Coup as counter-insurgency in Thailand
By John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano
On May 22, after making repeated public statements that a coup would not resolve Thailand's intractable political conflict, Royal Thai Army (RTA) commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power at the head of a military junta that has since vowed to overhaul the country's politics. While Prayuth's tactics of consolidation are recognizable, harking to the military's suppression of communist insurgents in the 1970s and 80s, there is no guarantee his ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) will achieve similar national reconciliation.
According to senior military sources, Prayuth was sincere in his earlier public vows of non-intervention in the country's tumultuous politics. After months of persistent lobbying by two groups of
senior officers that argued the country faced a fundamental crisis from spiraling street protest-related violence and the real threat of armed confrontation between political groups aligned and opposed to self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Prayuth finally acquiesced to the idea of a military takeover.
One lobby group was comprised of retired senior generals of the influential 2nd Infantry Division, a unit where Prayuth formerly served. A second more influential group consisted of a well-organized network of more junior active duty officers, according to the same military insiders. The well-placed sources did not say exactly when Prayuth changed his mind but circumstantial evidence points to some time in mid to late March.
According to the same sources, the pro-coup groups argued that the crisis represented the last realistic chance, given the fragile health and advanced age of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to remove the Shinawatra family clan and its aligned Peua Thai party from power before the succession of heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn to the throne.
This royalist group of officers feared that if Peua Thai was still in control of government at the time of the succession, Thaksin and his political allies might try to take advantage of the succession to further their political interests. Thaksin has consistently insisted his loyalty to the throne and has known personal ties to Vajiralongkorn.
The first sign of the shift came with the RTA's announcement that the number of conscripts to be inducted for service in April would be increased by several thousand, in order to increase the personnel levels of the then under-strength and increasingly pivotal 7th Infantry and 3rd Cavalry Divisions.
These divisions, garrisoned in the country's North and Northeastern regions, the two strongest areas of political support for Thaksin and his aligned Peua Thai Party, were established several years ago with the intention of bolstering the army's ability to control these regions in a potential crisis. Until now, however, they existed as not much more than cadres; the decision to fill out their ranks was a clear sign that the RTA was preparing, at least as a contingency, to intervene.
The second sign was an apparent behind-the-scenes struggle for control of key army units at the April mid-year reshuffle. (A larger, more significant reshuffle takes place every October.) Normally the most routine of bureaucratic procedures, the promotion and reassignment list was delayed for almost three weeks after then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced in early March that she had forwarded the list to the palace for final royal approval. (Yingluck was knocked from office by a court decision weeks before the coup; one of her deputies served as caretaker premier when the military finally seized power.)
One plausible explanation for the delay was that officers within the Ministry of Defense (MoD), which was then staffed with many pro-Thaksin officers, most prominently MoD Permanent Secretary General Nipat Thonglek, attempted to change the list proposed by royalist military leaders either because they had become aware of Prayuth's plan to intervene or aimed more generally to limit the army chief's power. A similar dispute between royalists and Thaksin's camp over a military reshuffle list presaged Thaksin's military ouster in 2006.
Some have pointed to the proposed promotion of Major General Aphirak Kongphongsom, a known Prayuth protege who as a colonel commanded the 11th Infantry Regiment unit that was instrumental in the suppression of pro-Thaksin 'Red Shirt' street protests in 2009-2010, to head the important Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division (King's Guard) as a particular point of contention. The King's Guard has since been instrumental in consolidating the coup.
Iron fist, velvet glove
In most previous Thai coups, the army or a faction within the army seized power via extra-constitutional means for their own benefit or to preserve the military's larger institutional interests. While the Kingdom's prevailing constitution has usually either been suspended or totally rewritten in past coups, the primary goal has generally been to return to normalcy as soon as possible.
Like the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin's elected government, Prayuth has promised to quickly restore democracy after a period of political reform. Indeed, some commentators have described the 2014 coup as a "hard" version of the 2006 intervention, meaning that the military realizes that it didn't go far enough the last time to remove the Shinawatra clan's political influence and perceived existential threat.
Such an analysis, however, fails to appreciate the full extent of what Prayuth's NCPO is currently trying to accomplish. In fact, the frame of reference for best understanding Prayuth's putsch is not the 2006 coup, or really any previous coup, but rather the successful counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign the RTA waged against the insurgent Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the 1970's and 80's.
