Humpty’s men

3 07 2019

Marwaan Macan-Markar, at the Nikkei Asia Review, contributes a long and useful review of the remolding of the relationship between monarchy and military.

He claims that diplomats in Bangkok know which military leaders are closest to King Vajiralongkorn by a pin with an “image of Prince Dipangkorn, the king’s 14-year-old son” which are “pinned on the left breasts of a select few military leaders…”. (Dipangkorn is widely considered to be heir apparent, lives in Germany and seldom appears the full quid.)

Gen Apirat

One diplomat described those wearing the pin as “a small network,” with Army boss Gen Apirat Kongsompong an important bearer of the pin. Gen Apirat is known to present himself as “fiercely loyal to the king.”

Macan-Markar says that this “network” indicate “a major change in the relationship between two of Thailand’s most powerful institutions — the monarchy and the military” under King  Vajiralongkorn.

While his analysis, based on interviews with diplomats, pundits and academics, is interesting, it is one that is based on a kind of “Kremlinology” of military watching which can be somewhat misleading if the forest is obscured by the trees. Hence the interminable speculation over Queen’s Guard versus King’s Guard.

In our view, it is misguided to see the king’s faith in the “senior generals of the King’s Guard, a Bangkok-based faction” as representing a spurning of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta. As far as anyone can tell from available evidence, the junta has done everything that the king has wanted and it is Gen Prayuth, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paojinda who have put in place military succession plans that lead from Gen Apirat to Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae, currently commander of the First Army region and Gen Songwit Noongpakdee, the leader of the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division.

That “defense analysts say the monarch’s choice of trusted lieutenants stems from his own military record” is no surprise, now. What they miss, however, is that the king’s succession was a long one, with his father incapacitated, and the then crown prince and his advisers long having had influence over the military brass.

Interestingly, and barely mentioned, is the ways in which the king revamped the Privy Council, the Crown Property Bureau and the palace administration over that period of long succession. In these moves, he made these institutions his own, bringing in junta loyalists and advancing those closest to him, including Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukwimol, long the king’s private secretary and now, arguably, his most powerful adviser, heading the CPB, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group, among other important bodies.

ACM Sathitpong Sukwimol (clipped from The Nation)

All of these rearrangements, promotions and not a few demotions and ousters do mean that a military man on the throne has ensured that he has the military under control. Just in case of problems, there’s some “insurance,” with ACM Sathitpong’s younger brother Pol Maj Gen Torsak at the head of a large force of “protectors.”

Naturally, Prawit remained a Prayuth confidant during the five years of the junta, serving as the deputy prime minister and defense minister. Gen. Anupong Paochinda, another former army chief from the Queen’s Guard, was also a key figure in Prayuth’s coup and junta.

That the king promotes the “King’s Guard, the faction he was part of, in the driving center of army power,” hardly seems a revelation. Yet there’s no evidence that the Queen’s Guard is in any way untrustworthy or disloyal. (It was King Bhumibol who placed his son in the King’s Guard.)

With little evidence, Macan-Markar discerns that the generals of Queen’s Guard is somehow more “politically ambitious” than those of the King’s Guard. There’s no evidence for this. In addition, there’s an amnesia for previous claims made. In the view of many pundits, it was the Queen’s Guard who conducted the 2014 coup in order to ensure the current king’s succession. What happened to that position? And, it was the Queen’s Guard coup masters who purged the military of those perceived as disloyal.

Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya is quoted as saying: “The king clearly wants a vertical hierarchy without any distractions and divisions that can cause splits in the army…”. That seems to have been the junta’s aim as well. To see this as a move against the Queen’s Guard ignores the fact that the junta’s role has been to “cleanse” the military, to immeasurably strengthen it and to embed it at all levels of society. That’s the important message, not the Kremlinology of watching factions.

It seems that “experts” on the military blame “factional rivalries” for “repeated coups.” We think the experts need to re-read the history of successful coups.

Former ambassador and new author James Wise is right to observe that “the monarchy and the military exercise authority in their own right, often without reference to the more familiar legislative, executive and judiciary…”. The big picture matters.

When Kasit predicts: “No more coups,” we think he’s in la-la land. It will depend, as in the past, on on perceptions of “threat” to the monarchy and the broader ruling class.

