Oct 13, 2012

Thailand - Thai military resists political pressure

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Thailand recently released its autumn list of senior military officer promotions and reassignments, an annual exercise that determines the balance of power among competitive factions inside the armed forces.

While many analysts expected self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to push for his known military allies to take key positions, Royal Thai Army (RTA) Commander-in-Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha appears at first blush to have maintained the upper hand.

The main annual reshuffle, which came into effect on October 1, is a key indicator of the strength of political loyalties inside the Thai military and a broad barometer of political stability in the year ahead. Reshuffles have been especially closely watched since 2006, the year the military overthrew Thaksin and his then ruling Thai Rak Thai party in a bloodless coup.

This year's list reassigned 811 senior officers, up from a normal 500-600 rotations, representing the largest military reshuffle recorded in Thailand.

Some Thai press reports interpreted this year's reshuffle as a victory for Defense Minister Air Chief Marshal Sukamphol Suwannathat, a known Thaksin ally appointed to the post earlier this year. To be sure, Sukamphol's position was strengthened when he prevailed over three senior army officers serving at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) who had refused to accept their reassignments and protested directly to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's younger sister.

Sukamphol created a staggering 210 new senior positions ranking colonel and above in the MoD's Office of the Permanent Secretary. He also arranged for the transfer of an unprecedented number of officers from the Air Force, his own branch of the armed service, to the MoD.

This was an apparent effort to create a large number of generals with personal loyalty to Sukamphol and expand the MoD as a counter to the traditionally dominant RTA. The move also possibly reflects an expansion of some kind of unexplained special activity within the MoD.

A deeper examination of the reshuffle list, however, indicates that the Prayuth-led RTA maintained a large measure of its political independence. Prayuth, a staunch royalist and perceived opponent of the Yingluck-led government, was able to maintain his top spot and elevate many of his known loyalists to key RTA command positions. Some have speculated that Yingluck's government felt too weak to manage the potential fallout from elevating too many of its own loyalists within the RTA.

Others believe that Prayuth and Sukamphol reached an accommodation whereby the army commander supported the minister in his public spat with the three generals in his office, including the husband of a known provincial powerbroker in Thaksin's camp, in return for a free hand over the broader reshuffle.

Thailand's army commander, rather than the minister of defense or commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces (formerly known as the Supreme Command, the joint headquarters that superficially controls all three branches of the armed services) has historically been the predominant influence inside the military. It is thus significant that Prayuth maintained his top position despite Thaksin's and Yingluck's Peua Thai party's electoral dominance and earlier veiled threats that Sukamphol might orchestrate his removal.

There are two likely main reasons for this outcome. First, and most obvious, is the fact that Thailand's army commander exercises direct authority over the major combat units that traditionally have been deployed to launch coups. Second, and less obvious, is that the army commander controls an extensive internal intelligence, civil affairs, and psychological operations network that has been used in the past to monitor politicians' activities and influence major political events, including democratic elections.

Thailand's 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 its institutional interests - and in many cases the personal interests of senior officers - above those of the civilian administration that it nominally serves.

Against this backdrop, Prayuth accomplished several important objectives during this year's reshuffle. First and foremost, Prayuth was able to put Lieutenant General Udomdet Setabut on a track to succeed him as army commander after Prayuth's mandatory retirement in September 2014. Udomdet, previously the commander of the 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.

Udomdet is a royal aide and recipient of the Ramathibodi Medal for valor in combat, the equivalent of the US Congressional Medal of Honor. 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.

Second, Prayuth managed to replace many other senior RTA command and staff positions with his own younger supporters from various up-and-coming military academy and military prep school classes. These changes included all corps commanders, who usually move up in subsequent reshuffles to command the various army areas, a level of command just below Prayuth, as well as six division commanders.

Factional divides

Prayuth also deftly balanced the interests of competing factions inside the RTA. This factionalism, a key determinant of intra-military stability, cuts in two main directions. First, there is the ever-present competition between members of the various military academy prep school graduating classes, whose members tend to remain loyal to one another and often either rise to high rank or stagnate in unison.

