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Hard talk: A word to the general: look before you leap

As his mandatory retirement draws nearer, the question of whether or not Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the Army chief and chairman of the all-powerful Council for National Security (CNS), will enter politics is gaining renewed intensity.

Published on August 7, 2007

As the general weighs his options, he certainly needs to be reminded once again that what is at stake is not only his own political future. The course of Thailand's democracy also depends a lot on his decision.

The temptation to jump into politics to provide himself with political cover against a potential backlash from the old power clique is understandable but not necessarily convincing. No general would want to spend the rest of his life in retirement being hounded by political enemies. But that shouldn't in any way be cited as the compelling factor for Gen Sonthi to run for Parliament.

While Gen Sonthi is still keeping his cards close to his chest, there have been enough signals to suggest that he is leaning toward becoming a politician. The fact that the general has never publicly ruled himself out of running in the election has given rise to persistent speculation that it's only a matter of time before he makes known his intentions. Political manoeuvring by people close to him is also more than a tale-tell sign that political groundwork is being done on his behalf.

Fears of a return of the old political regime through proxies are causing many in the CNS nightmares. Contrary to what he has been saying publicly, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has given every indication that he is not prepared to wash his hands of politics, even in self-imposed exile. Remnants of his now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party are regrouping under a new political banner, obviously with his blessing - and most likely with his financial support.

The scenario of old TRT politicians, who still command considerable support in rural areas in the North and Northeast, continuing to have political clout after the election may be frightening to the CNS generals. But it would be short-sighted for them to believe that Sonthi becoming a politician can save the day.

While not everyone in the CNS supports the idea that Sonthi should enter politics, those who are opposed to it are obviously not speaking out. It seems Sonthi only listens to people who say things he wants to hear. And no one should be surprised if those sycophants around him are exaggerating the strength of the political bogeymen and are cheer-leading him into running in the election.

Gen Pallop Pinmanee, an advisor to Sonthi as director of the Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc), probably best summed up what the Army chief must be hearing from all the grovellers around him. Offering his unreserved support for Sonthi's political role, Gen Pallop said his boss had demonstrated enough leadership and decisiveness to qualify him as the country's next leader.

As Thailand emerges from the political turbulence that has engulfed the country since the coup last September - and is hopefully heading toward a new era of democracy - this kind of flattery is the last thing that Sonthi should be hearing.

As someone who was instrumental in putting Thailand in its present political predicament, Sonthi has the responsibility to transfer power to a democratically-elected government as soon as possible - and not to complicate things by worrying about his own political future.

Gen Sonthi should stop entertaining the illusion that he can make a difference in Thai politics. While he is admired for his professionalism, there is still a question mark over his leadership of the Army - not to mention his ability to manage political affairs, which definitely requires far more qualifications than he currently has.

The already volatile political situation will certainly worsen if Sonthi decides to throw his hat into the ring. The anti-CNS and pro-Thaksin forces, which have been running out of steam, are likely to be reinvigorated, and the country could be plunged into an even deeper crisis. Thaksin, meanwhile, will have a field day telling the world that he has been right all along in predicting that the military would try to hold on to power.

Sonthi has been urging the public to have confidence in the ongoing investigation process against Thaksin and his former close associates over charges of corruption and abuse of power. But first, he himself must be convinced that the investigations can eventually pin Thaksin down so that his possible return to power will no longer be an issue.

It's about time that Gen Sonthi started listening to critics who are arguing against him becoming a politician. Even an old-school politician like Snoh Thienthong seems to have a better grasp of the political situation than the general's own army of advisors and friends.

Snoh has warned that instead of ensuring a smooth political transition, Gen Sonthi would only worsen the political polarisation that has plagued the country if he decides to enter politics. It would galvanise the political forces against the CNS and start a new political crisis.

Before he makes any self-serving decision, Gen Sonthi should be reminded that the September 19 coup he engineered might have endeared him to large sections of society fed up with the rotten Thaksin administration and the political deadlock the country was facing, but it was not meant to pave the way for him to hang on to power.

Thepchai Yong

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