Traffic or something more?

4 09 2018

A couple of days ago we mentioned rumors that Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has had some potential military challengers transferred out of Bangkok bases. We meant whole units being relocated, as the Bangkok Post now reports.

It is stated that the 1st Cavalry Reconnaissance Company of the 1st Division, the 4th Tank Battalion of the 1st Division, the 1st Cavalry Regiment on Thahan Road, the army’s intelligence unit and the 2nd Cavalry Division, the King’s Guard are all to be moved by October 2019.

In addition, the 11th Military Circle on Rama V Road will be relocated within greater Bangkok.

It is also stated that:

The army also has a plan to “dissolve” the 11th Infantry Regiment in Bangkok’s Bang Khen district and the 1st Infantry Regiment (King and Queen’s Guard) in the Phaya Thai area and transfer their personnel to other units, the source said.

We need help on this. Ostensibly this has to do with easing traffic in Bangkok. But what happens to the land?

Some of the units being relocated and dissolved seem important and are often mentioned in the context of the monarchy. If readers have views, email us or use the comments buttons.

Giving back

26 01 2016

In the aftermath of two thuggish abductions of student activists by the agents of the military junta, it is heartening to  read in the Bangkok Post that Sirawith Seritiwat has filed “a police complaint against soldiers who arrested him…”.

This is heartening because, while nothing is likely to proceed under such a complaint, it is the bravery and dogged determination of the activist and his supporters that gives cause for some optimism in a very dark space that is Thailand under The Dictator.

In other words, it is good to see activists giving back on the junta.

The case is unlikely to go any where because the military junta will not hear any criticism and it controls large parts of the judiciary and prides itself on its authoritarian arrogance and impunity.

In making his complaint, Sirawith stated that the officers who took him “did not show him an arrest warrant and took him somewhere besides the police station. As such, his detention was illegal, the student asserted, adding that officers physically assaulted him.”

Pol Col Manas Nakhonsri identified “the men who apprehended Mr Sirawith [as] … soldiers attached to 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (King’s Guard) and had met police investigators at the station. The soldiers said they made the arrest under the authority of Section 44 of the interim constitution.”

The use of Article 44 against a university student and activism shows the great fear that motivates much that the junta does.Schultz

Like some latter day Sergeant Schultz, junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree denied everything. He denied assault allegations or any illegal action (everything, including murder seems legal under the junta).

Colonel Winthai did admit that the abductions were because “the student activist had become increasingly provocative, forcing the junta to act.”

The army and the election

15 05 2011

With hints from many that this election is going to be savage, the first evidence appears to be attacks on Puea Thai Party candidates and workers. First, there was an assassination attempt on Puea Thai’s Pracha Prasopdee from Samut Prakarn, and Bangkok Pundit has a good account. Second, there was a grenade attack at Puea Thai campaign worker Somthawil Ruenthong’s home in Samut Prakarn.

Both are from a notoriously dangerous political battleground, where local and national issues intersect, and yet the targeting of Puea Thai does send a message.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post reports on an important military reshuffle that is altogether too predictable as the Army chief seeks to win this last ditch election victory for the royalist parties:

Army boss Prayuth Chan-ocha has reshuffle of 157 colonels and lieutenant colonels. These are the frontline commanders who do the ordered fighting at the border and the political dirty-work of crushing protesters and repressing political opponents when ordered.

So it is no surprise to see “promotions for officers who took part in cracking down on red shirt protesters last year” and apparently aimed to “ensure order in the lead-up to the July 3 election.” We see it as yet another effort at election control by the military as “hawkish colonels … take charge in pro-Thaksin Shinawatra areas of the country…” in the north and northeast.

An example of rewards for following political orders is seen in Colonel Kanchai Prachuap-aree who becomes a deputy commander of the King’s Guard. He took part in cracking down on red shirt protesters at Rajaprasong and at Rang Nam in Bangkok in May 2010 commanded troops with blood on their hands.

It is clear that Prayuth is going to do all that he can to reward loyalty and to destroy red shirts and Puea Thai Party who are identified in his mind with instability and disloyalty.