Second, two broad groups of officers, loosely translated into English as the "Angel Descendents" and "Eastern Tigers", now fiercely compete for promotions and assignments to key positions within the 1st Army Region, the pivotal command which oversees the security of Bangkok and the central region.

The Angel Descendent, or Wong Thewan, group tends to represent the RTA's traditional side. It is comprised of officers with high-level family connections, usually in the military but also sometimes from powerful political clans. The careers of the these officers is usually centered around the 1st Infantry Division, or King's Guard. The present roster of serving battalion and regimental commanders in the 1st Infantry Division indicates it is still the unit of choice for well-connected officers.

Over the years, Angel Descendent officers have benefited from what some view as a disproportionate number of promotions and key assignments. In the fall of 2004, however, this trend changed dramatically with the assignment of General Prawit Wongsuwan, a prominent Eastern Tiger alum, as army commander for his final year of active duty.

The Eastern Tigers are comprised of officers who often lack special family connections and whose careers have centered around service in the 2nd Infantry Division, especially its subordinate 21st Infantry Regiment. The 21st Regiment is a special RTA unit that ever since the 1981 April Fool's Day coup has been tasked with protecting royal family members.

While many analysts believe that the shift away from the Angel Descendants towards the Eastern Tigers was initiated by the 2006 coup, which overthrew Thaksin, it actually began two years earlier. The dominance in promotions and assignments that Eastern Tiger officers have recently enjoyed has been a major factor in pushing many Angel Descendent officers to support Thaksin and his ruling Peua Thai party.

Several of Thaksin's military prep school Class 10 classmates hail from this group, including Preuk Suwannathat, who recently retired after serving as commander of the 1st Infantry Division, and his two brothers. All three officers are the sons of the late Gen Tuanthong Suwannathat, a key ally of former Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan in the 1970s.

The Angel Descendent group clearly hoped that Peua Thai's electoral victory in 2011 would translate into more promotions and key assignments for its members. While this has not transpired, Prayuth's balanced handling of key promotions and assignments at this year's reshuffle likely helped to defuse tensions. It has also reportedly earned him a new measure of respect from the Angel Descendants, despite Prayuth's personal background as an Eastern Tiger. This will have left little opening for Thaksin and Peua Thai politicians to exploit the rivalry and play divide-and-rule politics inside the armed forces.

Significantly, Prayuth promoted an unprecedented 103 officers from the rank of special colonel (the RTA equivalent of brigadier general) to major general at this year's reshuffle. The number of officers promoted to major general never exceeded 62 at previous fall reshuffles. Like the 210 new senior positions Sukamphol created within the MoD, this is another eye-popping figure and is undoubtedly related to Prayuth's believed success in satisfying the ambitions of various younger military prep school classes for promotion.

Given that most Thai military officers remain on active duty until their mandatory retirement at age 60, many of these newly promoted major generals (who are 52 to 53 years old) have another seven or eight years remaining on active duty. They will now likely view Prayuth as an officer to whom they owe a major debt, one that could possibly be repaid should the royalist army commander decide to enter politics after his retirement in 2014.

Cultivating loyal allies among the commanders of key combat units could also represent an important strategic advantage in any future political conflict, including new rounds of street protests or another push for the criminally convicted Thaksin to return from self-exile through some sort of amnesty. (The effect of all these promotions on the RTA's efficiency and effectiveness as a fighting force, however, is another matter.)

Prayuth, who previously had a reputation for favoritism towards his own Class 12 loyalists, has likely managed through the reshuffle to maintain RTA unity in the face of growing factionalism. While the big question looming over Thai politics is whether Thaksin will soon push again to return from exile, the fact that Prayuth maintained his position and strengthened his hand at the reshuffle means the RTA will remain a potent countervailing force in the year ahead.

John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano

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