Published on July 9, 2007
Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin came under fire from both critics and allies yesterday following renewed speculation that he would enter politics by running in the next general election.
Fuelling the speculation was last week's passage of the new constitution draft, which states that the next prime minister must be elected, and a conspicuous move by a group of military-backed politicians to form a new political party.
Pinit Jarusombat, Suwat Liptapanlop and Preecha Laohapongchana, who form a splinter group from the former Thai Rak Thai Party, are said to be planning to register a "Rak Chat" (Love the Nation) Party with backing from General Winai Phattiyakul, a leader of the Council for National Security (CNS).
It was claimed that the official "founder" of the Rak Chat Party would be Captain Kachit Tappananont, who is close to both Sonthi and CNS secretary-general Winai.
The alleged move is said to have caused a split within the CNS, with another top council member, General Saprang Kalayanamitr, opposed to the idea of CNS chairman Sonthi jumping into politics immediately.
Sonthi also faces a strong backlash from key figures of the anti-Thaksin alliance. Suriyasai Katasila, secretary-general of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), issued a strong warning yesterday that if Sonthi contests the next general election, the first to be held since the Sonthi-led coup, it would invariably taint Thailand's purported return to democracy.
"Even though he will have retired from the military by then, his candidacy will surely sow seeds of doubts and the Thai public will ask this very serious question of whether military and national security resources will be exploited to help him win the election," said Suriyasai.
"The Thai public didn't want the coup to happen last year, but most people understood why it had to occur," he added, stopping short of an explicit warning that Sonthi contesting the next election would be unacceptable to the public.
Suriyasai suggested that Sonthi skip this next election and wait for the one after it, if he is keen about entering politics.
"He has the right as a Thai citizen to enter politics, but we believe that doing so after the coup and immediately after he leaves the military and the CNS will create an impression that the military wants to hold on to power. People will never believe that he will no longer have influence over the military apparatus when he runs in the next election," the activist said.
Chamlong Srimuang, who led the 1992 popular uprising when 1991 coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon broke his vow and took the premiership, declined to comment when contacted by The Nation yesterday. Chamlong, who joined the PAD in campaigning against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said he had been "away" and needed more information on the Sonthi matter.
According to CNS sources, General Saprang and General Anupong Paochinda, both of whom are CNS deputy secretary-generals, believe that Sonthi's immediate entry into politics would play nicely into the hands of the pro-Thaksin camp and reinforce its claims that the September 19 coup was staged not to combat corruption but to obtain state power on a long-term basis.
However, the sources said Sonthi had not made a decision whether or not to run in the next election, scheduled tentatively for late this year.
"General Sonthi is a man who always listens to people's opinions," one source said. "If society is against it, he won't be stubborn. A good example of his attitude is when he withdrew his idea to grant amnesty to politicians affected by the Thai Rak Thai Party dissolution. Back then, he just wanted the politicians to have some way out, but he retreated without complaining when the public showed opposition to it."
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said he had not discussed with Sonthi the issue of him entering politics because it was Sonthi's personal issue.
They only discussed the election schedule, Surayud said.
Political scientist and former PAD leader Somkiat Pongpaiboon said Sonthi should think carefully before taking the plunge into politics.
Although it was his right, Sonthi's running in the election would show he still wants to keep his hold on power.
He could face opposition from many sides and political opponents would try very hard to attack him. They might dig out and reveal any information against Sonthi, Somkiat said.
"Sonthi has said many times that he staged the coup because of the situation and he would stay only temporarily. He must consider the possible impact if he wants to run in the election," Somkiat said.
Somkiat said irrespective of which election Sonthi chose to run in, it would be only perceived as his reluctance to give up power.
"He said he came temporarily, not for incubation," Somkiat said.
"It's too soon to announce anything, anyway. People are not calling [for Sonthi to enter politics]. They will feel bad towards him [if he runs in the election]."
Chamlong, while declining to give his opinion, saying he currently lives in a remote area and rarely follows news, said the political circumstances for the coup last year and current politics were different from those in 1992.
Chamlong was a leader in opposing General Suchinda Kraprayoon's premiership at that time.
Thammasat University law lecturer Parinya Thewanaruemitkul said he would rather not comment on the issue as it was "too much of politics" and Sonthi's decision was still uncertain. He said law academics had better comment on academic and legal issues.