As PPT has pointed out several times in the past, the Yingluck Shinawatra government remains skittish about any potential threat of destabilization. It mainly looks for these threats amongst the royalist camp, and so has been remarkably willing to give ground when there is any whiff of a challenge from the conservative elite and its supporters. Of course, the most likely threat always revolves around the military’s penchant for pro-royalist coup-making.
Two former U.S. military men, John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano, claiming to have been previously posted to Thailand, meaning they were probably spooks, write on military machinations for Asia Times Online. Their most recent piece is ambivalent about the tug of war that went on over the just completed promotions and transfers in the armed forces. They suggest that Puea Thai’s Minister for Defense Sukumpol Suwanatat won a scrap with some of his subordinates but that Army boss General Prayuth Chan-ocha was able to maintain his control as well.
There are a couple of points worth noting. First, the writers point out that this year’s “list reassigned 811 senior officers, up from a normal 500-600 rotations, representing the largest military reshuffle recorded in Thailand.” Part of the reason for that is that Thaksin Shinawatra and Sukumpol didn’t want to directly challenge Prayuth’s men and instead chose a path of diluting the top ranks, which gives them more influence, without having to headbutt Prayuth in this round of shuffling and risk destabilizing the government. In the past, various army bosses used this method to weaken their competitors, and the result was that Thailand had more generals than some much larger armies. Golf courses also did well as generals with nothing to do hit the fairways.
Second, and significantly, the article notes that the royalist faction of the military leadership remains exceptionally powerful. They describe Prayuth as “a staunch royalist and perceived opponent of the Yingluck-led government…”. Nothing new there, but argue that he “was able to maintain his top spot and elevate many of his known loyalists to key RTA command positions.” They add that the:
military tends to view itself as the ultimate defender of the Thai nation and royal family, rather than the constitution or a particular civilian government. This somewhat vague but strongly felt sense of duty has often led the military to put it’s institutional interests – and in many cases the personal interests of senior officers – above those of the civilian administration that it nominally serves.
Actually, this loyalist royalism amongst the brass has been carefully nurtured by the palace, with Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda playing a pivotal role. Prayuth’s most important accomplishment, then, was in promoting royalists. The article suggests that he has been “able to put Lieutenant General [Udomdej Sitabutr] on a track to succeed him as army commander…”. They add that “Udomdet, previously the commander of the [Bangkok-based] 1st Army Region and a known royal palace favorite, was promoted to a full four-star general and reassigned as the RTA’s powerful Chief of Staff.” Udomdej is described as:
a royal aide and recipient of the Ramathibodi Medal for valor in combat…. That designation represents a strong tie to the royal family, as King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit are known to maintain close personal contact with recipients of the medal throughout their military careers. Like Prayuth, Udomdet spent many years serving in the 21st Infantry Regiment, a unit dedicated to protecting the royal family.
This means that a staunchly royalist general will be in place when the succession issue finally moves front and center.
Not all is lost in this for the government, however, as a more pro-Thaksin commander takes over at the 1st Army Region HQ.
Prayuth also strengthened the royalist and anti-red shirt/anti-Thaksin brass by promoting the commanders of the troops that were used to attack red shirts in 2009 and 2010. By doing this he is attempting to create a royalist domination for a decade to come. By trying to dilute this with extraordinary promotions, Thaksin and Sukumpol are seeking to gradually move control back to them after Prayuth is retired.
One element of the process and competition that is noticeable is the demonstration of just how debased the military has become over recent decades as its focus has been internal security, protection of the monarchy and slaughtering citizens in order to maintain the royalist state.