Military chiefs removed after Thailand slaughter

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The Independent Online
THAILAND'S interim Prime Minister, Anand Panyarachun, has imposed humiliating demotions on the three top military men who are widely held responsible for the shootings of pro- democracy demonstrators in May. The moves were far bolder than had been expected and the country is watching for any reaction from within the armed forces.

Details were announced on Saturday night. Just three days previously the deputy army chief of staff had said publicly that he and other officers did not want to see the army chief removed.

Shrugging off such advice, Mr Anand has gone for a clean sweep. Air Chief Marshal Kaset Rojanani was relieved of his two jobs, as Armed Forces Supreme Commander and head of the air force, and was appointed Armed Forces Inspector-General.

The head of the army, General Issarapong Noonpakdi, was demoted to Deputy Permanent Defence Secretary. The head of the First Army Region, Lt-Gen Chainarong Noonpakdi, was made director of the Army Institute of Advanced Academics - he was responsible for directing the troop units that fired on unarmed demonstrators.

Nine other changes were also made. As a package they will assuage the persistent calls for action against the top brass who ordered the shootings, while also breaking up the dominant clique that had secured control of the Thai armed forces.

So far 52 people have been confirmed as shot dead during the 17- 20 May demonstrations in Bangkok, but there are still more than 400 missing. Public opinion at the time was incensed by the appointment of General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the former Supreme Commander, as unelected prime minister after the March general elections and a wide cross-section of Thai society turned out for the protests. After the bloody crackdown, the general was forced to resign by Thailand's king.

Mr Anand, a respected former diplomat and businessman, was brought back as an interim unelected prime minister to run the country until fresh general elections on 13 September.

The latest moves are the most serious assault yet on the military's interference in politics and business. Thailand's hope now is that the elections may be the start of a more democratic phase in its troubled history which has seen 17 coups since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.

At the same time, a political comeback is being attempted by Chatichai Choonhavan, the former prime minister, whose overthrow in the February 1991 coup was widely applauded because of the corruption of his regime. There has also been an upsurge in far-right groups opposing the pro-democracy organisations.