“The deep political crisis within the Royal Thai Army officer corps”

Observers continue to ask what the real position of the Royal Thai Army in the current political crisis is.  A frustrating lack of access and information has made credible answers to questions about that position difficult.   This writer’s access to a number of RTA officers leads him to offer the following thoughts on the matter.  He concludes that a crisis within the RTA’s officer corps scarcely less grave than one in Thailand’s politics had brought about an alarming state of affairs for the country.

While Army commander Gen Anupong Paojinda was insisting on Sunday that the Royal Thai Army remained solidly united “behind the nation, the people and His Majesty,” many senior and junior officers were cynically asking themselves whether their leader was just trying to convince himself of this unity in front of the public.

In an effort to outline the script for the end of at least this round of Thailand’s protracted political conflict, the Queen’s protégé Gen Anupong was appearing on a talk show with the country’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. During the appearance, the 45-year-old premier made clear that he is betting on the nationalist, royalist, and putatively moderate voices which have emerged spontaneously  among Thai netizens to challenge call for a dissolution of parliament made by the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and its demonstrators.  To support these voices, his government also seems to have used the tools of the state to mobilize “followers” and promote the emergence of groups of “multi-coloured shirts” in more than 20 provinces. In Bangkok, the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) has talked with representatives of 78 local communities in the capital to encourage that their residents refrain from joining the “unlawful” Red Shirt rallies.

In the first weeks of the Red Shirt demonstrations, which recommenced on 12 March, Bangkokians questioned the prime minister’s decisiveness. But since the 10 April clash between military forces and the protestors near Democracy Monument and the resultant toll of 25 deaths (21 civilians) and nearly 900 injured persons (again mostly civilians), Abhisit has become a new man.  He has spoken in forceful tones of his placing national security before his own and his cabinet’s security.  He has made clear his determination to set a precedent that the rule of law must be upheld.

The premier may really believe that he is undertaking this noble task of “changing the country for the better, working for the Thai people, and laying strong foundations for political reform and the reform of land rights”—a crucial step that would solve the grievances of many UDD supporters.   This belief may explain his willingness to risk adding his name to history’s list of notorious leaders—almost all soldiers—who have presided over the deaths of large numbers of their own people.But Abhisit’s present convictions and his actions appear to take little account of the deep political crisis within the RTA officer corps.  It is impossible to understand just how dangerous Thailand’s current situation is without an appreciation of that military crisis.

While Abhisit has been developing his new, decisive, uncompromising line, Gen Anupong, a member of the military academy’s Pre-Cadet Class 10, has been doing some hard thinking and executing some shrewd maneuvers.  He has enjoyed some success in offering subtle, gentlemanly rejections to those urging upon him such thankless tasks as leading another coup to end the current political crisis or cracking down on the demonstrators.  He has desperately wanted to retire in peace, without having to worry about Red Shirt revenge against him and his family.  But, in the end, he has few choices besides accommodating his subordinate Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, also a protégé of the Queen, in the latter’s approach to the political crisis of the past month.  That approach brought the ugly and confusing results of the operations of the night of 10 April.  It was only thanks to the objection of Gen Songkitti Jaggabatara that Gen Prayuth’s determination that a coup be staged that day was overcome.

While Abhisit has argued strongly that parliament must approve the government’s budget before it is dissolved, he also has a strong interest in a smooth annual reshuffle of civilian and uniformed officials.  He and his allies need to ensure that people on whom they can rely are in position at the time of the next elections and that they continue to control the security apparatus.

But, on the military side, that reshuffle is an extremely tense matter. Anupong is the key to this delicate transition to an Army commander from Class 12.  He in turn requires Prayuth’s guarantee of safety during his retirement from investigation into corruption involving the flawed GT 200 bomb detectors and the multi-million-baht airship that has proved useless in spotting insurgents during actual operations in the Deep South.  This factor is central to understanding Anupong’s need to accommodate Prayuth during the present crisis.  For his part, and in addition to waiting uneasily for his promotion to Army commander in June or July at the earliest, Prayuth needs to ensure in advance his dominance of the Army during at least the first year of the projected four years that he will spend in that post.

The career concerns of these two officers ladder of these two generals remain crucial to the evolving political situation.  They help explain why the mass rallies of the “Prai” are so fierce in their retaliation against the forces of the “Ammat”.

But the military’s problems are more dangerous still. In conversation with this writer, many Army officers have spoken candidly about a certain 90-year-old cavalry officer, about the 83-year-old Father of the Nation, and about these two men’s being those most responsible for the political turbulence of the past four years.  “As the soul of the nation, he should warn his wife not to meddle in the national security operations or control her behaviour,” lieutenant generals from Class 11 and Class 14 have remarked.  The Queen has openly shown her sympathies to the royalist, middle-class-dominated, Yellow-Shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).  It is an open secret that Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, chairman of the Privy Council, is in strong alliance with the Queen.

But the forces of alliance between the Queen and Gen Prem alliance suffered the most damaging casualties in the 10 April clash at Dinso Road in front of Satri Withaya School.   Promotions have for some time rewarded officers who enjoyed the benevolence of the Queen and Gen Prem, to the dissatisfaction of members of other classes and factions.  Bed-ridden senior officers now recovering from injuries sustained on 10 April in the special ward on the twentieth floor of Phramongkut Hospital insist that the black-hooded snipers active that evening were well trained army officers.  They were probably former members of Marine SEAL units, the Army’s special warfare unit in Lopburi, and another specially trained secret unit in the Air Force.  “They rab job (were paid for a task) to kill us. They did not come to chase us away or to lend the Red Shirts moral support, but to undertake that single mission,” officers wounded on 10 April told this writer.  These officers believe that what happened was not the work of a disbanded group of specialist military rangers or tahan pran but rather of more skilled mercenaries.

