Thai army: new line-up, same fault-lines
By John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano
BANGKOK - Thailand's main annual military reshuffle list went into effect today, the first rotation of the armed forces overseen by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra while serving concurrently as defense minister. Although the reshuffle has wide-reaching implications for political direction and stability due to the military's strong role, it has so far attracted scant public attention or critical media scrutiny.
A soldier-by-soldier analysis of which senior officers have been promoted and assigned to which positions in the military hierarchy, however, points to a potentially destabilizing rise in factionalism - a reflection of Yingluck's Peua Thai party's bid to assert more civilian control over the top-ranking army positions
which were responsible for overthrowing her elder brother, former premier and current de facto party leader Thaksin Shinawatra in a September 2006 coup.
The assignments of two particular top ranking officers illuminate the institutional and political forces at work. General Nipat Thonglek is a highly regarded four-star general who has been promoted to serve as the next permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Nipat is a longtime supporter and confidant of former prime minister Thaksin and by extension is also known to be close to current premier Yingluck.
According to several senior Thai army officers, Yingluck pushed personally for his promotion to the post. Reshuffles in Thailand are officially determined by the heads of the three armed forces, vetted by the defense minister and the MoD permanent secretary and finally approved by the prime minister. The rotation list becomes official when endorsed by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and traditionally comes into effect on October 1. The process has long been a battleground between elected politicians and military top brass loyal to the monarchy where considerations of patronage and capability often clash.
While the MoD permanent secretary is not as influential a position as army commander-in-chief or even the four regional army commanders, Nipat's appointment is still significant. During his five-year tenure, Thaksin moved to boost the MoD's power to counter the influence of top army generals who later orchestrated his ouster and until recently have been in the main united in opposition to his elected governments. Nipat has three years remaining in active duty before mandatory retirement and is expected to serve a key role in Thaksin's and Yingluck's future efforts to promote their supporters to key military positions.
The promotion of General Udomdet Setabutr to the position of army deputy commander, traditionally a springboard position to army commander-in-chief, was the other crucial promotion that favored royalist interests. Udomdet, a recipient of the Ramathibodee Medal, the highest award for valor in combat, has spent his career closely associated with the Thai royal family. He is widely perceived within the officer corps as the palace's top choice to succeed current army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha upon his mandatory retirement in September 2014.
Udomdet was promoted at last year's main reshuffle to a four star rank and appointed to the influential position of army chief of staff. Those promotions were consistent with the view that he was being groomed by Prayuth, a staunch royalist and 2006 coup-maker, to assume the army's top spot in 2014. A few months after the release of the 2012 list, however, rumors started to circulate among the army's upper ranks that Udomdet's future elevation to the top was not certain.
The rumors notably coincided with royal household announcements of Queen Sirikit's stroke and related health ailments. Queen Sirikit had until then played a key role in guiding the palace's relations with the military while King Bhumibol was convalescing in hospital from a prolonged illness beginning in 2009. With neither King Bhumibol nor Queen Sirikit now believed to be involved with day-to-day communications with the military, several senior Thai officers believe that Prayuth was cast adrift without the same level of palace guidance he previously enjoyed.
By some critical intra-military readings, Prayuth has recently stepped back from his earlier strong opposition to Thaksin. That assessment is based largely on a secretly taped conversation allegedly between Thaksin and deputy defense minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa where the former premier is heard speaking of a supposed quid pro quo arrangement with Prayuth that would allow Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile unopposed.
In exchange, Prayuth was supposedly guaranteed a prestigious position at the royal Crown Property Bureau upon his retirement next year and the unhindered promotion of his younger brother Lt Gen Preecha Chan-ocha. At this year's reshuffle, Preecha retained his powerful post as commander of the 3rd Army Region Corps, responsible for security in the country's northern region. Military insiders expect him to remain in that post until next April's smaller mid-year reshuffle, at which he will likely be promoted to a full four star general and posted to assistant army commander-in-chief.
