ASIA HAND Thailand mulls a 'half coup'
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - When assassins dressed in black killed one top military commander and
maimed two others in the early stages of the April 10 clashes between Thai
security forces and red-shirted anti-government protesters, the precision hits
were likely as political as they were tactical.
Analysts and diplomats believe that the pre-emptive strikes effectively broke
the military's chain of command and contributed significantly to the subsequent
random violence that resulted in at least 24 deaths - including five soldiers -
and over 800 injuries, many from bullet and grenade shrapnel wounds.
Significantly, the three targeted officers were all primed for promotion to
top-ranking positions in this year's military reshuffle and all were known
loyalists to the deputy army commander, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is
poised to replace the army
commander, General Anupong Paochinda, on his mandatory retirement later this
The sophisticated nature of the targeted attacks, including the use of
laser-guided spot and shoot teams, and the apparent leak of confidential
information concerning troops' plans and formations, has suggested to analysts
possible military involvement in the assaults. Officials have claimed that
"terrorists" rather than rogue soldiers orchestrated the violence. But the
uncertainty has raised critical new questions about army unity at a pivotal
juncture in the country's violently escalating five-year-old political
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government has said that deployed soldiers
used live ammunition only in self-defense after they unexpectedly came under
fire; the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group
has claimed that none of its supporters were under arms. International reaction
to the killings has been guarded due to the still unclear circumstances
surrounding the violence.
The UDD launched its protests in mid-March two weeks after a Thai court ruled
to confiscate US$1.4 billion worth of exiled former premier Thaksin
Shinawatra's assets on charges of abuse of power. His elected government was
toppled in a bloodless 2006 military coup and the UDD has mobilized around his
still strong grass-roots popularity, particularly in the northern and
northeastern regions but also among Bangkok's lower classes, and his presumed
In April 2009, Thaksin urged his UDD supporters in a video-linked address to
launch a "social revolution" against the government, a battle cry that sparked
riots in the national capital that the military suppressed professionally.
Thaksin told international media at the time that soldiers had killed scores of
his supporters and secretly spirited away their bodies - claims that were never
substantiated with evidence.
In advance of the April 10 violence, coinciding with the start of the UDD's
protests, government offices, military installations and private businesses
were targeted in a mysterious bombing campaign that UDD leaders have claimed
the military orchestrated to discredit their self-proclaimed peaceful protests.
Yet some diplomats monitoring the situation felt that certain bombings were
coordinated with protest activities and seemingly aimed to provoke a security
force crackdown against unarmed UDD demonstrators.
An armed response, diplomats then suggested, would have provided Thaksin with
potent ammunition to call for a mass royal amnesty that would protect security
forces from legal prosecution for killing protesters and absolve him of his
court convictions, including a 2008 criminal corruption verdict that included a
two-year prison sentence and drove him - before the ruling was made - into
The palace, however, has maintained a steely silence in the wake of the April
10 violence with no hint of a royally endorsed amnesty forthcoming. This
despite calls from UDD co-leaders to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene in
the crisis. Queen Sirikit, meanwhile, made a symbolic appearance at the funeral
of Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, the commander killed on April 10 who was also her
former bodyguard, and has paid hospital visits to injured soldiers.
As Abhisit's government and UDD leaders fire accusations and
counter-accusations over who should be held chiefly accountable for the April
10 death and destruction, it is the military's next moves that will determine
the country's political trajectory. One palace insider told Asia Times Online
that top soldiers had in recent days weighed the possibility of launching a
"half coup" that would maintain Abhisit's Democrat party in political power
while relieving certain soldiers of their command posts.
For his part, Anupong has maintained that politicians must find a political
solution to the crisis and this week lent his tacit support to the dissolution
of parliament and holding new elections, without mentioning a timetable. But an
internal military putsch that replaces Anupong with Prayuth, purges military
officers perceived to be under Thaksin's and the UDD's sway, and invokes
martial law to clamp down on the UDD, is also a strong possibility.
Anupong is believed to have lost significant support among the top brass and
sections of the palace after Saturday's botched security operation. In
particular, he has been criticized for not moving earlier and more decisively
against the UDD, including on occasions when demonstrators left lightly guarded
their main protest sites to participate in roving rallies around Bangkok.