Many active senior officers, including the ruling clique around Prayuth, are veterans of that ultimately successful military campaign. The operation continues to be studied extensively in Thai army service schools, while many of the structures which were originally developed to fight the communist insurgency are still active. The Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), for example, played a key role in gathering pre-coup intelligence and post-coup has played a prominent role in implementing Prayuth's political plans.
The counter-insurgency campaign's doctrine and fighting methods are part of the Thai officer corps' collective DNA, a fact that many outsiders find difficult to comprehend. For RTA soldiers, it's more than just a military doctrine; the experience is at the heart of how the officer corps views itself and justifies its special role as national guardian beyond the command and control of elected civilian politicians.
Both then and now, the RTA perceives an existential threat to the Kingdom. Not coincidentally, the threat arises from the same regions, the North and Northeast, which are the heartland of both the CPT and Thaksin's Red Shirt supporters. The RTA's approach to both situations is essentially the same: suppress its dedicated ideological opponents while trying to attract the average, non-ideological, pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporter by offering amnesty and programs to improve their lives.
The military's first moves in the wake of the May 22 coup are consistent with this tactic. The detention of prominent Red Shirt leaders and Peua Thai politicians, raids on hidden arms caches allegedly linked to militant Red Shirts, and the shutting down of anti-military, pro-Thaksin media represented the suppressive element of this two-pronged strategy. The payment of farmers owed from the previous government's botched rice pledging program and campaigns to promote national "happiness" are attempts to co-opt Thaksin's less ideological supporters.
This time around, however, the RTA and its NCPO faces potentially unseen risks. By copying the successful techniques of the 1980's but possibly forgetting the spirit that informed them, the NCPO risks confusing stability with legitimacy. Thailand's ruling generals would do well to remember that the RTA's original counterinsurgency campaign was multi-phased and that it was only in the final phase that reforms which ultimately proved to be the keys to victory were enacted.
In the beginning, the RTA simply went on a killing spree against communist rebels. That phase of the campaign had predictable results: many innocent people were killed and many more were driven into the insurgents' camp. At that time, the RTA had not yet developed its own counterinsurgency doctrine. Due to the presence of American advisors in its ranks, the RTA followed the United States' COIN doctrine used in Vietnam, which depended on heavy firepower, attrition, body counts and cordon-and-search techniques.
A reaction to this brutality soon arose from within the RTA. Relatively junior officers, some of whom were leading troops in the field and others who served as staff officers at the RTA Operations Center in Bangkok, gave birth to a reform movement, known as the "Democratic Soldiers", which improved the RTA's unit discipline and incorporated innovative field tactics, some of which had even been employed by the CPT's insurgents. This was also later coupled with a hearts-and-minds program of massive infrastructure building in the rural North and Northeast regions.
These policies still weren't enough to quell the rebellion. Only after several years and against much opposition, both from within the civilian Ministry of the Interior and the RTA itself, was a final new comprehensive new national COIN policy (Prime Minister's Order 66/2325, April 1980) pushed through the bureaucracy by a few knowledgeable senior officers, notably Generals Prem Tinsulanonda, Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, Harn Linnanon and Charn Boonprasert, and adopted as national policy.
The primary thrust of this new policy was a nationwide interagency effort implemented by joint civilian, police and military task forces in affected provinces. These task forces, under the control of ISOC, consulted with villagers about their needs and then aimed to meet them. Provincial governors who were then all Ministry of the Interior officials were also for the first time brought into the COIN effort (a Prem and Harn innovation from the their previous COIN operations in the Northeast) by making them responsible for the success and/or failure for all related policies and operations in their respective provinces.
At the same time, the CPT also made several significant blunders which inadvertently played into government hands, including a propaganda campaign against the Thai royal family and favoring China in the Sino-Soviet split. But it was only when villagers in the North and Northeast were finally accorded both a minimum measure of respect and some local control over government policies that affected their livelihoods that popular support for the CPT insurgency finally collapsed.
The public consultations about reforms which ISOC is now overseeing on behalf of the NCPO echoes this previous COIN policy. What counted as deep-reaching reform in the 1970's and 80's, however, will no longer suffice to satisfy an increasingly more educated, sophisticated and politically aware Thai electorate.
