The general who ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup last month says an investigation into corruption allegations against the former leader has failed to yield solid evidence. General Sondhi Boonyaratglin's admission could undermine one of the main reasons he gave for carrying out the coup.
In an interview with The Nation newspaper, General Sondhi said he wishes he had more time to search for evidence of graft by the former prime minister.
Sondhi said he worries the military could lose public support if investigators do not find evidence of corruption against Mr. Thaksin.
The ruling junta set up several bodies to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Mr. Thaksin and his associates, including corruption and abuse of power, which the generals used as a rationale for deposing the twice-elected prime minister.
A leading Thai political scientist, Thitinan Pongsudirak of Chulalongkorn University, says if the generals take much longer to investigate corruption charges against Mr. Thaksin, they risk weakening one of the main justifications for their coup.
"The judicial process is slow, and it takes time. So, in a sense, General Sondhi is trying to say the various investigation committees need more time," he said. "But, at the same time, if they do not move more quickly, they will undermine their own rationale - one of the main rationales - for the coup."
But the general said the probe into Mr. Thaksin's assets has to proceed in line with the law. He said he is aware the military-appointed government is being closely scrutinized by the international community.
Thitinan says the military should also step up its probe into charges that Mr. Thaksin abused power during his rule, by interfering with government institutions and condoning extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers and Muslim separatists.
Otherwise, he says, the generals will have no legitimate reason to prevent Mr. Thaksin, who is now in London, from returning to Thailand.
General Sondhi implied in the interview that Mr. Thaksin, who is a billionaire, could try to use his fortune to stage a comeback. He told The Nation Mr. Thaksin would not be allowed to return until martial law is lifted, and he did not say when that would happen.
Professor Thitinan says martial law is a double-edged sword for the military.
"They cannot lift martial law too quickly, because that would open up a space for the pro-Thaksin elements, and there are many of them still, to come out into the open to challenge the coup," he added. "At the same time, the longer they impose martial law, the more frustrated, the anti-Thaksin coalition, will become. So this is a dilemma for the coup-makers. They have to do away with martial law, but not too soon."
Thitinan says Mr. Thaksin, who won his two elections by large majorities, is looking for a way to return. He still has support in the countryside, Thitinan says, and if the generals cannot justify their actions against him, the country could be in store for more turmoil.