Continuing PPT’s series on Wikileaks cables, we found the 28 February 2006 report of a meeting between U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce and Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont of interest.
Surayud describes the political situation at a time when the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra People’s Alliance for Democracy was building its demonstrations against the prime minister. Boyce says that Surayud stated that the political was “a mess.” He claimed that “two ‘willful’ characters, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Dharma Army leader Chamlong Srimuang, were locked in a confrontation.”
It seems to have been Surayud’s view – or at least the one he wanted the Embassy to note – that Chamlong was the key opposition figure. Boyce summarizes:
Surayud said that Chamlong was no longer as important as he had been in 1992, when he led the democracy demonstrations that brought down the military government, but he still has a lot of influence. Chamlong’s leadership of the “Santi Asoke” religious sect gives him control of a large number of followers (the Dharma Army) that he can turn out for demonstrations. His sudden involvement in the anti-Thaksin movement has exacerbated the “no compromise” nature of the confrontation.
Of course, Surayud claims that the king is “neutral.” As Boyce explains in the cable, with PPT’s emphasis added:
Surayud said that the King was not taking sides. Nonetheless, both sides were trying to drag him in. Media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul had taken the lead, with his constant references to the King in his weekly demonstrations. Thaksin has played this card as well. (Comment: For example, in his weekly radio address right before the February 4 demonstrations, Thaksin commented that the King “only had to whisper in his ear” and he’d resign. Surayud said that Thaksin’s comment caused great perturbation among the Thai and was an inappropriate reference to the monarch. End comment.) The King’s focus is on preserving the monarchy, according to Surayud. The King also, naturally, wants there to be no violence.
For Surayud, this political neutrality spilled over into the Army. Without a hint of irony dawning on Boyce, this is his account of the privy councilor and former army boss’s comments:
The military also doesn’t want to intervene on either side, according to Surayud. He admitted that there had been “some talk” within the military about the option of a “one-day” coup which would turn power over to the King. (Some of this has been picked up by the press.) But Surayud said he had spoken directly to Army Commander Sonthi (a Surayud protege) and he absolutely did not support such a move.
Surayud went on to note “discomfort that his name has been mentioned as a possible interim Prime Minister in case of a coup, and said that he was keeping a very low profile in order to avoid fueling such speculation.” Of course, he took the position later in the year when the coup finally materialized.
The privy councilor then turned to Thaksin and was revealing. Surayud noted that he had given advice to Thaksin. He “recalled talking to Thaksin early in the PM’s first term, and warning him that he had to avoid the taint of corruption, since the Thai people would not stand for that.” He went on to mention the sale of Shin Corp, commenting: “I guess he just couldn’t help himself.”
Surayud then speaks to an obstacle that has bedeviled the palace and royalists to this day: “… despite the outrage by the Bangkok elite, Surayud felt that Thaksin was still popular with the people who form the core of his support: the poor, farmers, and the working class, particularly up-country.”
In summary, Boyce reports that he believes Surayud: “As things stand now, we do not believe that the military wants to step in, nor does the King want to be caught in the middle.”
As things turned out, the military needed palace prodding and manipulation to undertake a coup, not least because there were pro-Thaksin elements that opposed a putsch, and the palace wasn’t caught in the middle, moving firmly and decisively against the elected prime minister.