More on obeying orders

21 04 2011

Wassana Nanuam who reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post has a useful op-ed on current military-based/ -led politics. She begins:

Two decades ago, every time an army commander spoke, everyone, including the government and all politicians, listened. Every move by the top brass to voice their disappointment at any issue was taken heed of, everybody was scared of any signs of a military coup. All that seems to have changed now.

While still remarkably powerful, Wassana argues that “what top-ranking officers say or do (including the statements of the army chief) appear to have lost that magic. Once deemed “untouchable”, the number one officer in the army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has come under relentless attack from politicians across the spectrum.”

On the one hand, PPT can see her point in that there has been push-back on Prayuth’s pushy and demanding proclamations. On the other hand, Prayuth seems to be pretty successful at putting the cat amongst the pigeons, playing a pretty bellicose but seemingly effective political role. Look at Abhisit’s relative silence and the way the Puea Thai Party is being sent into a re-organizational frenzy.

But back to Wassana. She asks why this change she identifies has come about. First:

Gen Prayuth probably has come out to speak on the same issue once too often, so nobody seems to care about his message any longer.

Well, some are listening, even if they are pushing back too.

Second, because of the experience of the 2006 coup, when army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin “repeatedly said the army had no interest in staging a military coup,” and then ran the palace-military putsch, the public is “unable to trust them [the military leadership]…” when they declare there won’t be a coup.

The public again sees something else happening, with the Army chief deeply involved in political machinations. That political projection derives from the 2006 coup, and Prayuth has been an especially enthusiastic player and fierce opponent of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Puea Thai Party and the red shirts. Wassana observes:

Once the army bet against Thaksin, it has had to go all the way. The army knows that if there is any regime change or power shift that favours Thaksin, the army would land in deep trouble…. If the political momentum swings back to the Thaksin camp, the army might consider a coup as another option to kill such a momentum.

Wassana cites the support  from the King’s Guard. She cites “Col Apirat Kongsompong, commander of the 11th Infantry Regiment.” She has this quote from him: “Those people whom I don’t want to name are suffering from psychosis. They don’t want to see the country return to normal. These people are meaningless to me.” Wasanna says Apirat is a “young turk” and that he and his “classmates from Class 20 at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School have come out to protect their leaders several times, including the previous army commander, Anupong Paojinda.” PPT also recalls that he was also seen in video shooting at red shirts with a pistol during events last year.

Apirat has said: “I can’t sit by idly if the army chief is criticised by politicians. I have to protect Gen Prayuth because he is a soldier loyal to the monarchy who does everything for the sake of the country and the army. I cannot leave him alone and let his reputation be damaged by these people. It’s my duty to protect him…”. Apirat has warned that the army’s patience is wearing thin and the next time it would be “unacceptable” if the monarchy is criticised and the army leader verbally attacked. He adds:

“We are ready to take any orders from the army chief…”.

Wassana concludes:

Now the public will have to wait and see how this conflict between politicians and soldiers will end, and who will come out on top.Gen Prayuth has, after all, implicitly given the green light for his men to protect the monarchy by showing their anger at the red shirts and displaying their force – but in the barracks only.

For now….

Updated: Abhisit and the C word

21 04 2011

As PPT has said, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has recently been rather quiet, seemingly getting out of the way while the big political elephants dance about. However, he has mentioned a coup, apparently without using the word. This from MCOT News:

Abhisit said, however, that he could not guarantee that the election will definitely run smoothly as untoward, unexpected incidents might occur. “But I believe the chance of [any] unconstitutional change is very slim,” he said.

Update: Perhaps he was casting a leery eye over the Army’s continuing muscle-flexing. The Nation reports that, following the example of the first division, the Second Infantry Division of the King’s Guard has declared a position. Major General Pisan Sithisan has stated:

Soldiers, like every Thai citizen, are duty-bound to protect the monarchy and prevent any offence against the country’s revered institution, the commander of the Army’s  said on Thursday.

Pisan was speaking on the sidelines of a mock exercise to ensure preparedness involving his division’s 12 battalions, based in Prachin Buri.

Updated: Get ready to obey orders

21 04 2011

In the recent training exercise for the King’s Guard, Major General Kampanat Ruddit, commander of the 1st Infantry Division “urged all soldiers to uphold discipline and the integrity of the uniform and to serve the country and His Majesty the King.”

