Thailand coup not on the cards for now

By Martin Petty – Analysis

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Blood has been spilled. Armed troops are guarding the streets of the capital. Protests pushing for new elections have spiraled into anarchy, and the government is all at sea.

The climate is ripe for yet another military intervention in coup-prone Thailand, except for one thing — the army actually wants to keep the prime minister in power.

Despite potentially dangerous splits within the military’s ranks, and a bloody but futile attempt to put down a stubborn and provocative anti-government movement, most analysts say a putsch is not on the horizon, at least not yet.

They say the army might be lukewarm about Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in December 2008 after the army brokered a deal in parliament, but as long as he stands firm against the red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a coup will not be necessary.

“If Abhisit started to think about dissolving parliament now, then we’ll see a coup,” said a Bangkok-based security analyst and expert on Thailand’s military. He asked not to be named.

“There are questions about his leadership, but no signs he’ll give up and, as it stands, the military is still in control.”

ANNUAL MILITARY RESHUFFLE

The bone of contention is an annual reshuffle of the powerful military due in September, when the royalist top brass will hand power to proteges groomed to maintain a status quo that favors Thailand’s influential business and establishment elites.

If a government allied to Thaksin — a wily, graft-convicted tycoon the generals thought they had disposed of in a 2006 coup — came to power, it would almost certainly lead to an overhaul in the military’s chain of command.

An army purged of royalists and loyal to Thaksin would be a doomsday scenario for a military that believes the country’s revered monarchy is under attack from Thaksin and the “red shirts” — a claim the protesters vehemently deny.

That threat, insiders say, is why a coup cannot be dismissed.

“They’re talking about it and weighing up pros and cons, probably more cons than pros, but it can’t be ruled out,” said a retired four-star general, who requested anonymity.

“But the one thing they think a coup could achieve is to protect the monarchy,” he added. “International pressure would be a concern, but that would be on the bottom of their list.”

In an interview with Reuters this week, Thaksin said a coup d’etat was possible, but warned of a backlash by a Thai public growing tired of military intervention after 18 coups or attempted power grabs in 77 years of on-off democracy.

The prospect of another junta in power would also upset investors in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, given how maladroit the last army-appointed government was. Among its economic bungles were capital control measures that panicked investors and led to a near 15 percent plunge in the stock market.

Clashes last week snapped six weeks of gains in the market. More unrest and political paralysis, economists say, will lead to further credit rating downgrades and turn long-term investors away from a country once hailed as a safe bet for business.

Adding to tensions, a challenge to the army comparable to that of the “red shirts” is now coming from within its own ranks.

The government and the army leadership fears it has spies in the ranks, leaking information to “red shirts” in a bid to bring about a snap election and usher in a return of pro-Thaksin generals who were demoted when the billionaire was toppled.

One dangerous scenario being talked about and floated by some “red shirt” leaders is how political splits that have emerged in the military might see troops take up arms independently, side with protesters, and face off with their fellow soldiers.

“WATERMELONS” AND SHADOWY ASSAILANTS

The army is known to have many “red shirt” sympathizers, especially among the rank and file, referred to by many Thais as “watermelons” — green on the outside but red in the middle.

They take orders from a top brass at the other end of the political spectrum, allied with elites, aristocrats and urban middle classes, known as “yellows” in the color-coded crisis.

Underlining the fissures was the presence of shadowy black-clad gunmen who appeared among the protesters during last week’s crackdown. They fired on troops, killing five soldiers, among them the commanding officer and a former bodyguard of Queen Sirikit, in what is being seen as a well-planned assassination.

At least 25 people died, including a Reuters TV cameraman, and more than 800 were injured in Thailand’s worst political violence in 18 years.

The mysterious assailants, dubbed “terrorists” by the government, may have been recruited and armed by hawkish retired generals close to Thaksin, some of whom serve in the opposition Puea Thai Party he backs from exile, experts say.

“It’s likely these fighters were put together by red shirts or military people to escalate the situation, cause bloodshed and force an election,” the Bangkok-based security analyst said.

“There’s a split in the military more dangerous than I have ever seen. There’s deep distrust and no secrets can be kept.”

Attitudes have hardened after last week’s clashes and another, perhaps bigger, crackdown appears likely, with neither the army nor the protesters willing to back down.

Danny Richards, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, said an imminent coup was unlikely, but that could all change with a major intensification of the crisis.

“It’s a stalemate and something has to give,” he said.

“A coup doesn’t seem likely at this stage, but things are unpredictable now and given Thailand’s history of military intervention, it’s impossible to rule it out.

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(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Bill Tarrant and John Chalmers)

Thailand coup not on the cards for now