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OVERDRIVE

Sondhi assassination attempt: the plot thickens

FINALLY, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is beginning to exert his authority. He has told Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister, to report to him today on how he (Suthep) can provide crucial political support to Police General Thanee Sapsomboon, who is leading the investigation into the attempted assassination of media tycoon and People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) leader Sondhi Limthongkul. This instruction signals that the prime minister may have decided to walk away from Suthep's dark shadow.



Chuan Leekpai, the advisory chairman of the Democrat Party, is quietly re-exerting his influence over the party to prevent it from falling off the cliff. Last Sunday he chaired an internal meeting to spell out his concerns over the political course. Chuan now has the ear of Abhisit, his protege. Suthep has been making too many political deals at the expense of the Democrats in general, and Abhisit in particular.

Thanee has made significant progress in his investigation into the assassination attempt but his investigation is about to hit an iceberg. He will have until the end of October to complete this sensational assassination case - which has further widened the political divide - before going into mandatory retirement.

The job of the police chief, Patcharawat Wongsuwan, is at stake. Over the next two weeks the National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC) will determine whether Patcharawat was involved in the October 7, 2008 incident in which the authorities used excessive force against yellow-shirted PAD protesters. If the NCCC finds evidence against Patcharawat, he will automatically be suspended from office.

So far, Thanee is reporting the progress of the Sondhi case directly to the prime minister rather than to Patcharawat. The police chief forms a formidable trio with his elder brother General Prawit Patcharawat, the defence minister, and General Anupong Paochinda, the Army chief. You might know already that most police officers wear red shirts under their uniforms. The matter became more complicated after it emerged that Suthep has been backing Patcharawat all along. There have been rumours that Patcharawat could be sacked to allow Thanee a freer hand to investigate the case.

Abhisit's memory will not be short, because during the Songkran festival, when red-shirted protesters attempted to stage a "people's revolution", he narrowly escaped an attempt on his life that could have paved the way for a coup. The assassination attempt against Sondhi followed a similar plot because his death would have created turmoil to justify a coup. You do not have to guess too hard to realise who would benefit most from the coup. The police, the military and the red shirts have packed together and they are ready to take on Abhisit and the Democrats any time.

There is a 50-50 chance that Abhisit might need to reshuffle his Cabinet to reposition himself. We might see some of the old guard Democrats come aboard.

And over the next few months the Sondhi case will set the central theme for the course of Thai politics. For Thanee has already found the masterminds - who are all big names - of the assassination plot. Thanee has issued warrants against two suspects. In the next round, the number of suspects could swell to some 10 individuals. By that time it will be clear as to who their bosses are.

Abhisit said yesterday that he would offer justice for all and that this case must proceed without any harm to the justice system.

With this stance, Abhisit's leadership has strengthened. The masterminds behind the plot are now on the defensive. They have to come up with another scheme to counter Abhisit. Both Abhisit and Thanee will have to watch their backs.

Inevitably, Thai politics is set for another showdown, as ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra will celebrate his 60th birthday this Sunday by phoning in to address his red-shirted supporters. Abhisit still has a slight advantage over Thaksin, who has vowed to prevail by fighting back to his last breath. This time Thaksin is seeking a truce with all of his former foes so that in the end Abhisit will be completely isolated. Then we'll see a knockout scene.



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