by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 19, 2011
While Thailand's government has come under fire for its handling of the floods crisis, the military's relief efforts have restored its own reputation, analysts say -- and boosted its political clout.
The army has plunged huge resources into helping Thais cope with the kingdom's worst floods in decades: 55,000 soldiers on the ground, 5,000 vehicles clearing paths through flooded roads and 3,000 boats.
In doing so, they quietly repaired an image battered by a crackdown on political protests in Bangkok last year that ended in bloodshed.
Army chief General Prayut Chan-o-Cha has even laid on the conciliatory language in recent weeks in what -- after years of sometimes violent political struggles -- remains a deeply divided country.
"In the current situation everyone must unify to fight," he said this week. While the government of novice Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is now openly criticised for its management of the floods, the army is on the receiving end of an avalanche of compliments.
On a Facebook page set up a month ago to say "thank you" to the army, more than 70,000 followers have posted photos and heaped praise on the military for its help.
"I think there is a lot of propaganda around and somehow the propaganda is quite effective, people begin to see a better side of the military," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thailand expert at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, agreed the army chief had played a clever hand.
"He knew that this crisis would weaken Yingluck's government and the best thing to do was to give a helping hand and stay out of it."
Thailand's generals have a long record of intervening in politics. There have been 18 actual or attempted coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
The last came in 2006 and deposed Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile but still enjoys strong support among the rural poor in northern Thailand.
Thailand has endured five years of clashes since then -- both political and in the streets -- between Thaksin's supporters and the Bangkok elites, who have power bases in the military, bureaucracy and judiciary, and who despise him.
Up to 100,000 pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" occupied central Bangkok for two months in 2010 to demand the resignation of the Democrat party government.
In May that year the army moved in to end the demonstrations and in total, the two-month crisis left more than 90 people dead.
Relations between the army and Yingluck's government are unsurprisingly tense. But analysts point out that army chief Prayut publicly rejected opposition calls for a state of emergency, which would have given him greater powers.
"How the army has come out of it -- looking rather well -- has somewhat offset, but not erased, the negative perception following the crackdown of April and May 2010," Thitinan said.
"The army has regained some credibility. It gives them political capital to engage in the longer term."
Paul Chambers, a researcher at Payap University in Chiang Mai, went further, saying the army had been acting increasingly autonomously from the government and was "close to establishing a parallel state" devoted to the monarchy.
"If Prayut is able to appear as the sole source of stability amidst intensifying political squabbling, then if the Yingluck government is somehow felled either by the judiciary or censure, he could help to fashion a new government favoured by the palace," Chambers told AFP.
Last week, army expert Wassana Nanuam wrote in the Bangkok Post daily that Prayut's position had not changed with the floods.
"He does not like the Red Shirts or Thaksin. He is determined to protect the monarchy and lives with the motto... 'country above all'. His moves will be worth watching from now on," she wrote.
Rumours that the government is preparing a prisoner amnesty that would allow Thaksin to come back could heat up the debate further.
If the former telecoms tycoon returns to the kingdom, Pavin said, the general may find it hard to keep his counsel -- and the army's newly polished reputation could quickly tarnish.
"The real colour of the military is to be a ruthless agency with its own political agenda," he said.
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Clinton asks flood-hit Thais to keep hope
Bangkok (AFP) Nov 17, 2011
Offering a hearty smile and traditional greetings, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comforted Thais displaced by massive floods Thursday as she urged the long-divided nation to pull together. Hoping to put a human face on US support for one of its oldest allies, Clinton toured a stadium in Bangkok where some 1,400 people are sleeping on mats after escaping floods that have affected mill ... read more
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