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Thais Question Role of Military

Crackdown against democracy struggle may lead to public rejection of Army role in politics

AN overriding question lingers in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on civilian demonstrators here: Will the public outrage sparked by the violence force a reduction of the military's role in Thai politics?

Twice in the 1970s the military turned its United States-supplied weapons against students demonstrating for political reforms, the last time in 1976 when troops stormed Thammasat University and killed several hundred.

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By the mid-1980s, however, the communist movement was pronounced dead, and students returned from the hills to find a new place in a society that was enjoying an economic boom.

During the tenure of Gen. Chatichai Choonhavan, who was elected prime minister in 1988, political analysts here began to talk of coups as a thing of the past. Many argued that the Army was modernizing along with the rest of the country and it too had a big stake in the stable civilian rule needed to entice foreign investment.

The February 1991 coup against Mr. Chatichai shattered those illusions. And, political observers say, the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations on May 17-20 shows that the military is prepared to use force to preserve its perceived interests.

The government has acknowledged 48 civilians were killed during the Army's four-day crackdown and more than 600 were injured, but more than 900 people are reported missing.

As with earlier crackdowns, the event has provoked public outrage. And many observers here note that the pro-democracy movement is much broader than that of the 1970s, including a much larger, better-educated middle class, professionals, and technocrats. But is this enough?

"I think this is finally Armageddon for the military," says an American political analyst here. "We have just passed the apex of their power. How long it takes to reduce them to their proper size - who knows, but it's inevitable."

While the military, or at least the top leadership, has been badly discredited, political observers say the armed forces have recovered from other low ebbs.

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Anger over the crackdown is one of the "deepest wounds for the military," says Suchit Bunbongkarn, dean of political science at Chulalongkorn University. "But that does not mean that it is realistically possible, at least now, to bring about wide-ranging reforms in the military establishment."

As a first step, though, opposition parties are trying to hold senior military officers legally responsible. Such accountability would be unprecedented.

Just before he resigned in disgrace as prime minister May 23, Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon issued a blanket amnesty.

"Leaders of coups dtat have always passed royal decrees like this to excuse themselves from all possible prosecution," says Surin Pitsuwan, a parliamentarian from the opposition Democrat Party. "This time we do not think it is appropriate because if they can get away with it again ... then no lesson is being learned; we have not improved the system from before one bit."

Chastened by public outrage over the killings, the Senate and pro-military parties in the House have put up virtually no resistance to other opposition-sponsored amendments to the Constitution. Besides requiring that all future prime ministers be elected members of Parliament, another amendment severely reduces the clout of the Senate.

The next task pro-democracy forces face is the huge challenge of improving the quality of representation.

Corrupt, faction-ridden, personality-based parties have often provided the pretext for military interventions. Gradually, say political analysts, better representatives will eliminate this danger. Eventually more principled politicians could exercise oversight of the military. Current oversight of the military portion of the national budget, now nearly 20 percent, is ineffective.

"In terms of political consciousness things have definitely changed, permanently, but it is not clear how this will be translated into party politics," says a Thai historian.

The problem, he says, is partly structural. The vast majority of Thais still live in difficult rural conditions that have not improved nearly as much as the living standard in more urban areas. The income gap continues to widen despite government promises to halt the trend.

Pro-democracy groups acknowledge they have to bring their message in a more systematic way to the rural areas. At least, they say, images of the Army's recent brutality against civilian demonstrators is being seen around the country as never before - thanks to the notoriously successful pirate video industry.

But just how deep a sympathy these videos will generate among rural folks for their more affluent city brethren remains to be seen. Some observers say the mostly rural soldiers relished the crackdown on Bangkok protesters.

"The military is the backbone of the countryside and I suspect they were getting their own back," says one longtime resident.

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