These gunmen succeeded in causing a serious loss to the Prem-Queen alliance.  For they killed a rising star in Queen’s Guard from Prachinburi, Col Romklao Thuwatham, and seriously injured a number of senior officers, including Burapha task force head Maj Gen Walit Rojanapakdi and his colonels. Among the seriously injured soldiers was Lt Col Kriengsak Nanthapotidet, half-brother of the late Lt Col Narongsak, a member of Class 8 and Her Majesty’s favourite aide. Narongsak created and gave fame to the Queen’s Guard unit.

While the knock-on effects of the 10 April evening operations had yet to subside, the 22 April grenade attacks against the anti-Red-Shirt protestors who gathered near Sala Daeng under the banner of Silom Club or Multi-Colored Group aggravated bitterness, fear, hatred, and desire for revenge on all sides.

The Abhisit government has blockaded the UDD’s People’s Channel television and some 30 other critical websites and Web boards.  It has repeatedly aired one-sided reports with footage to undermine any idea troops fired on the demonstrators.  It has succeeded in arousing sentiments to counter the so-called lom jao (or “overthrow the monarchy”) movement.  Rightists have viewed the petition of former prime ministers Somchai Wongsawat and Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh petition for the King’s advice to help resolve the current political deadlock as an attempt to embarrass His Majesty.  They see it as an attempt to reveal his alleged loss of sacred power and practical clout.

The Ratchaprasong encampment represents the last bet by UDD core leaders to test whether the government dares to gun down the demonstrators before the eyes of the embassies and multinational corporations in the area.

Abhisit’s strong will (which some see as stubbornness) has left him determined to wipe the Red-Shirts away from Ratchaprasong in the next 24 hours or so.  He is expected to be successful.  But he will still have to cope with deep rift within the Army during his remaining months in office, if he is to avoid having Red fighters transformed into urban terrorists.

The Thai Police have clearly remained in neutral gear for the past year, since their former boss Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan was kicked out in disgrace just months before his retirement over the issues of Police over-reaction and indiscipline in handling the PAD-led siege of Parliament during the Samak administration.

Abhisit’s, and Thailand’s, real problem lies in the Army. “Entrenched military involvement in politics and political involvement in the military have demoralized career soldiers. There is no sincere respect for the current and future leaders who have climbed to the top without direct experience in real combat, but only through honorary decorations,” said a general who asked not to be named.

Recent events have shown the nasty response by disappointed military factions to the planned passing of the torch from Anupong to Prayuth.  The former has served for three years as Army commander; the latter would have a full four years before retirement. In these seven years, other military factions and Pre-Cadet classes will have been effectively excluded from power and influence in the Army. Members of Prayuth’s Class 12 have already been put into key positions.

These officers include Lt Gen Dapong Ratanasuwan, who is now deputy chief-of-staff and is slotted to become chief-of-staff for Gen Prayuth when the latter succeeds Gen Anupong, and Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakhon, who is currently commanding general of the 2nd Army Corps and looks set to become overall chief of the 2nd Army Area Command during this year’s reshuffle.

Also important to mention are 3rd Army Corps commander, Lt Gen Wannathip Wongwai, in line to be promoted to the 3rd Army Area Command, and Queen’s Guard Gen Thanasak Patimapakorn, also a member of Class 12.  Now the chairman of the advisory board of the Royal Thai Armed Forces Command, he is a candidate to be Gen Songkitti’s replacement as supreme commander next year.  Gen Thanasak commanded the formidable Task Force 90 of the Special Warfare Unit and was also director of the anti-international terrorism centre.

The Prachinburi-based Burapha Tiger Force, led by Class 15’s Maj Gen Walit Rojanapkadi—also a member of  the Queen’s Guard—has been entrusted with the unenviable responsibility of guarding the government since the failed Pattaya summit, the ensuing Din Daeng sweep against the Reds, and the recent Phan Fa “retrieving operation.”  With most of Anupong’s men and the Queen’s protégés brought in for the 10 April crackdown, including the slain Colonel Romklao Thuwatham (a shining star of the Din Daeng operation in April 2009), it can be assumed that the men-in-black wanted to assassinate the whole team.

Can it now be assume that brutal, high-stakes factional competition within the RTA’s officer corps is now over?  That it will now cease to be a serious complicating factor in Thailand’s political crisis?  That it deserves at least as much attention as the prime minister’s newly decisive attitude toward that crisis?

Update: Government sources have tried to implicate Lt Gen Manas Paolik, former deputy 3rd Army Commander and Thaksin’s classmate at the Army Pre-Cadet School, as the man responsible for the mayhem of 10 April.  Manas, now a member of Puea Thai party, was poised to be the northern commander as replacement for the outspoken Gen Saprang Kalayanamit.  He was, however, dumped after the 2006 coup.  Last year he made ambiguous comments about the bad health of a “charismatic person outside the constitution” when the King was hospitalised.  Implicating Manas will allow the government to allege that evidence links Thaksin directly to 10 April and to nail Thaksin as a “terrorist”. Methi Amonrwutthikul, the movie star who was arrested some days ago, will become an important government witness in this case.