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Men in uniform keep country in suspense

The military's every move is being scrutinised and interpreted, but confusion over their role in the current crisis reflects a new era of Thai politics

The most unpredictable character in Thai politics now must be the military. A hero? A villain? Somewhere in between? They say the end justifies the means, but the problem here is that the whole thing is still far from over. Following the infamous coup of 2006 came suspicions of military manoeuvring in late 2008 to prop up the Abhisit government. Then the flood disaster in 2011 turned the image around. And just a few days ago, generals swapped their uniforms for suits and ties to play conspicuous host to anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

The red shirts have tried to keep their distance from the armed forces by blaming the violent crackdown on 2010's street protests squarely on then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban. Former Army chief Anupong Paochinda has rarely been mentioned by the red shirts. Nevertheless, they still view the armed forces with great suspicion.

To the Western media, the Thai military is a negative force being used to undermine democracy. Among local media, opinions are split, reflecting the Thai public's polarised views. Adding confusion to the armed forces' status among Thais is that the men in uniform were not necessarily adored or admired in the past by those calling for their "intervention" now.

Everything the military says or does at the moment is being closely scrutinised and widely interpreted. The recent refusal to actively defend government property besieged by protesters sparked an outcry that the generals once again were opting to withdraw support from a "democratically-elected" administration. The Supreme Command's decision to host a recent forum featuring anti-government leader Suthep fuelled the doubts. Then the Defence permanent secretary's statement that the military fully backed the scheduled February 2 election compounded the confusion.

Perhaps, like everything else in Thai politics, the generals are a coin with two different sides. The era of "black and white" in Thai politics is long gone. Opinion polls have even shown that a large number of Thais doubt the planned election will bring about genuine political reform and true peace. That is by no means a resounding "No" to democracy, but it is, in effect, a remarkable change of attitude from the old days when nothing stood between dictatorship and election.

The 2006 coup amounted to anything but a straightforward flop. If dislodging Thaksin Shinawatra from power could be considered a success, failing to keep him quiet was not. And that is from the pro-coup perspective only. To the anti-coup camp, the military was morally, professionally, politically and ethically wrong. That the leader of the coup, ex-Army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin, admitted his mistake, came under the ruling Pheu Thai Party's shadow and advocated an amnesty for Thaksin was a damning demonstration of what went bad with this power seizure.

There will be more controversies, as everything is hanging in the balance at the moment. Some say the military is "resisting pressure" to take action, while the others insist "opportunistic" generals are always lurking in the background, poised to pounce. We don't know which camp is right, nor do we know which camp is equipped with a better understanding of the Thai power play.

Thai politics is complicated. But that much is, ironically, "simple". Either the military makes it more so, or politics is complicating the life of the generals. We can't really tell, at least for now.


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