By Chris Beale
Thailand's "pro-democracy" government of Prime Minister Chuan is fighting for its life in the face of a comeback by "unusually rich" politicians and destabilising arson attacks.
A super-merger of opposition pro-military parties has reduced Chuan's parliamentary majority. The government is already having difficulties getting legislation passed, and will fall if only seven MPs defect from its ranks.
Thailand's rampant money politics makes such defections common. That government MPs are not immune from tantalising offers has been underlined by a recent scandal. A prominent MP is alleged to have organised a party at which 50 of his colleagues from the government hosted a bevy of call-girls.
The scandal has done nothing to boost the plummeting image of a coalition elected on promises of clean government.
Chuan expelled the 21-seat Social Action Party (SAP) after it joined the pro-military party's super-merger.
SAP has long been a thorn in Chuan's side. Its leader was barred from cabinet for being one of 10 politicians whose "unusually rich" activities gave the military an excuse for a coup in 1991.
That coup led to General Suchinda's attempt to become an unelected prime minister and the subsequent massacre of anti-Suchinda demonstrators in May 1992.
Disgruntled Suchinda loyalists have been blamed by some Thais for the wave of arson attacks and other violence which continues to undermine Chuan's image as an effective prime minister.
Two schools in the north-eastern city of Korat recently suffered arson attacks. Their torching follows a wave of violence in southern Thailand and Bangkok in the past year during which at least 34 schools were burnt, and scores of people killed or wounded in bomb blasts.
The southern violence was blamed on Muslim separatists, but the school burnings in Korat now give weight to suspicions that violence is part of a plan to overthrow or intimidate Chuan's government.
Like the southern arson attacks the burning of schools in Korat — north of Bangkok — was well coordinated. The Bangkok Post reported these fire-bombings happened half an hour apart.
That Thailand's wave of violence has now spread to Korat is a worrying message for Chuan. Korat was one of the centres of an anti-Suchinda revolt by junior members of Thailand's military during the May 1992 uprising.
It was widely believed then that Korat was one of several bases where soldiers were rallying to calls by the king's privy counsellor — former PM General Prem Tinsulanonda — aimed at forcing Suchinda to compromise with the mass democratic movement. Prem is known to favour bourgeois liberal democracy.
The torchings in Korat come in the wake of mounting evidence that military sentiment is now reuniting against at least some parties in Chuan's government.
This was clearly seen in the result of a recent Bangkok by-election. The environmentalist, anti-corruption Palang Dhamma Party of Buddhist ascetic Chamlong Srimaung lost a seat in Bangkok's vital Constituency One to the party of extreme rightist MP Samak.
Constituency One for decades has been the most important barometer of factional strength in Thailand's military.
None of the 17 coups that the country has suffered since 1932 could have succeeded without at least tacit support from Bangkok's First Army — which is based in Constituency One and largely dominates its electoral role.
But when Chamlong's PDP won two of Constituency One's three seats during last September's election, a clear message was sent to the top brass: many of their lower ranks in Bangkok sympathised with the democracy movement.
The danger now facing Chuan is that such sympathy seems to be disappearing. Disillusionment with democracy will spread further if "unusually rich" politicians now leading the opposition's mega-bloc succeed in ousting Chuan.
Chuan has brought the eight-seat Seritham Party into government as replacement for the SAP.
Seritham is important not only because it boosts Chuan's fragile majority. It also has connections to Privy Counsellor Prem — one of his relatives is a Seritham MP.
It was Seritham's leader who submitted Anand's name to the king as care-taker prime minister last year — in place of a pro-Suchinda politician. This was reportedly done on advice from Prem.
Prem's position blocking a return to military rule is similar to that of General Kris during Thailand's last "democratic experiment".
From 1973-76 splits in the military allowed a mass uprising to first succeed and then survive. The bloodbath at Thammasat University which ended this "experiment" became possible when Kris' death resulted in the military reuniting in traditional anti-democratic mode.