- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

Thailand’s September 2006 military coup was “necessary to put our political house in order,” but the country is poised to restore a democratically elected civilian government in the coming months, Thai Ambassador Krit Garnjana-Goonchorn said in an interview.

Mr. Krit told editors and reporters during a luncheon Wednesday at The Washington Times that the approval of a new constitution in a national referendum in August “reversed a downward political spiral in the country” and paved the way for parliamentary elections restoring full civilian rule Dec. 23.

Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is banned from politics for five years and his Thai Rak Thai party dissolved, but the Thai People Power Party, a successor party with many of Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, is second in the polls leading up to the December vote.

“Could it have been done any other way? Given the depth of the paralysis we were facing, I don’t know that we had any other option,” Mr. Krit said. “The coup itself turned out to be peaceful, bloodless and popular.”

Mr. Krit took a cautious approach on Thailand’s neighbor, Burma, whose brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks leading pro-democracy marches prompted worldwide condemnation last month. Bangkok, which has grown heavily dependent on Burmese natural gas, traditionally has been reluctant to challenge Burma’s repressive military leadership.

Burma’s recent crackdown caused a lot of “soul-searching” within ASEAN, the alliance of Southeast Asian states, the ambassador said, but he added that isolating the Burmese leadership and applying new sanctions is not the answer.

“We think you have to go with dialogue, you have to go with engagement,” he said. “I think just leaving [Burma] to its own devices and not exposing its leaders to what the outside world expects would be a mistake,” he said.

Any economic sanctions “would have to be very carefully and properly targeted, or the ordinary people who are already suffering will suffer even more.”

The ambassador said the interim military government in Bangkok made a “conceptual U-turn” on the country’s biggest domestic security challenge, moving away from Mr. Thaksin’s confrontational approach to Islamist insurgents in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern provinces.

More than 2,600 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in fighting between government forces and Muslim separatists since January 2004.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a recent report said the post-coup government, despite early promises, “has turned out to pay little more than lip service to reconciliation” with rebel groups.

But Mr. Krit said his government has taken major steps to improve the situation, publicly apologizing for military excesses, reaching out to local villages, and improving relations with neighboring Malaysia.

“Has it worked? It is very difficult to say yet,” he said. “Despite the U-turn, the violence has persisted and perhaps even increased in the initial stages after the coup.

“But for the ultimate outcome, we have to wait for a longer period. I think the picture is much brighter than it had been. We have not ruled out dialogue with the perpetrators of this violence,” he added.

The ambassador acknowledged Thailand has a lot riding on the Dec. 23 elections. The country is inviting a large number of international observers to monitor the vote.

Thailand, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the region, has seen its image for political freedom suffer since the 2006 coup. The country has not been invited to the Community of Democracies summit in Mali later this month, after attending the first three summits.

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