Asia-Pacific Features

The Inside Story: Thailand’s military coup – Act 1

By M&C News - The Nation Multimedia Group - Avudh Jan 8, 2007, 15:53 GMT

The Inside Story: Thailand’s military coup – Act 1

Thai soldiers salute Thailand\'s Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, after a press conference at the Internal Security Operations Command head office, Bangkok, Thailand, Monday 01 January 2007. Surayud on Monday condemned those behind the series of eight bombs attack exploded across the city and its suburbs on New Year\'s Eve, and again just before midnight at a planned venue for Bangkok\'s Countdown to 2007 killed at least three people and injured 36 others including six foreigners. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

Since the New Year's Eve bombings throughout Bangkok, there have been daily rumors of another coup, bomb scares throughout the capital and a general feeling of malaise among the general population.

One of the more interesting writings and analysis of the situation is by what the English language Thai newspaper “The Nation” calls its “military expert.” Identified only by the name “Avudh,” his blog is a thorough look at the events and players in the ongoing drama in the Thai Kingdom.

With permission from The Nation and Ayudth, we are printing blog contents exclusively here on M&C (some small editorial corrections made to content).  You will find Act 2 here and Act 3 here.

Top Boot Politics  (November 27 2006)

The choice of suit or uniform seems to hound Thai politics ever since the country switched from absolute monarchy to democratic rule in 1932.

Pro-democracy advocates may have their own conception of what popular democracy should be like. But the fact of the matter is, military leaders were at the government's helm for roughly 47 years while their civilian counterparts ran the country for only 27 years.

Even under civilian rule, only two prime ministers were elected General Chatichai Choonhavan and General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. The two rose to political prominence by riding on the success of their military career.

The military dominance over the political landscape is like a never-ending story as Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said himself that he remains a soldier at heart though he is wearing a suit and not in uniform.

For about two decades, I have been a ringside observer of the interplay between men in uniform and men in suit.

And I have a hunch that circumstances will force Surayud to extend his term just like General Prem Tinsulanonda, ending up as prime minister for eight years instead of a few years as originally intended.
Whether history will repeat itself remains to be seen.

After the next general election, the country will likely face the choice of suit or uniform once again. I suspect the next prime minister will either be Surayud or another man in uniform.

Please be clear, I am not pointing to any conspiracy against civilian rule.

Unfolding events will run their natural course without any script though it is inevitable that present events will dictate the future.

From my professional experience, I can say without a doubt that “top boot politics,” a term for the jockeying for power by military leaders, has always had a direct bearing on the very essence of democratic rule as has been practiced in Thailand.

Believe it or not, history has shown that soldiers thumping their top boots can send out shock waves throughout the political landscape.

The burning issue in the military right now is the succession of Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin.
I think the interaction of military cliques to name Sonthi's successor will become a decisive factor in the future of democratic rule.

Background: Council of coup leaders, also known as Council for National Security (CNS)

The September 19 coup means that the CNS is now the ultimate holder and enforcer of state power. Because the seizure of power was done by force, the CNS is actually a facade for the armed forces, particularly the Army which played a most decisive role in overthrowing the Thaksin Shinawatra regime.

Respective chiefs from the Supreme Command headquarters, Navy, Air Force and Police sit on the CNS to show a collective front in representing the military might.

Within the eight-member CNS, Sonthi has the ultimate say in all things that matter and takes his job very seriously. His deputy Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukphasuk and his secretary General Winai Phattiyakul both have considerable influence over his thinking.

The other three CNS members, Supreme Commander General Boonsarng Niumpradit, Navy chief Admiral Satirapan Keyanont and national police chief General Kowit Watana, are seen as good team players.

Sonthi and his five CNS allies are graduates from Pre-Cadet Class 6. They have the seniority over two CNS assistant secretaries, General Saprang Kallayanamitr and General Anupong Paochinda.

Saprang and Anupong are indispensable allies who helped Sonthi to successfully oust Thaksin.

Anupong leads the clique of Pre-Cadet Class 10, seen as pro-Thaksin. Without his assistance, Sonthi could never neutralise the clique's influence. Thaksin spent five years nurturing his Pre-Cadet Class 10 classmates as defenders of his throne.

