What is the likelihood of a military coup in Thailand?By Bangkok Pundit May 14, 2014 10:00AM UTC
In 2011 and 2012, BP blogged on the chances of a military staging, but since the Constitutional Court decision there has been increased talk of a military coup in Thailand. Asia Times Online had some analysis of the chances of a coup in January. Below are some excerpts:
So what is the potential for a coup against this backdrop? The authors are not aware of any information to date to indicate that the military is preparing a coup, although as long-time observers of the Thai military it should be noted that such preparations are usually opaque. Moreover, Prayuth is scheduled to retire from active duty in September and he seems genuinely reluctant to jeopardize his legacy, including arranging for his younger brother’s promotion and assignment to one of the RTA’s most important positions.
If the military were actually planning to remove Yingluck’s caretaker government from power it would also mean purging pro-Thaksin officers from the armed forces, a move that would risk a further split inside the military. The lack of trust between the two sides is apparently so great that the past practice of merely pushing the losers of intra-military power struggles into unimportant positions but allowing them to serve until retirement would likely no longer suffice.
A final factor is growing concern over the continued ill-health of the King and Queen, who for decades have been an important influence over the armed forces. Senior officers have told the authors that Prayuth felt isolated after repeated requests for guidance from the palace went unanswered about a year ago. Some suspect this isolation was responsible for Prayuth’s apparent willingness to engage Thaksin’s overtures. If such a sentiment has affected the officer corps more broadly, it introduces a very unpredictable element into the military’s political calculations.
BP: Just a quick look now at who is who in the military (and predictions for the upcoming shuffle at the end of the year) by Paul Chambers. The top 5 in the army:
NOTE: The number on the left-hand side, e.g. 12 for Prayuth, refers to Class 12 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School.
Then the top five in the military as a whole:
NOTE: Section 25 of the Defence Ministry Administration Act gives the power to transfer and appoint senior military leaders to a seven-person committee. This committee is made up of two politicians (Defense Minister and Deputy Defense Minister) and five military officers (Supreme Commander, Permanent Secretary of Defence, Army Commander-in-Chief, Navy Commander-in-Chief, and Air Force Navy Commander-in-Chief). This gives the military, particularly now when it is relatively unified, control over the reshuffle.
BP: There are a few divisions in the military although it is not completely divided with those in the royalist camp being in the majority. However, not all are from the same class.
Back to today’s events. We have some on the protest stage not just calling for the military to take action, but specifically to stage a coup. The Bangkok Post:
Sondhi Limthongkul, who played a key role in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) street protests that led to the 2006 coup, has publicly urged the military to intervene.
“The military must take a leading role, with the backing of people,” Mr Sondhi said on Friday night at a Dhamma Army rally stage.
“I am not shy about asking the military to come out. A coup is not always a bad thing if it changes the nation for the better.”
The former PAD leader added that the People’s Democratic Reform Committee’s (PDRC) demand to invoke Section 3 or Section 7 of the constitution to select an interim prime minister is misplaced, saying the move would put pressure on the King to take sides.
BP: By changing the nation for the better, Sondhi means doing what he thinks is best…
Reuters in the aftermath of the Court decision removing Yingluck as PM:
The spectre of the military seizing power also looms constantly over Thailand, which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932.
“The government is spending its energies hoping to keep military action at bay,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
“I am afraid an army coup could be approaching,” he added.
Wassana in the Bangkok Post on May 8 with an article entitled “Military waits as political ways out near dead end”. Key excerpts:
The prospect of a coup is looking more appealing since other political solutions proposed by various groups are looking futile.
But this crisis is different. Even though the situation is “ripe” with rising public expectations of a coup, the military is hesitating. The generals have learned their lessons from the 2006 putsch.
That coup, which deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, was initially welcomed by the public, but turned out to be a bad solution.
Moreover, the military realises that the global community, in particular the US, is watching with disapproval.
Instead, the military has tried to mediate and arranged talks between the protagonists.
But their attempts have produced no satisfactory results. Worse, sporadic violence occurred, resulting in at least 20 deaths and hundreds of injuries, while rumours of a coup have kept simmering.
It all seems to suggest that a coup is inevitable. But the military have so far refused, probably to avoid bloodshed if the red shirts resist.
But the general may be forced to make a decision. After all, he has never ruled out a “special option”.
“The military does not shut or open the door to a coup, but a decision depends on the situation,’’ Gen Prayuth once said.
The Bangkok Post on May 10 with an article entitled “All eyes on army as crisis peaks”:
The red shirts say Mr Suthep’s ultimate game plan is to instigate violent clashes that would give the military the excuse to stage a coup.
Since the start of his protests in October last year, leading up to the “Bangkok shutdown” and from then on the military has adopted a cautious stance.
It has preferred to have police lead crowd and protest control.
If for whatever reason violence breaks out and the government is unable to control the situation, the military will be forced to step in.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his hand-picked right-hand man Maj Gen Apirat Kongsompong, commander of the 1st Division, King’s Guard, will be key decision-makers.
BP: The by-line of this article is interesting because it belongs to Pichai Chuensuksawadi who is the editor-in-chief. He doesn’t normally write articles so BP views there is some information he is aware of which has informed the article.
Then, over the weekend
At least 25 people have been killed in political violence since late November, raising concern that fresh violence could prompt the military to stage a coup. Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said at the weekend that the deadlock must be solved through legal means.
“A military coup will not end the conflict,” he said. “A coup will attract a lot of criticism. The conflict must be resolved through a legal framework.”
