June 15, 2011 12:44 pm

Thai army weighs in on election debate

Thailand’s army chief has weighed into the country’s election debate by unleashing a thinly disguised attack on the resurgent opposition, despite numerous promises that the military would stay out of politics.

“If you allow the election [results] to be the same as before, you will not get anything new and you will not see any improvement from this election,” General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said on Tuesday evening in a special broadcast by the military’s television station.

The last elections were won by supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister whom the army removed in a coup in 2006.

Gen Prayuth, who has a reputation as a royalist hard liner, did not mention Mr Thaksin by name in Tuesday’s speech, but said that the authorities had evidence of “rampant” anti-monarchism by “Thais living abroad”.

Mr Thaksin now lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a two-year sentence for corruption, but he remains the de facto leader of the opposition Puea Thai party, which has established a solid lead in the polls ahead of the July 3 elections. The party has appointed his sister Yingluck as their prime ministerial candidate and has proposed an amnesty for political crimes that would allow him to return, an idea that is anathema to the army.

Mrs Yingluck ducked the controversy on Wednesday.

“In general the military can show its stance and its role. I don’t mind,” she told reporters at a campaign stop.

The appointment of Mrs Yingluck, a businesswoman with little political experience, has turned the elections into a referendum on the divisive legacy of Mr Thaksin, a former police colonel and telecommunications billionaire.

Although he retains the loyalty of millions of poor Thais who benefited from his policies of cheap healthcare and village loans, the conservative establishment loathed his autocratic style and the aura of corruption which surrounded his five years in office.

Gen Prayuth says he has no plans for a coup, but the increasing hostility between the military and the potential election winners undermines hopes that the ballot might end more than five years of occasionally violent political deadlock.

Investors are already worried that the free-spending populism of a victorious Puea Thai party would damage the economy – the stock exchange has fallen 4.1 per cent since the elections were announced in May – and the possibility of further confrontation between a new government and the army will provide little comfort.

Although officially neutral, the ultra-conservative armed forces constitute the single most powerful force in Thai politics. They have launched 18 coups, 11 of them successful, since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. In 2008 Anupong Paochinda, the then head of the army, was instrumental in stitching together the current anti-Thaksin governing coalition of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva .

Reverence for Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a duty enshrined in the Thai constitution and is enforced by the country’s lese majeste laws, which stipulate a sentence of between 3 and 15 years for insulting, defaming or threatening the king, queen or heir apparent.

Mr Thaksin insists he is loyal to the king, but he is already under investigation for lese majeste, and even vague allegations of republicanism can have damaging ramifications at the ballot box in a country where the ailing 83-year-old monarch still commands immense love from the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

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