of the Thaksin regime. For better or for worse, we have to stick to our guns.