Sonthi's succession issue

Sonthi gained prominence after he was a dark horse candidate to become the Army chief last year. He is seen as a modest soldier and has virtually no power base except for the loyalty of special warfare forces in Lop Buri.

He became involved in political intrigue from prodding by the ruling elite and military cliques who would be purged if Thaksin was allowed to cling to power.

In engineering the coup, he owed favors to so many cliques, for example Pre-Cadet Class 10, Pre-Cadet Class 7 under Saprang and Pre-Cadet Class 9 under his chief of staff General Montri Sangkhasap.
As he has one year remaining in military service, he is in a delicate situation to rein in various cliques. Soldiers are known to flock to an incoming commander rather than an outgoing one.

The balancing act to align various cliques is almost a repeat of what Prem did between 1980 and 1988.

By Sonthi's own road map, he will be out of the Army, the real seat of power, in September while the next general election is expected no sooner than December.

Hence the dilemma is sure to pop up - his Army successor will determine the resumption of democracy while he is slated to stand on the sidelines.

Top contenders to succeed Sonthi are Saprang, Anupong and Montri. Winai plays a vital role in helping Sonthi make up his mind and is a key player to back the next Army chief.

Unfolding events involving Saprang, Anupong, Montri and Winai have already started to reverberate through the corridors of power.

Saprang

If Sonthi is to pick his successor now, Saprang is a top favorite. By next September, he should have about a  60 per cent chance of steering the Army's helm.

Saprang is seen as a hard head soldier and only has himself as his worst enemy. He is basking in the limelight and overexposure in the media will likely be his undoing.

A few short months ago, he was a relatively unknown soldier. Media hype, led by the Manager Group under anti-Thaksin campaigner Sondhi Limthongkul, transformed him into a darling of the local press.
He has been transformed into a dare-devil champion spearheading the destruction of the Thaksin regime.

Whether he is aware of it or not, his publicity has started to raise the eyebrows of his supporters and opponents.

Events around him seem to generate astounding political friction.

Thaksin's supporters mark him for elimination at any cost. Many former MPs in the Northeast are not happy with him.

To oppose Saprang, politicians flock to cliques from Pre-Cadet Class 9, Class 6 and Class 10. Saprang's clique of Pre-Cadet Class 7 is quite isolated.

Saprang's Pre-Cadet Class 7 ally Admiral Bannawit Kengrien has ruffled many feathers in the National Legislative Assembly as if trying to send some kind of hostile signal to Sonthi's Pre-Cadet Class 6 which dominates the assembly.

Last week, leaks originated from the CNS indicating that Saprang might be tasked to monitor the government's performance. Chavalit was quick to discredit the rumors, asking why the CNS should make a "senseless" decision to assign "an assistant secretary" to override the government.

Saprang should watch his step if he still hopes to rise further in his career ladder.

Anupong

At the moment, Anupong has virtually no chance to carry the Army's torch due to his past link with Thaksin.

He can not be counted out, however. His exemplary record as the commander of the 21st Regiment of the Queen's Guard should count for something. His link to the Queen's Guard should speak volumes.

He is seen as politically savvy when compared to Saprang. He is definitely Sonthi's trump card for balancing out various cliques.

Montri

Montri stays under the media radar although his Pre-Cadet Class 9 has been a counter-force to the Pre-Cadet Class 10.

His fellow classmates, Lt General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Lt General Jiradet Kocharat, Lt General Viroj Buacharoon, are commanders of the First, Third and Fourth Army Areas respectively.

With his allies in key command positions, he has a ready springboard to catapult into power.

Although it went virtually unnoticed by the media, Sonthi recently assigned Montri to revamp the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc). Montri's domination over the Isoc gives him “backdoor” control over the entire government machinery.

On the drawing board, an enhanced of his power includes control over the line-up of provincial governors.

Winai

Winai is not in the race to succeed Sonthi. He is, however, the king maker who can weigh in on the next Army chief and formation of the next government.

In spite of his repeated denial, speculation persists that he is trying to engineer his civilian ally Deputy Prime Minister MR Pridiyathorn Devakula to enter politics.

Legislative bickering on the lottery issue led by Prasong Soonsiri and Chamlong Srimuang is nothing but a proxy war designed to curb Winai's growing influence.

The CNS will expire next year but its certain members will rely on “top boot politics” to carve out their political future.



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