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Stoppage time: The big question is how the junta will say goodbye

Foreign investment-fund analysts have been parading into our newsroom over the past two weeks.

Published on July 18, 2007

The last time we met them Thaksin Shinawatra was pondering a 20-year reign. And guess what? Their questions did not have much to do with that man.

Can Abhisit Vejjajiva really lead a coalition government? How long can he last? Will General Sonthi Boonyaratglin plunge into the "black hole" by deciding to run in the election? What will the next government's foreign business policy be? Will the Internal Security Bill mess things up?

What's the underlining message of these questions? What does it mean when, for the first time in two years, we have managed to look three or four months ahead?

The good news for the military junta and the interim leadership is that Thaksin is out of the equation. If you don't believe the political signs, follow the money trail. It never lies and is now going in an inbound direction. The baht would not be this strong and the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) index would not have reached its highest point in over a decade if those with the best political sensors - the financial investors - had felt there was still a chance of him staging a comeback.

The bad news for the generals is that while they may get credit from some (bringing the SET index up to a 10-year-high is not a bad feat compared to those of the Burmese junta), their time will be up real soon too. A statement from a visiting fund analyst says it all: With Thaksin becoming England's problem and legal charges over here set to be handled by the judiciary, Thailand's new problem is whether the tanks will overstay their welcome and thus become a fresh liability.

Has the crisis bottomed out? Yes, if the junta wants it that way. The determining factor will no longer be what Thaksin does or plans, but how the generals behave in the face of his virtual absence. A dozen Thaksin interviews will not have as much impact as General Sonthi's decision on whether to join a political party. Pro-Thaksin or anti-coup protests will not create political ripples as far-reaching as the proposed controversial Internal Security Bill. Whether or not the ousted prime minister will come back to face the charges against him is not as crucial as whether the Council for National Security (CNS) will really relinquish power after the promised general election.

Critics and proponents alike are holding their breath, although for different reasons. The heat is on the military now to keep its promises in the most unambiguous and honourable manner possible. The courts will have to take over the corruption crackdown, which would be the ultimate proof that the rule of law has been restored. The referendum to decide the fate of the charter draft must be as democratic as possible, in spite of all the circumstances. The next election must truly represent the torch of power being passed back to the Thai people.

These seemingly simple and noble tasks which the coup-makers have proclaimed they will undertake may be in danger due to their own vanity. The baht and stock phenomenon could also give them the wrong idea that foreign money can be lured even at the worst of times. The apparent swing in economic momentum is giving us mixed signals at best, and this much we know: investors trust that Thaksin is gone, and as a result of this assumption the behaviour of the generals will be the only determining factor left for Thai politics.

If General Sonthi announces that he will leave the political scene peacefully after the election and the Internal Security Bill is withdrawn, then maybe all Thailand would have to worry about is a new flood of foreign funds and how best to tame the restive baht. Let the next government decide what kind of internal security law we require in order to deal with the violence in the deep South.

Regarding Thaksin's legal cases, if the post-election judiciary can't handle them independently with fairness and integrity, there must be something seriously wrong with the September 19 coup and Thailand as a whole.

The foreign fund theory can be easily tested. Sonthi can announce that he will stick around beyond the election, the CNS can push the security bill through the National Legislative Assembly and confirm reports that they will "welcome" negotiations with Thaksin, then see what happens.

The junta is the country's transitional love at best. They can choose whether to leave amicably with a thank you peck on their cheeks, or depart in a screaming scene with luggage thrown out on the driveway and the door slammed shut behind them.

Tulsathit Taptim

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