Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thai crisis highlights Asia's 'king-maker' armies - Army's Taste of power

By Martin Abbugao

(Kuwait Times) - The Thai military's role as chief enforcer in quelling anti-government protests underscores the role of army generals as kingmakers or dictators in Southeast Asia, analysts said. In countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, many civilian rulers have learned the bitter lesson that the allegiance of the armed forces can mean the difference between their survival or downfall.

Analysts said that weak civilian institutions and the military's status as frequently the most organized and disciplined force in a country, often creates conditions ripe for army intervention. Political leaders also often try to court the favor of military officers to remain in power, they said. "As a matter of practical politics, if you are in power you have to have Ceasar's legions on your side, pointing their spears not at you but at the enemy," said Rex Robles, who runs a political risk consultancy i
n Manila.

Robles, one of the reform-minded junior officers who led a mutiny against former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, said corruption and bad government are also triggers for the military to act. The 1986 mutiny sparked a popular civilian uprising that ended Marcos' 20-year rule. "It's essentially bad governance," Robles told AFP. "Corruption results in the weakening of institutions like the judiciary.

John Harrison, a security specialist at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said people look to the military in times of crisis because they are organised, disciplined and armed. "In countries that are in the early stages of economic development the strongest institution is often the military," Harrison told AFP. "Because of this cohesion and access to resources, when the military views the civilian leadership as corrupt, ineffective and not operating in the national interest they often feel
the need to intervene to restore order.

Modern Southeast Asian history bears out this analysis. Thailand has had 18 coups since 1932 when it became a constitutional monarchy, and since then the military has never been fully pushed to the background. In its latest political role, the army ousted elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and stayed in charge for a year until elections in December 2007.

It is now enforcing a state of emergency imposed by current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and on Tuesday successfully cleared protesters from their last encampment at Abhisit's offices. In the Philippines, despite a vow to "go back to barracks," military officers mounted several coup attempts against Marcos' successor, Corazon Aquino. She survived the attempts, thanks to the loyalty of key military commanders who exerted considerable influence during her administration.

Fidel Ramos, the West Point-trained cigar-chomping former general who stood by Aquino, was later democratically elected president. Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada was ousted halfway into his six-year term in 2001 after the military withdrew its support following allegations of corruption and incompetence. The military also remains a formidable political force in Indonesia.

Former general Suharto came to power in 1965 following a coup against nationalist leader Sukarno and ruled with an iron fist until he was deposed in 1998. Current leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a former army general who was democratically elected. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The incumbent junta came to power in 1988 after crushing pro-democracy demonstrations.

Elections were held in 1990 but the junta refused to honor the results won by the political party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 13 of the last 19 years under house arrest. Analysts said it would be difficult to keep the region's army in their bunkers. "It's hard because they have already tasted power," said Robles, referring to former military officers appointed to high civilian posts as a reward for their loyalty. - AFP

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Emergency decree stays

PM calls on cooperation from all sides, is open to public debate

(Nation Multimedia) - Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday said the state of emergency would remain in place even though the authorities had managed to bring the anti-government protests to a peaceful end.

"The situation has been eased and is almost back to normal. But the mission of the emergency decree has not been completed. The government will not be careless, and we will be closely monitoring the situation," he said in a televised national address.

Abhisit said military officers, police and civil servants would remain on alert for possible attacks on public utilities.

He also declared tomorrow and Friday public holidays, extending this year's Songkran break to 10 days. The long holiday began last Friday when the government designated it a public holiday after red shirts blocked Victory Monument and caused traffic chaos in Bangkok.

The prime minister said the two extra days off would allow relevant officials to clean up the mess left behind by the riots on Monday and the two weeks or so of rallies around Government House.

He explained the authorities needed time to remove possible harmful objects and the charred debris of public buses.

Abhisit's televised address yesterday evening came after red-shirt leaders abandoned their positions around Government House around midday. The protesters were surrounded by troops supported by crowds of angry civilians fed up after several days of bedlam.

The PM said he regarded the peaceful end of the turmoil "a victory for all of society" rather than a win-or-lose situation for any particular person.

He called on those unhappy with the present political system to become engaged in public debate and help find solutions for the ongoing political conflicts.

"You don't have to hold protests in the streets. I invite all groups to discuss political solutions for our country to move forward and the benefit of everyone in our society," the premier said. "It is time we restored our country. We will have to overcome all of the difficulties together."

Protest leaders Veera Musigapong, Weng Tochirakarn and Natthawut Saikua yesterday surrendered when security forces advanced towards the last major protest site. Two other key leaders - Jakrapob Penkair and Jatuporn Promphan - were not found there.

The Criminal Court yesterday also issued arrest warrants for fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra and 13 protest leaders for inciting violence and assembling illegally during a state of emergency, which was declared on Sunday.

