By Nattaya Chetchotiros, with additional reporting by Wassana Nanuam
Junta chief General Sonthi said various factors mean it is not really possible for him to become premier, and in any case he alone could not make the decision. But doubts linger about his political aspirations.
Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, coup leader, army chief and chairman of the Council for National Security (CNS) among other incarnations, has failed to dispel doubts about his long-term political intentions, even though he insisted again on Wednesday that he had no plans to stay on in power past the next elections.
Gen Sonthi gave assurances that he would not follow the path of Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon, after sending out mixed signals on Tuesday.
The 2006 coup leader said he would not follow in the footsteps of Gen Suchinda, who led the 1991 coup and later took up the premiership even though he previously vowed that he would not.
When asked on Tuesday if he too would become prime minister, Gen Sonthi failed to dispel growing concerns that he is coveting the position.
"I'm a Thai, and a patriot. If I can do anything to help strengthen the country, I will do it," was his reply.
Alluding to this statement yesterday, he said it was not really possible for him to take up the premiership, as various factors would not enable him to do so. He also said that he alone could not make the decision as to whether he should become prime minister.
But these added comments have failed to dispel the simmering doubts or prevent the adverse repercussions caused by his earlier remarks.
Since Tuesday's comments, staff of all agencies set up or appointed by the CNS - such as the National Legislative Assembly, the Assets Scrutiny Committee and the Election Commission - have felt a sense of unease and uncertainty. They are not sure when they are expected to complete their missions or even whether the general election will be held by the end of the year as promised.
The international community monitoring developments in the Thai political arena are also uncertain about the short-term prospects for stability and democracy here. Diplomats are wondering if the CNS and the government will be able to restore democracy within the timeframe they have promised.
And even more unsettling is that six months on from the Sept 19 coup, the CNS and the government have still been unable to restore peace in the country. Several groups of protesters continue to challenge state authorities.
The CNS has been unable to either control or reach any agreement with these groups. Instead, it has tried to overshadow them by assembling larger crowds of people recruited by government agencies.
The popularity of the government and the CNS has dropped drastically from almost 80% last year to less than 40%, and the public is becoming more and more disenchanted with the government's performance.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont's two deputies, Kosit Panpiemras and Paiboon Wattanasiritham, have developed a reputation for avoiding decisions. Their excessive caution is attributed to awareness that they are part of an interim cabinet, and they fear they may later be held responsible for the consequences.
The CNS and the government have not solved political problems effectively. None of the government's projects or policies have brought any practical outcome and the cabinet continues to stutter and take too long to approve budgets.
An obvious example is re-establishment of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) three months ago. Until now, the government has not been able to convince the National Legislative Assembly to pass an Act to accommodate the operations of the SBPAC, whose resurrection was met with high expectations of helping ease unrest in the deep South.
Amid compassion fatigue for the government's poor and sluggish performance, Gen Sonthi's ambiguous remarks about his political future have just made matters worse.
Many people are now remembering that Gen Sonthi staged the coup on Sept 19, despite repeatedly dismissing previous speculation that the military might stage a coup.
As people's faith in Gen Surayud, who commands great respect from most Thais, recedes, many are afraid that Gen Sonthi will again go back on his word. They believe whenever he makes a decision to "do anything to help strengthen the country," another crisis will ensue.
Even though people are disappointed with the government's performance, their respect and trust in Gen Surayud as their prime minister remains intact.
If Gen Sonthi loses patience with the government, he should look at himself and see if he is as competent, or more capable, than Gen Surayud in leading the country.
After all, if both the government and the CNS had not spent so much time sitting on the fence waiting for the other one to move, they could perhaps have achieved something concrete by now.
Bangkok Post military reporter Wassana Nanuam adds:
Council for National Security chairman Sonthi Boonyaratkalin insists he will not hold on to power after the general election, saying he is not suited to the post of prime minister.
Gen Sonthi said yesterday he was willing to serve the country in any capacity deemed necessary. However, he admitted he was not suited to be prime minister.
"The country belongs to us.... if we feel that way, we will desire to do anything to strengthen the country. Anything that I can do for the country I will do, even after I have retired.
"But this doesn't mean that I want to be prime minister," he told the Siam This Morning television programme on army-run Channel 5 yesterday.
He dismissed talk of a rift with Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.
He also denied rumours the CNS was removing Gen Surayud as prime minister. On the contrary, he believed Gen Surayud was the best person to run the country.