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Thai Army's Show of Force Seen as Warning to Supporters of Former PM

Ron Corben | Bangkok 29 January 2010

Political tensions are again on the rise in Thailand as the date for a court verdict concerning former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra nears. Rumors of a military coup continue to sweep the country, despite denials by senior commanders.

Several gatherings of military leaders in recent days have added to political tensions in Thailand. Political analysts here say the army appears concerned about possible violence ahead of a court verdict involving former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Over recent days, Bangkok news media have been flooded with speculation of a possible coup. But military leaders, including army chief General Anupong Paochinda, deny plans for a coup. They also reject reports that the military is divided, with some troops allied with retired generals who support Mr. Thaksin.

In late February, a court is to rule on whether the government can confiscate most of Mr. Thaksin's fortune. The former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, went into exile 18 months ago to avoid a prison sentence on corruption charges

Mr. Thaksin's supporters vow to hold frequent protests ahead of the ruling.

Ekkachai Srivilas, a retired military officer and a director at the King Prajadhipok Institute, downplayed the military's moves.

"This is a show of force," he said. "This is natural for the military because it has a conflict in the Royal Thai Army, because they take sides."

Ekkachai says it appears Mr. Thaksin has little support among active duty officers.

Thailand has faced about 20 coups or coup attempts since 1932.

Chris Baker, an author and analyst on Thailand, says the military's recent actions send a message to Mr. Thaksin and his supporters - who largely wear red shirts, ahead of the court verdict.

"There are a lot of veiled threats thrown down by both sides to create some kind of disorder; the military are threatening to use the law enforcement to prevent that - I think a lot of it is about that," said Baker.

Sunai Pasuk, Thailand representative for Human Rights Watch, calls the political climate worrisome. He says Mr. Thaksin's supporters may threaten violence to pressure the government to drop the cases against him and allow him to return home.

"In the current political context without bloodshed Thaksin may not achieve this. That's why it's quite worrying to me; not about the coup but more about provocateur that have been recruited by Thaksin with all the red shirts," he said. "For the government - and the military - it is their responsibility to show restraint; to understand the game plan and not fall into this trap.

Mr. Thaksin is a divisive figure in Thailand. He has strong support among the poor and rural residents, but the urban middle and upper classes consider him corrupt and authoritarian. The divisions have led to a cycle of street protests and government changes. On Friday, Mr. Thaksin supporters rallied outside army headquarters. More rallies are scheduled next week.

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