Most red-clad protesters yesterday afternoon boarded some 50 buses provided by the state to take them to bus terminals, so they could return home upcountry. Others drove their vehicles parked near the protest site.

Smaller groups of protesters held noisy gatherings at a few locations in the city, such as Sanam Luang. They no longer wore red but told passers-by that troops had used live bullets during Monday's crackdown - a claim Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said was untrue.

He said the military would be on alert in all Bangkok districts following intelligence reports of possible acts of sabotage.

A public opinion poll conducted by Rajabhat Suan Dusit University among 1,207 people between Monday and yesterday found 64 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with how the government dealt with the rioters.

In a related development, the international ratings agency Standard and Poor's has lowered Thailand's local currency rating from "A" to "A-", saying the outlook was negative and could be downgraded further, Associated Press reported yesterday. The country's foreign-currency rating was left unchanged at "BBB+" with a negative outlook.

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Where is Abhisit?

by Thanong, Reader : 66 , 11:39:19

Avoiding the water spash

11:30 AM

The streets of Bangkok have returned to normal since Tuesday April 14, 2009 when the core leaders of the Red Shirt protesters have called it quit. But Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva would still can't trust the volatile situation. He has announced two additional holiday days -- April 16 and 17 -- to make the whole week a public holiday during this Songkran Festival.

During the Songran Festival, you would normally see a Thai prime ministers get a big spash. But since this is an abnormal Songkran, Abhisit would not come out on the streets to throw water at the Thai people.

He and his family are now believed to be staying at a safe house, guarded by top security measures. The military could kidnap him any time, like what they did to Lt Gen Chatichai Choonhavan, the former prime minister, who lost his power in the 1991 military coup.

Yesterday I had dinner at a nice restaurant with my friends on the bank of the Chao Phya River in the Pak Kred area across Rama IV Bridge. As I drove home and about to take the Rama IV Bridge at around mid night, I saw a small unit of soldiers guarding the bridge. Further away along the Chaeng Wattana Road, another small unit of soldiers was also maintaining security. The soldiers were eyeing any suspicious vehicles entering the capital. Fortunately, they did not stop my car.

We so far have seen over the past few days Abhisit appear on national TV to update the Thai public the latest development of the situation. Judging by all the top military commanders and security officials sitting behind him, we can deduce that Abhisit is fully in charge.

If you may recall, after Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat announced a State of Emergency over the Government House crisis and the airport crisis respectively, all the TV cameras focused on Gen Anupong Paochinda, the army chief. After the announcement of the State of Emergency, a Thai prime minister normally hands over the task of maintaining all the security measures to the military chief, whose role will eclipse the police forces.

And you may also recall that in both incidents during the Samak and Somchai government, Gen Anupong stood firm against the governments by declining to use military troops to disperse the Yellow Shirt protesters. He declared that he would not use force against Thai civilians and urged the governments to rely on peaceful negotiations or political means to end the crisis. Gen Anupong's stature rose higher than those of both Samak and Somchai as the crises developed.

With the military rallying behind Gen Anupong, both Samak and Somchai could not move. As a result, we had a stalemate until the Constitution Court removed the Somchai government from office. Only then did the Yellow Shirt crowd disperse after more than 100 days of marathon anti-government protest.

Gen Anupong is locked out

Returning to the present situation, we have yet to see a firm face of Gen Anupong. Apparently, he has been locked out. After declaring the State of Emergency on Sunday, Abhisit Vejjajiva took full charge over the whole situation. He did not hand over the task of maintaining security to Gen Anupong. On TV, Gen Anupong sat among the other top generals with his grim face further away from Abhisit. You can detect power from the positions people sit.

Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, the defence minister, Pol Chief Patcharawat Wongsuwan, and Suthep did not looked very happy either.

It was not until he had to flee on helicopter on Saturday from Royal Cliff Beach Resort and Hotel in Pattaya, the venue of the doomed Asean Summit, did the prime minister realise that he was a target of a dark plot. Abhisit had been warned by Chuan Leekpai, his mentor, that he should not trust the security arrangement measures in Pattaya. But Abhisit brushed Chuan's concern aside, believing that Suthep Thuagsuban, his big brother, would be able to handle the situation.

As it turned out, military and police forces of 4,000-5,000 thousands allowed some several hundred Red Shirt protesters, led by Arismun Pongruangrong, to break into the Royal Cliff without paying heed to the security of the prime minister, the regional leaders and Thailand's guests. Once Arismun was inside the lobby of the hotel, he called for his Red Shirt protesters to hunt down for Abhisit. "Go look for the prime minister. Go get him," he shouted.

The Asean Summit had to be cancelled out in big embarassment.

In other countries, Arismun and the Red Shirt protesters would have been shot on spot. But they were allowed to wander about the lobby of the Royal Cliff as if they were going for a walk at Sanam Luang. Only five of the Red Shirt protesters at Pattaya, including Arismun, have been issued arrest warrants.

