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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 00:38 GMT
Thai bombs raise political stakes
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

Soldier in Bangkok - 3/1/06
Security has been tightened on Bangkok's streets

When tanks rolled onto the streets of Bangkok in September, launching a military coup, crowds of well-wishers came to greet them.

Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said the armed forces would restore stability, and the Thai people - after months of political tension - appeared willing to forego democracy to let the situation calm down.

But four months on, the outlook seems much less rosy for the military rulers and their government.

Markets are jittery, violence in the mainly Muslim south continues unabated, and a series of deadly explosions across the capital on New Year's Eve has raised new questions about the new administation's grip on power.

Many Thais have been left feeling that their country is less stable than before the military intervened.

"The government is on very shaky ground right now," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

Successes and failures

Even when he took office in October, replacing the ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont must have known that a Herculean task lay ahead.

Security has now become the most important issue for the government
Pasuk Pongpaijitr

His government said it would restore democracy as soon as possible, tackle the escalating violence in the south, and fight the corruption that lay at the root of popular anger against the previous administration.

On the first of these, at least, it can point to some progress.

The government wants a new constitution drawn up before democracy can be restored, and a special drafting assembly is now in place, which should mean the constitution is ready in about six months' time.

Barring further major incidents like the New Year's Eve bombs, elections could still take place by the end of 2007 - a slightly longer time-frame than the 12 months the interim government originally stated, but not so long as to cause people to lose confidence in them, according to Pasuk Pongpaijitr, the author of several books on Thai politics.

Compared to the Thaksin government, General Surayud has been far more active in trying to tackle violence in the south, which is widely blamed on an Islamic insurgency. He has visited the region and offered to negotiate with the rebels, something his predecessor never did.

But these efforts do not seem to have made any difference on the ground, where the bombings and drive-by shootings continue almost daily.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont - archive photo
Gen Surayud's record in office has been mixed

"Policy-wise, this government has done the right thing in the south, but implementing the policies they have come up with is another thing," said security analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn.

The government has also had several other failures - notably in its efforts to pin definite charges on Mr Thaksin and his close allies.

Having said one of the main reasons for the coup was to curtail top-level corruption and abuse of power, the new administration is under pressure to find definite evidence to back these claims.

"It's obviously very damaging that they haven't found anything," said Prof Thitinan.

Another error came in mid-December, when the central bank announced plans to limit the amount of money that could be withdrawn by investors, causing a 15% plunge in the stock market.

The plan was partially rescinded, which lessened the blow, but as Dr Panitan says: "The damage had already been done, not only to the economy but also to the reputation of the government."

This damaged reputation is easy to see from recent opinion polls, which show shrinking support for Mr Surayud's government.

The Thai media is also becoming more critical, having at first spoken about the new administration in glowing terms. The press recently claimed that Mr Surayud's private estate encroached on national parkland, and lambasted Gen Sonthi, a Muslim, for having two wives.

'Out of control'

But all these problems pale into insignificance when compared with the bomb attacks on New Year's Eve, which left three people dead.

Part of the reason this is so serious is that it comes at a time of great transition
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University

"Security has now become the most important issue for the government," said Dr Pasuk.

Not only must the military try to prevent further attacks, it must also address the fact that a group exists which wants to destabilize the country, and is willing and able to kill to achieve that aim.

Despite pinning the blame on politicians who have lost power - which obviously points to members of Mr Thaksin's regime - the authorities have little evidence to back up these claims and Thailand is full of speculation as to who the culprits might be.

"The situation could well spiral out of control," warned Prof Thitinan, saying that one of the main worries he has is the timing of this crisis.

"Part of the reason this is so serious is that it comes at a time of great transition," said Prof Thitinan.

Thailand's beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne for 60 years, surviving 17 coups and countless political dramas.

He is now 79 years old, and any decline in his health would leave his people without the one constant they have always taken for granted through all the past upheavals.

The Thai press is awash with rumours about people in the high echelons of both military and civilian society jockeying for power, and according to Prof Thitinan, "competing forces are currently positioning themselves for the future."

The stakes were high when the military decided to overthrow Mr Thaksin.

But now it seems the stakes for this interim administration have just got even higher.

Bangkok blasts leave three dead
01 Jan 07 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Bangkok blasts
31 Dec 06 |  In Pictures
Britons injured in Bangkok blasts
31 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Thailand
02 Oct 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Thailand
03 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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