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Thailand calm after flap over Prem's Army role

In the middle of a military confrontation with Vietnam, Thailand is striving to prevent Army unrest or student rebellion in the streets. After days of political maneuvering, it now looks as though the country will remain stable. This should reassure other Southeast Asian countries that disorder in Thailand will not tempt the Vietnamese Army into an attack along the Thai-Cambodian border.

At issue was the controversial question of whether Prem Tinsulanonda should continue simultaneously as prime minister and Army commander in chief. By existing law the general should relinquish his Army post because he has reached the mandatory retirement age of 60, but he could still continue as prime minister, a post he has held since March.

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General Prem remained publicly silent on the question, but a movement by his supporters developed to change the law so the prime minister could also continue as Army commander in chief.

The supporters made two arguments:

1. That the Army was so divided there could be no peaceful smooth agreement on a successor to General Prem.No matter who followed him as supreme commander, there would be increased jockeying for power among the military. This could lead to maneuvering toward a coup.

2. So long as the prime minister controlled the Army, a military coup against a constitutionally elected leader was unlikely. No prime minister who was also Army chief of staff has been overthrown by military coup in recent times, it was claimed.

But the prospect of changing the law was alarming to some, especially student leaders. They saw it as a way of allowing General Prem to entrench his position in power.

In Thailand many have unhappy memories of the military dictatorship of Field Marshals Thanom Kittikachorn and Prapas Charusathira. So a proposal to change the law in General Prem's favor raised some concern.

But on Sept. 5, 18 student organizations announced that though they opposed extended military tenure for General Prem, they would refrain from open organized protest. Student opposition went no further than some critical posters at Bangkok's Thammasat University and a rally of about 200 students in front of Government House.

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The student announcement that "after considering the present circumstances, we have decided to stop any activities which are against the term extension," quelled fears of widespead students unrest or a student-Army confrontation.

Other political parties came to General Prem's support. On Sept. 8 the Cabinet voted unanimously to amend the 1951 Pension Act so that officials over 60 can have their terms extended on a yearly basis for reasons of national security, education, or national development until the age of 65.

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej ordered Sept. 10 an extraordinary parliamentary session to be convened Sept. 15. The proposed amendment is to come up for debate Sept. 19.

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