Abhisit had to flee the scene by helicopter.

Taking charge command centre in Bangkok

After sending off the regional leaders and foreign dignitaries, Abhisit returned to Bangkok hastily to reposition his premiership. He was about to lose power through a coup plot, planned on top of the Red Shirt protesters who were creating the turmoil as the condition for the military to intervene.

A day earlier, Thaksin phoned in to declare that his Red Shirt protesters would be launching a people's revolution. He would return home to lead the Red Shirts if the military were to fire the first shot.

Abhisit declared a state of emergency covering Pattaya and Chon Buri. But the Red Shirts would not stay on in Pattaya because they had succeeded in derailing the Asean Summit. They would return to Bangkok where further action would determine the course of the outcome.

On Sunday, since the situation at the Government House, where thousands of the Red Shirt protesters were grouping around the area, was not stable, Abhisit went to the Interior Ministry instead to declare a state of emergency in Bangkok. Again, the Red Shirt protesters ambushed him. This time they hammered his Mercedez sedan, including hurting his secretary Nibhom Phromphand and his driver. Abhisit escaped the scene with a minor injury.

The Red Shirt protesters smelled blood from the prime minister. Again, the security forces were no where to protect the country's chief executive.

Realising that he was in swimming among sharks, Abhisit retreated into a military compound to seek protection -- of course, not under Gen Anupong's protection. The police could not be trusted because they fully backed the Red Shirt protesters.

There Abhisit hastily assembled a special command centre under his direction. Veterans and some retired generals came to his rescue. Gen Anupong's troops and the police could not be trusted and were edged out of the scene. Instead, Abhisit relied on the security forces brought into the capital from upcountry such as Nakhon Rachasima, Kanchanaburi or Lop Buri.

The Red Shirts threatened to surround the Rachadapisek Court where Arimun was kept under custody over criminal charges that he led the Red Shirts to ambush the Asean Summit. Arismun had to be shipped out of the capital.

The political drama was unfolding as Neptune was manifying its dark omen over the City of Angels. It was eclipsing the influence over the Sun, which symbolises lakhana duang muang. The dark force of Neptune was with Thaksin.

The battle would be decided on April 13 -- the Songkran Day when Bangkok would be turned into a capital of inferno.

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Australia vows more aid for Rohingya

By Adam Gartrell

Australia pledged more help for Burma's persecuted Rohingya people on Wednesday as Foreign Minister Stephen Smith pressed for improved treatment of the Muslim minority.

He met bilaterally with Burma's deputy minister for home affairs and police chief, Brigadier General Khin Yee, on the sidelines of the Bali Process meeting on people smuggling and transnational crime.

Mr Smith, who co-chaired the Bali summit, pressed the Burmese representatives on the Rohingya issue.

"Australia put to Myanmar (Burma) all the human rights, democratic and rule of law issues that we have in the past," he told reporters later.

"The response I got from the police chief was along the lines... of the traditional response of Myanmar to not accept the notion of citizenship."

The Rohingyas are denied citizenship in mainly Buddhist Burma and human rights groups say they face repression and poverty.

Thousands have fled the junta-ruled nation to neighbouring Bangladesh, while others have sought safety in other South-East Asian countries.

Their plight gained international attention earlier this year when Thailand's military was accused of towing hundreds of the refugees out to sea in poorly-equipped boats with scant supplies after they fled Burma.

Although the conference failed to agree on concrete solutions to deal with the problem of Rohingya asylum seekers, Mr Smith said the summit helped "focus" affected countries on the problem.

"It's an acute problem and I don't think anyone is under any illusions that this problem can be solved overnight, or in one season," he said.

Mr Smith announced Australia would provide an extra $3.2 million in humanitarian aid to Rohingyas living in Burma's northern Rakhine State, to improve their living conditions and give them better economic opportunities.

"Australia is concerned about the deteriorating living conditions and increasing marginalisation of the Rohingya people in Burma and in refugee camps in Bangladesh," Mr Smith said.

"Their already parlous situation has been exacerbated by poor rice harvests, the rising price of basic food items and enforced restrictions on their movements."

The conference agreed to establish an "ad hoc group" to intervene in regional migration crises and emergencies, at the request of affected countries.

During his opening address to the conference, Mr Smith said the circumstances driving people smuggling had changed and the region had to keep up.

"The current global financial and economic crisis may well also encourage more people to seek economic opportunities outside of their own borders," he said.

Earlier, Mr Smith welcomed news that Indonesia had agreed to extradite accused Afghani people smuggler Amanullah Rezaie who was arrested on Monday.

"I welcome very much the provisional arrest," he said.

"That particular individual is wanted for people-smuggling charges in Australia."
© 2009 AAP

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