Thailand: new GWOT flashpoint?

We’ll have a clearer idea of what is going on here when the dust settles, but two things are worth noting about the Sept. 19 coup d’etat in Thailand. First, the coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin is the first Muslim to head the nation’s armed forces, and was apparently appointed in an effort to win hearts and minds in the Islamist insurgency in the country’s south. Secondly, the coup comes days after Thailand was implicated as possible host of one of the now-acknowledged secret CIA prisons established after 9-11 for the Global War on Terrorism.

First this, from Indonesia’s ANATARA News, Sept. 20:

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the leader of the coup attempt in Thailand, is the first Muslim to head the Buddhist nation’s army and is known to be close the country’s revered king.

Sonthi, 59, a decorated combat veteran, had publicly clashed with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra over security policy in the run-up to Tuesday’s military takeover in Bangkok.

His appointment last year as army commander-in-chief was widely seen as a bid by the government to end a violent Islamic insurgency in the Muslim-majority south. Muslims make up just four percent of the kingdom’s population.

Sonthi’s supporters said at the time that he could help counter the impression that the government discriminates against Muslims.

He had advocated talks with militants as a way out of the violence that has killed more than 1,400 people since January 2004, but was rebuffed by the government, which publicly quashed any hopes for negotiations.

Sonthi graduated from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in 1969 and was commissioned to the Royal Army Infantry Corps, before going on to lead several top units, including the elite Special Warfare Command.

More recently he became embroiled in the kingdom’s political deadlock, acting at times as an unofficial voice for Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the crisis which has gripped the country for most of the year.

Sonthi let it be known publicly that king was upset at the continued bickering…

But diplomats say he also feared moves against him after an alleged plot to assassinate Thaksin was uncovered in August, resulting in the arrest of five military men, including several senior officers.

Because of his relationship with the palace, Sonthi role in the coup is again being widely interpreted as a signal of the king’s unhappiness with the political situation under Thaksin.

Next this, from Xinhua, Sept. 11:

Thailand’s Foreign Ministry denied on Monday a New York Times article which said Thai government had allowed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States to detain a henchman of Osama bin Laden, who died in a Thai cell from serious wounds.

The New York Times on Sunday published a front page article that claimed Abu Zubaydah, an Osama bin Laden henchman, was interrogated and tortured in a “safe house” in Thailand in the spring of 2002.

The article, citing “sources from a number of government agencies”, said Zubaydah died of infected wounds in Thailand.

“We have denied any rumors or any information indicating that secret prisons were allowed in Thailand,” Thai Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Kitti Wasinondh reiterated on Monday.

Another U.S. newspaper, Washington Post, in November last year had reported that the CIA was operating secret prisons in eight countries abroad, including in Afghanistan, Thailand and several European countries.

Thai caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra flatly denied the claim last year. He said in November that Thailand had only one(terrorist) arrest, and it was Hambali. “We have sent him to the U.S. long ago, and we don’t have any secret jails or whatever, so we totally deny it.” Thaksin said at that time.

In 2003 Thai authorities arrested Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, in the central province of Ayutthaya, 70 km north to Bangkok.

Hambali is believed to be la-Qaeda’s point man in Asia and one of the masterminds behind the October 2002 bombing of Indonesia’s Bali island that killed 202 people.

So was the US behind this one, or against it? Did the CIA decide that Thaksin Shinawatra’s government was now too tainted by association with the CIA to effectively pacify the Muslim south, and therefore must be removed? Or was the CIA still backing the compliant Thaksin—in which case the coup could be seen as a dangerous tilt to the Islamists? If there is talk of sanctions against Thailand in the days to come, this question will become a lot clearer…

See our last posts on Thailand and the torture scandal.