TIME: You were once held up as the epitome of the professional soldier. What made you take political action?
SONTHI: Thailand has a unique democratic system in which its people want to be under an administration with the King as the head of state. But, in recent years, the democratic system the people wanted was not the democratic system we got. There was interference with many organizations, especially the independent organizations established to oversee and scrutinize the government's actions. The previous government wanted to control the whole system. That [led to] large-scale corruption [and] vote buying during local and general elections. The people knew about these things and they could not accept it. As far as the army staging a coup, we could not just do it on our own. We needed the consent of the people to help us preserve democracy.
TIME: What did the Thaksin administration do to violate this royal character of Thai democracy?
SONTHI: It is a very sensitive question. There are many cases in which the previous government was impolite to the royal family and to the King himself. The Thai people cannot and will not tolerate anybody who shows even slight disrespect to the King or his family.
TIME: How do you respond to Western criticism of the coup as a step back for democracy?
SONTHI: Everybody wants to walk forward if the path is clear. But if we walk forward and see that there are thorns in front, it is not wise to walk on top of those thorns. It is better to stop, step back and find another way around.
TIME: Does it concern you that local surveys show you and interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont losing popularity?
SONTHI: We Thais typically like [someone] very quickly, and get bored very quickly as well. You judge a horse over distance. You judge a man over time. Time will judge what we have done.
TIME: The interim government introduced capital controls that it had to quickly roll back and has proposed amendments to the Foreign Business Act, both of which hurt investor confidence.
SONTHI: Foreign investors worry about stability and security before they invest. It is our duty to secure this stability and security. Since Sept. 19, we have issued a clear statement to foreign investors that any agreements that have been signed or will occur in future will be [valid]. What we want is business as usual.
TIME: Why is it taking so long to bring corruption charges against Thaksin?
SONTHI: The reason we have taken so much time is that the Assets Scrutiny Committee is a very small organization. It is small because we intended it to be small. Not many people are working there because of the need-to-know basis, and the confidential information we need to keep limited to a small community. The previous government and previous Prime Minister have planted many personnel within various government ministries and organizations. So we need to take the precaution of using a small group of people to try to get the most information we can to make an effective case against him.
TIME: Are you confident that charges will eventually be brought against Thaksin?
SONTHI: Yes, absolutely.
TIME: Thaksin has vowed not to re-enter politics. Do you believe him?
SONTHI: One can enter politics in many ways. You can control politics from behind the scenes. The most important thing in politics is money. If you have cash, you can have somebody do things for you. I believe that even if he says he is not entering politics, he can still control political parties. As to who will be in front, I cannot say.
TIME: The previous government would not negotiate with the insurgents in Thailand's south, preferring a military solution. You have adopted a more conciliatory approach. Yet violence persists. Why?
SONTHI: With 99% of the population down south, we are trying to instill a sense of patriotism, a love of country and of monarch. The remaining 1% are the perpetrators. Our troops are seeking out these groups; we will try to bring them in using a political approach, a soft approach. But if that fails, then we will use another way.
TIME: When will prime ministerial elections be held, and will the military maintain any political role after the elections?
SONTHI: We are looking at a new election by the end of this year. The military will withdraw from politics and we will become, as we want to be, professional soldiers who will help develop the country any way we can.
TIME: Some people believe members of the military may use a proxy party to put forward their own candidate.
SONTHI: As I have said, to enter the political arena, cash is the most important thing. I do not see any military officers in the CNS who have that [kind] of political ambition and money.
TIME: Will you run for Prime Minister?