Thursday, March 15, 2012

Political games that retired generals play

It’s the mother of all ironies when the old coup-maker of 2006, Gen Sonthi Bunyaratakalin, was made the head of a House committee for national reconciliation which may include a move to undo all the things that the coup had claimed to achieve. And he doesn’t seem too bothered with that.
Gen Sonthi’s public position now is: “Don’t ask me about the past. We must only look into the future.”
It’s a new paradox when the current defence minister, ACM Sukhampol Suwannathat, is compelled to complain that reporters keep asking him about the possibility of another coup when in fact “all military commanders know what’s right what’s wrong.”
ACM Sukhampol, who was one of the victims of the 2006 coup, has made it his public stand to insist: “The future won’t be a repeat of the past.” What that really means remains a mystery.
Have the two generals finally agreed to patch things up? Not really.
But both in their own ways are trying to ensure their own political survival by burying the past: Sonthi trying to play the role of a national reconciliator while Sukhampol is attempting to rein in the military establishment without provoking them into a new round of confrontation.
The defence minister, known to be close to former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has softened his approach towards the top brass, especially Army Commander-in-Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha. He has backed down, at least for now, from his initial demand that the defence council act be amended so that the politically-appointed defence minister has full authority over the hiring and firing of military personnel.
The defence council act had been introduced to precisely prevent politicians from “interfering” in military appointments by according the power of transfers of military personnel to a committee that represents the various branches of the armed forces, instead of granting that all-embracing influence on the defence minister.
This particular issue had initially threatened to pit Thaksin’s appointee to the defence ministry against the entrenched military chiefs. Sukhampol, who was moved from the transport portfolio to defence to ensure the legislative change, has more or less struck a compromise with the top brass. Power-sharing seems to have been the unannounced “middle path” between the new defence minister and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force.
Evidence of such a climb-down on both sides was ACM’s response to a reporter’s direct question: Will Army Chief Gen Prayuth be in his post until his official retirement in 2014?
“If we continue this way, there is nothing. He will be there until the end of his term. We should cut off the past. We will judge things by their present merits. We won’t dig up old stuff otherwise we can’t put an end to things…”
Perhaps, both sides have reached similar conclusions that a face-off would be mutually damaging and that the public is keeping a close watch to decide which side is more “democratic and responsive to public sentiments.”
Gen Sonthi, in his own way to rewrite history perhaps, has also officially accepted a set of proposals from the Phra Pokklao Institute (King Prajadhipok’s Institute) part of which clearly suggests that the commission set up by the coup-makers in 2006 with authority to punish “those committing actions damaging to the state” was illegitimate and its activities should be nullified. The institute wants all decisions reached by the panel to be reviewed by the normal judicial process.
In other words, if Gen Sonthi, in his new role as a politician trying to undo his own past military mistakes, endorses the proposal, it would be tantamount of condemning his own past deeds – a potentially disastrous backtracking on his own part.
If it weren’t so weird, the games being played by these two retired generals would be quite amusing. But this is no reality show. It’s about a country’s future and it affects every citizen’s life

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