The alleged arrangement between Thaksin and Prayuth ignited a firestorm among top-ranking officers who remain strongly opposed to the self-exiled and criminally convicted former premier and staunchly loyal to the royal institution. Many of these officers already resented the perceived as favorable treatment Prayuth's associates and loyalists in the armed forces, including officers attached to the elite Queen's Guard regiment, received at previous military reshuffles under his command.
To ease tensions, senior military sources say that a member of the royal advisory Privy Council was appointed to liaise on behalf of the palace with the military. The royal adviser, said to be a senior retired military officer, has acted discreetly from behind the scenes and apparently provided guidance on the reshuffle list that somewhat diluted Prayuth's power over the process, according to the same senior military sources. The intervention resulted most crucially in the assured promotion of several pre-Cadet Academy Class 14 officers, including Udomdet and Lt General Thirachai Chaloemsuk to the pivotal position of 1st Army Region commander, the unit responsible for Bangkok's security.
One result of the re-establishment of direct palace-military communications has been a strengthening of Prayuth's personal resolve against criticism, according to senior army officials familiar with the situation. As a consequence of the royal intervention, the strength of the pro-Thaksin faction within the military diminished at the reshuffle. The important exception to this, of course, is within MoD, where new permanent secretary Nipat will serve as an overt Thaksin ally and likely move quickly to build the former premier's influence.
Beyond these key personnel rotations, the sheer size of the reshuffle will impact on the army's internal workings. With 861 senior officers rotated, this year's reshuffle continues a recent trend towards creating ever larger numbers of general level officers who can offer inducements to more junior officers in return for loyalty and support. Ambitious officers previously pursued promotion in the hope of eventually landing a position powerful or influential enough to attract the attention of wealthy businessmen seeking favors.
With the rise of electoral politics in the 1970s and rapid expansion of the Thai economy in the 1980s, the private sector started to turn to politicians rather than generals for business-opening favors. Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA) graduating classes, whose members generally remain loyal to one another throughout their careers, have since bargained their collective loyalty for increased rates of promotion and the institutional spoils of high-ranking positions. The influential Class 12, for example, has seen more than 97% of its CRMA army members promoted to the rank of general.
The Thai military now has more than 1,750 flag officers (generals and admirals), a bloated number for a military of its size. Many of these officers - perhaps most - do not perform duties commensurate with their rank and many literally have no job at all. What they do have, however, is the rank, high salary and status among the rank and file that comes with the position of a flag officer.
Despite his lack of command over combat units, new MoD permanent secretary Nipat will have the power to lure officers pursuing their personal rather than institutional interests through his association with Thaksin's generous patronage machine. The fact that Nipat and Udomdet are both Class 14 members is a dramatic illustration of the pro- and anti-Thaksin factionalism rising within the armed forces, a tension that this year's reshuffle promises to accentuate throughout the rank and file.
Below is a shortlist of the winners and losers on this year's reshuffle based on the assessment of senior ranking military officers:
Pre-Cadet Academy Class 14:
1. Gen Nipat Thonglek is promoted from MoD deputy permanent secretary to permanent secretary. He has three years remaining in active duty until mandatory retirement in September 2016. (Pro-Thaksin)
2. Gen Setabutr Udomdeth is promoted from army chief of staff to deputy army commander-in-chief. He has two years remaining in active duty until mandatory retirement in September 2015. (Royalist)
3. Lt Gen Aksara Kerdphol is promoted from deputy chief of staff to chief of staff and to the rank of full general. He has one year left in active duty until mandatory retirement in September 2014. (Royalist)
4. Lt Gen Theerachai Nakwanich moves from army deputy chief of staff to 1st Army Region commander. He has several years in active duty until mandatory retirement. (Royalist)
5. Maj Gen Charnchai Poothong is promoted from deputy commander of the 2nd Army Region to commander of the same unit. He was also promoted to the rank of Lt Gen. He has several years in active duty until mandatory retirement. (Unknown)