So why now? Some supporters of the Shinawatras say this represents the old order’s last chance to secure its privileges and prevent royal wealth falling into public coffers. Many would have preferred the crown princess to her brother. But the palace recently made a decision that matters a great deal—and counts as a snub to the Privy Council. It named the crown prince the head of the Royal Administration Security Unit (RASU), a newly created military body. As the head of RASU, he has been given a seat on the powerful defence council (which appoints the army’s top brass). In addition, the Royal Guard 904 corps, a six-battalion strong infantry regiment tasked with guarding the royal family since its inception in 1859, has been placed under his command. To equip the crown prince with these additional powers is to pre-empt any fiddling with the royal succession.*
The crown prince’s strengthened position, in effect an insurance policy against coups and meddling, was only made official in April. It had been initiated much earlier, before Mr Suthep began his “shutdown” of the capital.
BP: To be honest, BP is a little unsure of this and have been holding back on writing about the new unit RASU* (น่วยบัญชาการถวายความปลอดภัยรักษาพระองค์) for a while and was hoping to see a detailed explanation over what it all meant. BP has read one site saying there will now be eight members of the committee for transfer and appointment of senior military officers (see Section 25 referenced above) with the eighth member being the Head of RASU (i.e the Crown Prince). BP doesn’t see this in the Royal Decree itself (a Royal Decree cannot change an Act anyway), but there was actually an amendment to the Defense Ministry Administration Act last year by parliament just before the dissolution which elevates a Unit (หน่วยบัญชาการถวายความปลอดภัยรักษาพระองค์ i.e. RASU) as one of the five entities of the Ministry of Defence and equal to the Royal Thai Armed Forces (Section 3 in the Amendment). There are also numerous changes to the Act giving powers to the head of RASU, but can’t see that the Head of the RASU gets specific powers to be a member of the committee for the transfer and appointment of senior military positions (that power is in Section 25 of the Defense Ministry Administration Act – old unamended wording of the Act is here). If anyone can point BP in the direction setting out/explaining (by pointing to the relevant Sections) how the Head of the RASU is also a member of the committee that has the power to transfer or appoint, BP would appreciate it. Nevertheless, by BP’s reading can say that reading the amendment and the Royal Decree together, there is a new Unit called RASU of which the Crown Prince is the head and this Unit has power and influence. This certainly complicates things for those who want to stage a coup and what internal opposition in the military there may be.
Then the Bangkok Post had an article with the headline “Top brass reject Sect 7 step: Source”, but the most important tidbit in the story is further down:
Military leaders are against an attempt by anti-government protesters to press for an interim government, a military source said on Sunday.
All armed forces commanders discussed the plan pushed by People’s Democratic Reform Committee leader Suthep Thaugsuban and a group calling itself Rattha Bukkhon (State Citizens) to seek the setting up of an interim government through Section 7 of the constitution on Saturday.
They said the option was not appropriate as it could disturb His Majesty, who, they said, is the King for all Thais, according to the source.
Supreme Commander Gen Tanasak Patimaprakorn, army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, navy leader Adm Narong Pipattanasai and air force commander ACM Prajin Juntong and permanent secretary for defence Gen Nipat Thonglek were involved in the talks as they gathered for an audience granted by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn at Amporn Garden for newly promoted generals.
BP: Just a coincidence and was any message passed on to the top military leaders?
As blogged in March:
The most likely conduit will be Prayuth, but what Prayuth will do is unknown. Prayuth would have to be involved in any crackdown so would prefer not to crackdown because of the legal risks to himself and his younger brother (who is in line for future very senior army positions). Things could get very “messy”. Prayuth is still the most likely person to play peacemaker – relevant also he then would likely be the enforcer of the peace so important for him to actually secure a workable deal – but a negotiated deal may no longer be possible at this stage for 2 reasons. First, Thaksin may think you wouldn’t negotiate before and did everything to hurt my sister’s govt so will inflict some damage on your first before negotiating. We don’t know for sure what the deal was in 2011, but I suspect somehow Thaksin was double-crossed – whether intentionally or by chance (i.e after so much opposition to Amnesty Bill, the establishment saw their chance to get rid of him) – so if this is the case, there are trust issues regarding any deal. Second, if Yingluck is removed, the situation will become very fluid. One hopes that the Establishment isn’t naïve enough to think that Thaksin controls all the red groups. Once Yingluck is removed, it will be difficult to predict what some groups will do and they will be preparing themselves for a crackdown by the military.
BP: The military has sought to play peacemaker up until now, but the circumstances are changing. Staging a coup will be difficult as there are divisions in the military. The folly of the 2006 coup is more fresh in their minds as well. Prayuth will know that he will assume a lot of the blame if it goes wrong, but that others would just piggy-back on a coup and gain much of the power. For him personally, it would be a high risk and low reward option.
You also have the incapacity of a certain person in a family and what influence that person had in 2006 over the military and then comparing that with another person in the same family and their new role.That complicates the situation of trying to remove the government by a coup.
Also, a coup would certainly face opposition from the red shirts.
It is hard to state definitively a coup will not happen under any circumstances but will say that it makes little rational sense for Prayuth to stage a coup. Things would need to change dramatically for that to change.
Nevertheless, if there is bloodshed, BP does expect the military to do something, but what they are most likely to do is some kind of intervention to restore law and order. BP doesn’t expect this would involved a seizure of sovereign power by the military (so no appointment of a government or ripping up of the constitution) although any actions by the military may then result in the Court or the Senate to somehow removing the government. The exact nature of the intervention is something that BP is unsure about, but it would likely involved declaring of martial law (which legally a commander has the power to do so anyway in the region they command over so it is not illegal for the military to do so). Again, then the military may force both sides to sit down at the table. Playing hero as peacemaker makes more rational sense for Prayuth than the responsibility and blame he will assume as coup leader.
NOTE: Regarding the 2011 deal, the other alternative is that Thaksin broke the deal, but regardless of how the deal broke down and trust has broken down since then.
*Not sure the best way to translate it, but will use what The Economist uses for now.