"How much longer can Anupong last?" asks one Bangkok-based diplomat. "He has
become something of a do-nothing army commander who is not willing to do get
involved in crucial operations ... His earlier restraint is now seen in the
eyes of some as a liability." People who attended the funeral ceremony this
week of one of the fallen commanders said that Anupong was isolated and ignored
by other top soldiers.
Any Prayuth-led purge of the military would aim to remove senior officers
believed to be in league with and providing confidential information to Thaksin
and the UDD. In particular, questions are being raised about the possible role
of the paramilitary tahahn prahn, or Rangers, in last Saturday's
commando-style decapitation of the military's on-the-ground command.
Analysts and diplomats say that the Rangers are one of the few Thai military
units with the capability and training to have accomplished such a
sophisticated military-style operation. Certain Rangers have openly
demonstrated their support for the UDD and in recent weeks appeared in full
uniform to sing songs on the UDD's protest stage.
General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who first formed the Rangers as a
counter-communist force in 1978, has according to at least one academic study
 maintained influence over the elite unit in his civilian capacity and has
deployed its soldiers for political purposes in the past. The Rangers are
perhaps the least accountable of the Thai military's units, embodied in a
culture that allows soldiers to come and go without question from their main
camp in Korat province.
One government official says they are now quietly probing the current status of
Chavalit's connections with the Rangers. Chavalit is now chairman of the
Thaksin-aligned opposition Puea Thai party and is tipped to run as the party's
prime ministerial candidate at the next polls. He has said publicly that
Abhisit should take full responsibility for the April 10 deaths.
Other insiders believe that the Supreme Command has played a role in leaking
information to the UDD from the government's security command center, including
confidential details of the military's plans and formations for dispersing the
UDD. They note that Supreme Commander General Songkitti Jaggabatra has been a
dissenting voice in top-level meetings held to devise strategies for dealing
with the UDD.
A government official says the matter is under "internal investigation";
Songkitti could not be reached for this article.
It's unclear, however, just how deep intra-military distrust runs. The earlier
consensus among military analysts and observers was that Anupong had since the
2006 coup consolidated his power through a series of reshuffles and demotions
that aimed specifically at purging remnant support for Thaksin from leadership
positions in the armed forces.
Some military insiders, including former spy chief and behind-the-scenes 2006
coup leader, Squadron Leader Prasong Soonsiri, had in recent months made
presentations to diplomats that there was still strong pro-Thaksin sentiment at
certain top levels of the armed forces. Some now believe Thaksin has
capitalized on mounting resentment to the disproportionate promotion of former
Queen's Guards, including Anupong and Prayuth, at recent reshuffles.
That may partially explain why Anupong and Prayuth relied on known loyalists
outside of Bangkok, including the Prachinburi province-based 2nd Infantry
Division, to play the lead role in last Saturday's crowd control operation. One
military insider said that "trust issues" were a factor in the decision to
deploy the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division only on the operation's
perimeter and to keep the Bangkok-based 2nd and 4th Cavalry units in the
barracks. Nor were the special forces deployed, a unit known peeved since 2007
for having its leaders sidelined by Anupong after playing a pivotal role in the
coup that ousted Thaksin.
It's uncertain how senior soldiers would react to any order from Prayuth to
quit their commands, though one military insider suggests any aggressive action
to lockdown top officers perceived to be compromised could spark a "civil war".
Some believe that this week's mysterious botched attack on an electricity
generating plant providing power to Bangkok was meant to send a signal to
Prayuth that any internal coup would be met with strong and potentially
One diplomat suggests that the top brass should instead aim to publicly "name
and shame" officers with hard evidence proving they leaked information or
participated in operations that endangered and took other soldiers' lives
rather than launch another coup. The envoy expressed concerns that the military
could be emboldened to act more forcefully by the tepid domestic and
international response to last Saturday's bloodbath.
Yet passions are known to be running high in Prayuth's camp after the Queen's
Guard soldiers who were expected to make up the core of his power base upon
becoming army commander were targeted, killed and maimed in a military-style
It's thus unclear whether the military under Prayuth's leadership would
countenance the prospect of elections that could hand Chavalit the premiership
and by proxy give Thaksin sway over future military policies and reshuffles.
But even a "half coup" would be highly unpopular and could well push Thailand
to a tipping point.
1. See Desmond Ball's The Boys in Black: The Thahan Prahn (Rangers), Thailand's
Paramilitary Border Guards, White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2004.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.