6. Lt Gen Supakit Nutstit is promoted from J-6 level at the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters to a senior advisor to the same unit with concurrent promotion to full general. He has four years in active duty until mandatory retirement in September 2017. He is the youngest member of Class 14. (Royalist)
7. Admiral Narong Pipaattanasai , deputy commander of the Royal Thai Navy, is promoted to commander. He is believed to have several more years in active duty until mandatory retirement. (Unknown)
1. Maj Gen Banchoet Thianthongdi is promoted from deputy director of the MoD's defense information and space technology department to director of the same department with concurrent promotion to Lt Gen. He has three years left in active duty until mandatory retirement in 2016. (Royalist)
2. Lt Gen Atthanop Sirisak is moved from director of the directorate of joint intelligence to commanding general of the National Defense College, the most prestigious three star billet in the Thai military. He is known to be close to the Shinawatra family through his service as a close aide to Thaksin's cousin and former army commander Gen Chaiyasit Shinawatra. (Pro-Thaksin)
3. Lt Gen Phaiboon Khuchaijaa is promoted from commander of the 1st Army Region to assistant army commander. He was concurrently promoted to full general. It was unclear at this writing how many years of active service he has until mandatory retirement. (Unknown)
4. Maj Gen Chavalit Chunphrasan is promoted from deputy commander of the 2nd Army Region to commander of the same unit overseeing security in the country's northeastern region. He was concurrently promoted to Lt Gen. He has several years left in active duty. (Unknown)
5. Major General Prakarn Chonlayudth is moved from deputy commander of the 3rd Army Region responsible for security in Thailand's north to deputy commander of the 4th Army Region overseeing security in the south, including over the three insurgency-plagued provinces in the far south. (Unknown)
1. Lt Gen Taweep Netniyom is promoted from comptroller at the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters to chief of staff officers to the chief of defense force with concurrent promotion to full general. He has four years remaining on active duty until mandatory retirement in September 2017. (Royalist)
2. Maj Gen Kampanat Rutdit is promoted from deputy commander of the 1st Army Region to assistant army chief of staff for operations with concurrent promotion to the rank of Lt Gen. (Royalist)
3. Special Col Banchoet Changpunthong is promoted to commander of the 1st Cavalry Division. He is concurrently promoted to the rank of Maj Gen. (Royalist)
1. Maj Gen Boonchu Kirdchoke is promoted from Superintendent AFAPS Prep School to director of the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters' border committee with concurrent promotion to three stars. A staunch royalist, he is one of the youngest senior officers at the three star level in the entire Thai military with five full years in active duty until his mandatory retirement in September 2018. (Royalist)
2. Maj Gen Phanuwat Nakwong is promoted from 1st Army Region deputy commander to assistant army chief of staff for civil affairs with concurrent promotion to Lt Gen. He formerly commanded the elite 21st Infantry Regiment, also known as the Queen's Guard, for four years. (Royalist)
3. Special Col Tharakon Thamwinthon is promoted to commander of the 6th Infantry Division and concurrently to Maj Gen. (Royalist)
1. Maj Gen Chaichana Ngnkurd is moved from deputy of the Counterterrorism Operations Center to Superintendent of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. (Royalist)
1. Maj Gen Priphat Phalasin is promoted from chief of staff of the Counterterrorism Operations Center to deputy commander of the same unit. He is the son of former army commander Gen Pramon Phalasin. (Royalist)
2. Maj Gen Apichai Kongsompong is promoted from commander of the 11th Infantry Division (Reserve) to commander of the 15th Military Circle. (Royalist)
3. Special Col Kukiat Sinakha, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division of the elite King's Guard, is promoted to the rank of Maj Gen. (Royalist)
1. Gen Sirichai Distakhul is moved from assistant army commander-in-chief to chief of staff of the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters. He has two years left on active duty until mandatory retirement in September 2015. The transfer to the Armed Forces Headquarters and out of the army hierarchy will prevent him from competing to become army commander when Prayuth retires in 2014. (Pro-Thaksin)
1. Maj Gen Kitti Inthassorn is moved from deputy commander of the 4th Army Region to become army assistant chief of staff for operations precludes him from competing to become the powerful 4th Army Region commander in the future. (Royalist)
1. Lt Gen Walit Rojanapakdi remained in his post as commander of 1st Corps and was surprisingly not promoted to become 1st Army Region commander at this reshuffle. (Royalist)
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.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)