Wikileaks: Predicting the 2006 coup

10 02 2012

With coup talk about, PPT thought it might be useful to post a Wikileaks cable dated 15 September 2006, where the U.S. Embassy’s Alexander A. Arvizu writes of the chances of a coup in Thailand.

Recalling that this is just days before the 2006 military coup took place, here’s what went to Washington D.C.:

Talking to military contacts and academics, we mostly hear the same analysis about the military’s options. Despite some jittery nerves in Bangkok about the bad blood between the military (and the Palace) on one hand, and the police (and Thaksin) on the other, virtually everyone with whom we have spoken does not believe the situation has gotten even close to the point where the military would act. [PPT added the emphasis]

Frankly, we are surprised. Either it is deliberately false or lots of people were blind or they just didn’t hoped it wouldn’t happen. But clearly the Embassy was also hearing different messages, for it is then stated:

Embassy officials continue to make clear to military and political contacts that any such move by the military would have serious consequences, and would be very counterproductive.

They got that last bit right, but still claimed to be

encouraged by the views expressed by important figures like Privy Councillor Surayud [Chulanont] perhaps the most respected retired senior military officer, who expressed faith in the political process, and who clearly opposed any kind of coup attempt by the military.

It is then added: “Army Commander General Sonthi [Boonyaratglin] has also reassured us and publicly denied any possibility of a military coup.”

But then let’s look at the record from other sources and cables.

General Sonthi has gone on record stating that before the coup, the “US understood the country’s political situation…”. He adds: ” I was talking to the US ambassador [Ralph Boyce] all the time.”

Boyce’s cable of 6 July 2006 can be read in the context of coup preparations taking place, and it appears that Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda must have assessed that he had the green light for the coup.

From as early as August 2006, other cables show that the Embassy was aware that preparations were underway. In early September, Boyce seemed far less convinced by Surayud’s “no coup” claims. Boyce’s signals were pretty darn clear: if there is a coup, we’ll stop some aid programs (but not all), but we won’t do much more than that. Green light.

Wikileaks: Prem’s coup politics

5 11 2011

In a cable leaked by Wikileaks dated 18 July 2006, signed by counselor Alex Arvizu, the focus is Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda’s high-profile speech at the Chulachomklao Military Academy on July 14. A couple of questions arise: why has it taken 4 days to report the speech (we assume there were other cables that Wikileaks couldn’t get) and why is Ambassador Ralph Boyce silent? On the latter, there may be a host a reasons but looking at other cables, we guess he was away.

This comment is on one of the most profound and game-setting actions of the political crisis of 2006. While the Embassy has previously made all kinds of politically-biased judgements in almost every other cable we have read, this one is simply reported; that is, of course, a bias in itself.

The cable states that Prem has “struck back at PM Thaksin Shinawatra on July 14 in a speech to military cadets.” The cable goes on to refer to Prem’s speech as “bold” and his appearance in military uniform as a “high-profile visit to the Chulachomklao Military Academy…. with former Army Chiefs Chawalit Yongchaiyudh, [PPT: and fellow Privy Council member] Surayud Chulanont, Oud Buengbon and Pongthem Thespratheep alongside him…”.

This is the speech where Prem demanded that soldiers be loyal to the king, not the government:

in horse racing, horse owners hire jockeys to ride the horses. The jockeys do not own the horses. They just ride them. A government is like a jockey. It supervises soldiers, but the real owners are the country and the King … the government comes and goes.

The cable states that this was “only the first in a series of lectures he [Prem] plans to give to cadets and soldiers over the next few weeks, to “raise awareness.” The Embassy makes no comment on this even while the media saw these moves as coup preparations.

By this time it is clear that the Embassy is saddled up with Prem and the palace and is either hoping that the pressure is too great for Thaksin or views a coup as a viable option.

Wikileaks, palace and 2006 election

18 08 2011

Continuing PPT’s Wikileaks posts, this cable, dated 26 April 2006, refers to the king’s speeches to judges following the April 2006 election, which several opposition parties had boycotted in alliance with, and under pressure from, the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The cable was apparently the work of U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Alex A. Arvizu. He concludes that these speeches “have tossed everything up in the air, and it will be a few days before we see where they come down.”

The king is reported as having given “two of the most direct and to-the-point speeches in recent years to the newly sworn-in judges of the Administrative and Supreme Courts.”

The cable states that in these speeches,

the King questioned the democratic nature of the April 2 general elections as well as the ‘correctness’ of dissolving Parliament and calling for snap elections in the first place. He reminded the Administrative Court that it is their job to consider these issues, and opened the possibility of nullifying the elections. He further asserted that invoking Article 7 of the Constitution to have the royally-appointed Prime Minister would be undemocratic, The King therefore called on the courts and other institutions to work together to resolve the current political chaos.”

The judges of the “three high courts (Supreme, Administrative and Constitutional) will meet on Friday to propose a way ‘out of the woods’.”

