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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 17, 2010
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 year.

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 conflict.

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 funds.

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 exile.

Royal silence
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.

Unaccountable force
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 [1] 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 debilitating resistance.

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 assault.

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.

Note
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.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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