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New Thai Premier Accommodates Military

Many Thais worry that Anand's evolutionary approach will deprive the country of its best opportunity to curb the armed forces

PRIME Minister Anand Panyarachun says he will focus on Thailand's political development, but so far he appears to be side-stepping what many call the major obstacle to greater democratization here - the military and its influence throughout society.

At least in the short-run this tack may end up leaving the senior military leadership intact and the institution's power essentially undisturbed, according to military analysts and academics.

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Mr. Anand, now leading his second interim government, is pointedly keeping his own counsel on possible military reform. "I told [the military leadership] that whatever action I take, I will bear in mind the prestige of the military institution," he says. An opportunity lost?

The technocratic Cabinet the prime minister has assembled says it will concentrate on restoring the image of the country overseas and repairing the economic damage caused by last month's repression of pro-democracy protesters. Another priority will be to make arrangements for the next general elections, expected by early September.

In this way Anand has adopted an evolutionary approach to change in the country rather than seizing what many view as the best opportunity ever to trim the power of the military by more direct measures. While just about everyone agrees that the military's standing is now at a lower ebb than ever before, any frontal assault - such as unceremonial sackings of senior military officers - appears out of the question.

The choice of new Defense Minister Banchob Bunnag, a widely respected retired Army chief, was meant to reassure the military that nothing rash would be attempted against them. His appointment was welcomed by the military.

"I don't think Banchob will dare try to remove [Army Chief General Issarapong Noonpackdee or Supreme Commander and Air Force Chief Kaset Rojananil] because anything that would disturb the whole setup would jeopardize the government as well," says a military analyst.

Instead, political periscopes are trained on the annual military reshuffle that takes place in September as the occasion when the new administration could flex some muscle over the military's future through command appointments.

"In the spirit of compromise they [key military officers held responsible for the killings] will be allowed to stick around until September, but then they will have to go and everyone will pretend it's part of the normal annual reshuffle," predicts one diplomatic military analyst. "I think it would be a nice, Thai, face-saving way out for them."

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That is wishful thinking, says Chulalongkorn University's Somboon Suksamran, a political scientist. "If Issarapong were a different general this might be done, but Issarapong is the kind of man to die in his boots in the battle even though he knows he will be defeated.

"The most radical thing we can expect Banchob to do is to try to weaken the base of Class Five" - the graduating class of all the top leaders - through appointments during the annual reshuffle, says Dr. Somboon.

The Anand adminstration will have "failed" if it is not able to find a way to force the resignation of senior officers, says a prominent academic, Ammar Siamwalla, because it will bequeath an inherently unstable political balance.

Without restructuring the power within the military "we will slide back into the same position we were in during April in three or four years time," he predicts. "That is more important than a clean election, in fact it is a pre-condition for a free election," says Dr. Ammar, who heads the country's only independent think tank.

How long the main targets of public ire - Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, who led the recently failed coup, Army Chief Issarapong, Air Force Commander Kaset, and others - can tough it out remains to be seen.

A lot rides on the outcome of several investigations into responsibility for the violence in May which left at least 46 dead and hundreds wounded. More dangerous for the military is the fate of the roughly 700 people still reported missing since the crackdown.

The military is widely believed to have spirited corpses away from the shooting site in order to keep the body count down. There have been some eyewitness reports of bodies being taken away by Army trucks but so far no hard evidence has turned up.

The military has said it will allow unhindered access to their military bases, but investigators remain skeptical about how this will be fulfilled.

The discovery of any hidden bodies would be politically explosive - it would be clearly illegal while the shootings are only arguably so - and would lead to renewed calls to overturn the blanket amnesty bill General Suchinda executed hours before he resigned.

"In some ways [the military is] doing the pro-democracy forces a favor because the longer they are still in power the more resentment there is against them," observes another diplomatic analyst.

Disgraced military strongmen - even those that have spilled Thai blood - have usually gotten an easy ride from a normally forgiving and forgetful citizenry. They typically have to make amends, usually by leaving the country for a few years.

But by defiantly hanging on to power, the current military leaders personify - and serve to fuel and rivet attention on - the sector that a wide spectrum of Thai society sees is badly in need of reform.

Perhaps most importantly, the military's latest intervention has galvinized the business community to get more actively involved in politics to prevent another disruption in the future. Fewer board seats

Military officers can expect fewer offers of private corporate board seats, and they are already in trouble over their domination of several huge state enterprises.

Disgruntled staff now feel emboldened to make damaging leaks of executive abuse to local newspapers. There have been stories recently about the questionable lease of a $200,000-a-month luxury jet for use by Thai Airways International Ltd. executives, a group top-heavy with Air Force brass.

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