Significantly, he added:

“All from the 1st Infantry Regiment are the King’s soldiers. Hence, you must be ready to act on commands of your superiors,” Maj Gen Kampanat told the gathering of infantrymen.

He told them to have faith in their commanders and to strictly obey their orders, and insisted that all soldiers should share the army chief’s stance [on the monarchy].

Remember when Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda went around to various military installations demanding loyalty to king and military brass just before the 2006 coup?

Update: See this story in the Bangkok Post where red shirt leader Nattawut Saikua talks of coup preparations. Also worth reading Siam Voices on this story.

Democrat meddling emphasizes political loyalty

6 08 2009

The police chief saga continues. The Bangkok Post (6 August 2009: “Police reshuffle can still be changed”) has a report regarding the police reshuffle list already completed by police chief Patcharawat Wongsuwon.

Council of State Secretary-General Porntip Jala is reported as saying that the list can still be changed “as it has not yet received royal approval.”

The Police Commission is due for an apparently special meeting on Friday to discuss the list while the police chief is absent. That would seem exceptionally convenient. Even better for the government, the “Council of State chief said [acting chief] Pol Gen Wichien [Potposri] had the authority to arrange another police reshuffle in the absence of the commander.”

Patcharawat is said to have warned against politicians changing the reshuffle list, and rumours are flying that a Democrat has been involved. Meanwhile, “some retired senior police leaders called for a legal amendment to prevent politicians from intervening in personnel management at the Royal Thai Police Office.”

Meanwhile, according to the Bangkok Post (6 August 2009: “Priewphan to seek court justice over acting police chief’s job”) the man passed over for acting police chief, Deputy national police chief Priewphan Damapong (see our earlier post here) has vowed to “seek justice in the courts.”

Priewphan said “that he believed he was not entrusted with the responsibility because he is a relative of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.” He added that “he has already served as acting national police chief 22 times.”

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva “responded to Pol Gen Priewphan’s claims a few hours later. He insisted the appointment of Pol Gen Wichien was appropriate and legal. He had taken into consideration seniority and suitability to do the job in the current situation, the prime minister said. The appointment of Pol Gen Wichien was in line with Article 72 of the Police Act.”

Then there is a neat tidbit: “Responding to the suggestion that Pol Gen Wichien might not be suitable for the post since the Royal Aide-de-Camp Department and Police Office attached to the Royal Household Bureau had earlier each issued an order prohibiting him from entering the palace, Mr Abhisit said he had checked and found that the orders had been revoked.” If any reader knows what this is about, PPT would be pleased to hear more.

Keeping the meddling to ensure loyalty to the government going, the Bangkok Post (6 August 2009: “Prawit fears meddling in lists”) has another, potentially more important story, if the reporting is accurate.

Apparently Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon (the on-leave police chief’s brother) skipped a cabinet meeting yesterday. At the same time, an army source has said that Prawit has urged “armed forces leaders to finalise their annual reshuffle lists by the middle of this month to prevent political interference…”.

Prawit is reportedly “concerned about the political situation and … is also worried about political pressure to have him removed.”

The Sondhi Limthongkul assassination case is considered to be putting Prawit under pressure and it is reported that “PAD leader Mr Sondhi and the ruling Democrat Party are looking for candidates to fill the defence minister’s post…”. It is said that “Potential candidates include former coup leaders who toppled Thaksin … such as Gen Saprang Kalayanamitr, Gen Boonsrang Niampradit and Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin.”

The source is also reported to have said that the “army officers involved in the crackdown on the Songkran riots are also poised to be promoted. They include Maj Gen Paiboon Khumchaya, commander of the 1st Division of the King’s Guard, who is expected to be made deputy commander of the 1st Army, and Maj Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, commander of the 9th Infantry Regiment, who will be made another deputy commander of the 1st Army. Maj Gen Kampanat Ruddit, commander of the Phetchaburi-based 15th Military Circle, will be made commander of the 1st Division of the King’s Guard.”

Wasn’t it Thaksin who was accused of meddling in the transfers and promotions, putting the military leadership off-side? The Democrat Party seems intent on rewarding loyalty and establishing its control over the forces of repression in Thailand.

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