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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 7, 2007
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Thai reshuffle exposes cracks in military
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Political parties are gearing up for general elections in December that promise to usher Thailand back from military to democratic rule. But a highly anticipated military reshuffle, including most crucially the promotion of a new army commander-in-chief, could have a more profound effect on Thailand's political future course than the upcoming polls.

With a new constitution that empowers political appointees who

are likely to be influenced by the military over elected politicians, and impending new national-security legislation that, among other anti-democratic provisions, will give the military legal protection in the event of future coups, Thailand's next army commander will, in the name of upholding national security, have significant discretionary authority over politics.

To what degree the Thai military actually exercises those broad new powers will be largely determined by who of three distinctly different career soldiers is elevated next week to the army's top spot. Assistant army chiefs General Saprang Kalayanamitr and General Anupong Paochinda and army chief of staff Lieutenant-General Montri Sangkhasap are viewed as the top contenders for the post, which will be vacated this month when incumbent commander and Council for National Security (CNS) chief General Sonthi Boonyaratklin takes mandatory retirement.

Saprang and Anupong - both ranking CNS members and crucial commanders during last year's military coup that toppled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - had until recently been viewed as the front-runners, with the policy and planning expert Montri considered a step behind in the race. The two CNS officials have since the coup been locked in a subtle competition for the promotion, and the behind-the-scenes contest has intensified in the run-up to the announcement.

Saprang, 59, would be eligible to serve as commander for just one year before according to military protocol he must retire, while the younger Anupong and Montri could hold the post respectively for three and two years. Some military watchers contend that with the impending transition from military to democratic rule, where the army's role will still be crucial to political stability, elevating a commander who would be a lame duck after only six months would be a potentially destabilizing course.

"If the army is going to take a full step into politics, then it will be Saprang. If only a half-step, then Anupong. And if it intends to beat a full retreat or take one step back, it will be Montri," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a military scholar at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and a personal adviser to Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.

Perceptible cracks in army unity, some military-watchers maintain, could provide a political opening for the exiled Thaksin and his in-country political proxies in the new People's Power Party to play divide-and-rule politics inside the institution and potentially open parliamentary debate about the legality of last year's coup. Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtas hinted last week that the internal jockeying for the post is already affecting political stability.

His comments came hot on the heels of rumors that Saprang - who was quoted in the local press saying that he was unwilling to work under a less senior officer, meaning Anupong or Montri, after the next reshuffle - might attempt to launch a counter-coup if he is overlooked for the post or kicked upstairs to the less powerful ceremonial position of supreme commander. (Saprang has since publicly denied the rumors.)

Competing visions
The internal power struggle has exposed long-brewing rifts pitting hardline versus moderate factions inside the CNS and highlighted their competing visions for the military's future political role.

The hardline camp represented by Saprang believes that the CNS-appointed interim government and its investigative committees have moved too slowly and timidly in prosecuting Thaksin, his family members, and political associates - despite the recent arrest warrants issued for the ex-premier and the court-ordered dissolution in May of his Thai Rak Thai political party. To guard against possible opposition-led probes in the next democratically elected government, the hardline camp, and Saprang in particular, is believed to favor a sustained military involvement in day-to-day politics.

The moderates have so far trumped the hardliners. Apart from prosecuting Thaksin, the interim government led by former army commander and privy councilor Surayud has mainly handled with kid gloves the ex-premier's followers and anti-junta demonstrators - though it's unclear that his tack has achieved the military's stated goal of national reconciliation.

Saprang and his coup-maker ally, Prasong Soonsiri, a former spy chief who now heads the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly, have both recently criticized Surayud's administration for failing sufficiently to weed out Thaksin's influence in the bureaucracy and military and achieve the coup-makers' stated initial aims. It's unclear - but potentially significant for future stability - whether the two powerful hardline figures suspect that Anupong may harbor latent loyalties to Thaksin through their association as pre-cadet academy Class 10 schoolmates.

Divisive reshuffles have over the course of Thailand's military history frequently caused political ripples. Military experts note that the stakes are especially high for the impending rotation after 

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