By Chris Beale
Thailand is being rocked by the worst crisis to destabilise the "pro-democracy" government since Prime Minister Chuan's coalition came to office a year ago.
The crisis forced Chuan to cut short an important trip to China by two days.
Arson attacks on 34 schools in three southern provinces, ransacking of a mosque, a Buddhist temple destroyed by grenade attack, and trains and buses sprayed with gunfire have driven a wedge into Chuan's fragile coalition.
Southern Thailand is the coalition's most important area of support outside Bangkok. The campaign of arson, shootings and murders threatens to split this crucial power base. It also makes Chuan's government look incompetent.
One of the worst incidents was a nail-bombing at Bangkok's central Thonburi bus depot on December 23.
Five people were killed, scores wounded and several buildings destroyed. Police confirmed the explosive used was available only to the military or paramilitary Border Patrol Police.
Nobody has ever been charged for this outrage — nor have any credible suspects in other bombings linked to the military.
The crisis has presented an opportunity for the military to stage a comeback after being badly disgraced in the 1992 democracy uprising.
The military's prestige is currently rising as it grapples with a supposed "Muslim separatist threat". In contrast, the public image of Chuan's government is nose-diving.
This follows moves during the past year to whitewash and wipe out memories of the May 1992 bloodbath by troops trying to crush an uprising against General Suchinda's attempt to become an unelected prime minister.
Chuan still refuses to make public a Defence Ministry report on the basis of which caretaker PM Anand demoted or sidelined nearly 500 top brass.
The report is believed to be the most comprehensive study of the mass murders during May's three-day uprising — and of the factional revolt by troops opposed to Suchinda.
The next move in the current campaign to rehabilitate the armed forces and their unity is likely to be a state of emergency in the south.
Troops have been given orders to shoot to kill in operations against violence which has been blamed on Muslim separatists. Thus there are not likely to be many witnesses who can reveal who is really behind the attacks.
Friction is escalating between different parties within Chuan's government over the choices and use of military personnel sent south.
Suspicion and distrust have been sown especially between grassroots Buddhist supporters of Chuan's Democrats and Muslim supporters of the governing coalition's second largest partner, the New Aspiration Party (NAP) of interior minister Chavalit.
The government cannot afford its current image problems. It already looks like a sell-out regime to supporters who resisted military dictatorship last year.
Liberal business elements, who gave the government badly needed finance to win last September's national elections, are also disillusioned. Chavalit is their number one gripe. He's failed to alleviate chronic transport bottlenecks resulting from the country's economic boom.
Thai media have speculated for months that the Democrats might dump a troublesome coalition partner or two.
Chuan could still hold office by bringing into government one of several pro-military parties. The Democrats handed over government to military-backed parties in a similar move during the early 1980s.
According to Bangkok's Nation newspaper, the violence has killed at least six people and wounded dozens more.
Destabilising rumours have been spread about other mosque and temple burnings.
And in a move designed to inflame military passions, two army engineers were killed and 14 others wounded — in an attack by "Islamic separatist bandits".
Suspicions are now widespread that renegade military factions have linked up with renegade elements in what has been an almost moribund Islamic separatist movement.
The arson attacks were clearly coordinated — exploding almost simultaneously over a large area where transport and communications are difficult.
Chavalit denied army suggestions the fires were lit by Muslim separatists of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO).
Chavalit has a much more credible theory: "The attacks were carried out by a huge and well-organised movement". The largest and most well-organised movement in Thailand is the military.
The military is trying to say schools were torched by PULO renegades unhappy about their leaders currently negotiating an end to separatist rebellion. But Chavalit says he has "information from various sources" that the school burnings were "unlikely to be the work of separatists".
Another MP said his cross-party committee had information that Muslim separatists "have no power to stage such widespread action because each consists of only about 10 members".
Muslims are 90% of pupils at one of the largest schools burned to the ground. The principal told Thai media the area was not under separatist influence. A local MP informed reporters the attacks occurred in regions "99% outside separatist influence".
A member of Chuan's own party supported Chavalit's allegations that the schools were not torched by separatists but rather by "influential people who had massive financial support ... to destabilise the government".
Chuan's crackdown against rampant child prostitution has earned him enemies among the godfathers of Thailand's underworld, many of whom have business dealings with corrupt elements in the military.
The army engineers were killed in an area notoriously controlled by hard-core criminals.
The Thai military stage a coup on average every three years — it's the way questions of who owns what get decided in the military's vast business empire. It's also an avenue of promotion.
Chavalit is a former army supreme commander who made a lot of military enemies when he broke with tradition by keeping a public promise never to stage another coup.
Serious observers have little doubt another coup is in the political pipeline — though some argue it now takes longer for such takeovers to be organised because of splits among the military.
One of the most dramatic splits during the aftermath of the May uprising was a public demand by junior officers that their seniors apologise publicly for the bloodbath and go into exile.
Current military supreme commander General Vimol several months ago told international reporters he had "almost" brought his troops to accept they could not now stage coups "without public support".
Not long after the nail-bombing at Thonburi bus depot, the right-wing abbot of Bangkok's famous Temple of Dawn addressed a gathering of the fascist Apirak Chakri group.
The abbot predicted General Suchinda would again become prime minister "within two years". He urged Apirak Chakri to go forth and multiply their activities throughout the length and breadth of Thailand's countryside to make Suchinda's second coming a fact.
Apirak Chakri destabilised Thailand's last attempt at civilian democracy 20 years ago. At Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, students were burned alive, lynched, raped, drowned and shot after Apirak Chakri accused them of burning Thailand's crown prince in effigy. The military staged a coup soon after to "restore order".
Photos of Thammasat students supposedly burning the effigy saturated national TV hours before the coup. Years later the photos were reported as fakes.
Next month the general who last year told Thai media his military would never accept "lousy politicians" in government is likely to take a seat in parliament.
Former air force boss Kaset has been welcomed as a candidate by Thailand's largest pro-military party, which he helped set up.
Kaset will run in his home town on the Thai-Cambodian border, and is not expected to lose. The area is notorious for vote-buying and cross-border trade with the Khmer Rouge.
Kaset has long harboured ambitions of becoming prime minister. During May's uprising Kaset issued written orders for troops to fire on thousands of unarmed demonstrators, after agents provocateurs incited rioting by a small minority.
The current school arson attacks are reminders of how men in bullet-proof vests — photographed by the Bangkok Post — set fire to a police station while last year's "riots" were stirred up.
It was the last police station between supposedly violent demonstrators and the palace of Thailand's revered king. "Protecting the monarchy" was Suchinda and Kaset's excuse for the crackdown.