Whether or not the military intends to adopt real reforms that will ultimately lead to a genuinely more democratic political system won't be absolutely certain until a new constitution is written and adopted - a process the NCPO has said will take over a year.
One early indication of the military's intention to go beyond uprooting the Shinawatra family's influence and implement genuine political reforms will be the selection of an interim prime minister.
The most frequently mentioned candidates in the Thai press are retired army general Prawit Wongsawon and Prayuth himself. Prayuth must retire from the armed services this September at the mandatory age of 60 and assuming the premiership as a civilian would allow him to continue to steer the country's post-coup course. If either officer is named to serve as interim premier, it will raise questions about the reform direction. Both officers share an entirely traditional military outlook on social and political affairs and are known to be strong defenders of the military's own prerogatives.
A more hopeful reform path would see the selection of a civilian technocrat with previous business, government or legal experience, as well as the personal standing and legitimacy to lead the Kingdom to a new national election in late 2015, as the NCPO has promised. At the same time, the appointment of a past or present army officer will likely also put more pressure on the military's internal cohesion.
Senior officers say the public unity currently displayed by the military's senior leadership masks divisions in the officer corps which are partly political, partly factional. Prawit and Prayuth are leaders of one such intra-army faction, popularly known as the "Eastern Tigers." The appointment of either could be viewed by the other main faction, the "Wong Thewan", loosely translated as "lineage of the gods", as a potential threat to its aspirations and interests.
Wong Thewan officers, who come largely from elite families, benefit from their high-level military and political connections and tend to win assignments to the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division (King's Guard), which has responsibilities for aspects of palace security. The "Eastern Tigers", on the other hand, tend to come from commoner backgrounds and are concentrated in the 2nd Infantry Division (Queens' Guard) based to the East of Bangkok.
Significantly, the 2nd Infantry Division includes the 21st Regiment, a special unit given the mission after a failed 1981 coup attempt to provide security to the royal family during times of crisis. Over the years, officers whose careers began in the 21st Regiment often remained in the 2nd Infantry Division as they were promoted, creating a close bond between the royal family and the special unit. These ties have influenced the promotion to the rank of major general of a larger number of "Eastern Tigers" than from the "Wong Thewan" faction, leading to rivalry between the two groups.
Prawit began his career in the 21st Infantry and remained for most of the rest of his service in the 2nd Infantry Division. Under pressure from a camp of royalist former military officers, Thaksin appointed Prawit as RTA commander in October 2004 to replace his own cousin, General Chaiyasit Shinawatra, who was moved to the largely ceremonial post of Supreme Commander. According to senior military officers, Prawit later provided crucial support in the planning of Thaksin's 2006 overthrow, leveraging knowledge and connections gained while serving as army leader.
Prawit currently serves as a senior advisor to the NCPO. According to several RTA sources, there may be an out-of-cycle special military reshuffle in the coming months which will be utilized as a vehicle to both reward loyal troop commanders who performed well in the recent coup, as well as to purge those officers deemed as unreliable by the coup's leaders. The timing of this possible special reshuffle will be in advance of the scheduled normal annual fall reshuffle, which will become effective on October 1, 2014.
Whether or not this special reshuffle actually happens, it is significant that the entire Thai military leadership is scheduled to reach mandatory retirement age on September 30, 2014. However they accomplish it, the NCPO's leaders collectively want their successor generation of officers to be in place prior to their departure from active duty so that no potential disruption of the coup they have successfully consolidated occurs.
It is expected that most of this group will remain in key civilian positions with the junta after their retirement from the military. The new interim constitution has already granted the coup-makers amnesty for the putsch and oversight of a hand-picked legislative assembly that will be tasked with drafting a permanent new charter. It also gives Prayuth the discretionary power to take action against any threats to peace, order or the monarchy, a measure that vests ultimate power with the military and raises questions about its ultimate reform intentions.
John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano spent several years in Thailand while on active duty with the US Army. Both were trained as Foreign Area Officers specializing in Southeast Asia and graduated from the Royal Thai Army's Command and General Staff College. They are now retired and the views expressed here are their own.
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