This is all reasonably well known. What seems interesting is the embassy’s perspective on the king’s position. After noting  that his  first speech  to judges of the Administrative Court, asserted that the election was “undemocratic” the cable states that the king

further questioned why no one discussed whether dissolving the Parliament and calling for a snap election within thirty days was the “correct” decision in the first place. If not, he suggested, one would need to “solve the problem,” including “perhaps nullifying the elections.”

The Constitution required an election within 60 days.

Recall that, in earlier cables, palace officials repeatedly claimed the king wasn’t about to intervene and that the courts would probably sort things out. A month later, the king has intervened and is pushing the courts to sort things out by nullifying the election. His message here is crystal clear. Just in case the judges wavered, the king added this warning: “If you cannot do it, then it should be you who resign, not the government, for failing to perform your duties.”

In speaking to the “new members of the Supreme Court,” the king stated that “he disagreed with opening the House unless all 500 MP seats are filled.” His view, not tested in any court, was that the House could not operate until every single seat was filled.

The king is reported to have “stressed that the current political state is quite a ‘mess’, and that for him to intervene would only make it messier.” So this intervention must have been a “non-intervention,” for the the king publicly “called on the three courts (Constitutional, Administrative, and Supreme Courts) to work together to ‘urgently decide, otherwise the country would collapse’.”

The top judges of the three courts almost immediately announced that they would meet “to provide an solution to lead the country ‘out of the woods’.”

What a difference a royal “non-intervention” made! The Embassy comments on the king’s actions:

His very strong statements opening his remarks at the Administrative Court, and his directive to the judges to come up with a solution, were … startling. It is hard to imagine the courts really deciding that these elections should be annulled, and even harder to imagine exactly what would follow to fill the vacuum this would create…. With the King’s imprimatur to find a solution, they [Supreme and Administrative Courts] may feel empowered to propose a bold plan to sort out this extremely messy situation.”

The judges acted with whirlwind speed and annulled the election. What followed this was a palace-organized process of getting the military in place for a coup.

Wikileaks, the anti-Thaksin army and U.S. cheering

4 08 2011

Skip Boyce and the palace's skipper

In PPT’s continuing series of posts on the Wikileaks cables, we found the cable attributed to Charge Alex A. Arvizu on 28 July 2006 revealing. For context, this cable is produced less than two months before the coup. It comes at a time when Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda was actively campaigning against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (see below) and following a period where senior serving officers appeared with the anti-Thaksin and royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The cable has some juicy titbits: “4. (C) Most RTA officers who will express an opinion dislike the Prime Minister. Notably, Thai officers pledge allegiance to the Monarchy, not the Constitution, when they are commissioned. Further exacerbating tensions between the majority in the RTA and the pro PM minority is the perception that Thaksin and his loyalists are insulting esteemed former military officers like Privy Councillor and former RTA CINC GEN Surayud Chulanont and Privy Councillor and former Prime Minister GEN Prem Tinsulanond. It is widely speculated that Surayud and Prem were instrumental in shaping the King’s unfavorable view of Thaksin.”

The cable explains how Army boss General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has used a snap reshuffle to move around officers suspected of supporting Thaksin. This is referred to as “defanging the dragon.” It is said that “Sonthi’s move was likely approved by Prem who, on July 14 in a speech to military cadets, likened Thaksin’s government to a jockey who simply rides the horse of state which is owned by the country and the King (ref C).”

The most interesting insight is in the summary, not so much in what is said, but in how the U.S. Embassy appears to be cheering the moves against Thaksin: “1. (C) Summary. Thai Army officers, civilian defense analysts and other observers almost uniformly view the July 17 Army reshuffle as a deft move by Royal Thai Army (RTA) CINC GEN Sonthi Boonyaratglin to ensure that key battalion-level commanders and their subordinates in the capital environs are loyal to the King and to RTA HQ, i.e. to GEN Sonthi. Clearly the reshuffle was designed by GEN Sonthi to preempt possible power plays by some Army elements close to beleaguered caretaker PM Thaksin. By virtue of his identification as a protector of the Palace, GEN Sonthi is widely viewed as one of the ‘good guys’ in the political spectrum, and the July 17 Army appointments are generally seen as contributing to a positive resolution of the ongoing political drama rather than aggravating it. Even so, it is remarkable that in 2006 the military — and the institution of the monarchy, for that matter — remain for better or for worse critical determinants in Thai politics. End Summary.”

By this time it was clear to most observers that the threat of a coup was from Sonthi and his palace backers, not from Thaksin military people. As the cable states, this reshuffle was to “ensure that key battalion-level commanders and their subordinates in the capital environs are loyal to the King and to RTA HQ, i.e. to GEN Sonthi.” Clearly a coup is in the making and the Embassy cheers the “good guys” and views coup preparations as “positive.”

We tend to think this remarkable account is reflective of the generalized response under Ambassador Ralph Boyce. Judging by the cables he writes, he seems to have seen himself as a political player in these events and was exceptionally close to the opposition, continually slagging off Thaksin to his bosses in a propaganda-like campaign.

There’s more U.S. Embassy cheering in this cable, where Arvizu sees nothing wrong with politicized decisions by the courts on Election Commissioners and seems excited about the prospects for an election that would never come because of the coup.

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