By Thierry Henry,
Newin Chidchob and the Army have developed a kind of love-hate relationship over the years. In 1992, Newin worked with the Army’s political party — Samakkitham — helping propel coup leader Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon to the premiership. A year earlier Suchinda and the Army had overthrown the Chatchai Choonhavan government. After assuming the premiership (something Suchinda promised he would never do), a popular street protest ensued, culminating in the bloody Black May crackdown. The Army’s violent crackdown on protesters spelled the end for the Suchinda-led government as well as Newin’s participation in the Samakkitham Party. Newin quickly jumped to the Chart Thai Party, winning a seat in the September 1992 general election.
In 2006, Newin crossed paths with the Army again — this time as its political opponent. On September 19, the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, a government Newin played a leading role in. At the time of the coup, Newin served as one of Thaksin’s closest aides, holding the post of Prime Minister’s Office Minister. In the coup aftermath, the Army arrested Newin and several other top-ranking members of the former government. After his release, Newin took to the stage at a political rally and accused the Army of stripping him down to his underwear and dumping him in the middle of the road without any money. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratklin, the Army chief and coup leader, denied Newin’s story, while some officers admitted to strip searching him for a special Khmer amulet. The Bangkok Post (September 27, 2007) reported the story:
Newin Chidchob’s appearance at the People’s Power party’s (PPP) campaign rally in Buri Ram on Monday drew a huge crowd of 50,000. But more interesting than his appearance were his revelations about his experiences after the Sept 19 coup. He said a group of soldiers raided his Chaeng Wattana residence, intimidating his family and servants into telling them where his hideout was. The key PPP member told the audience he was detained for 10 days at a guesthouse in the air force compound. He was held there alone while other former key members of the Thai Rak Thai party such as Pol Gen Chidchai Wannasathit, Prommin Lertsuridej and Yongyuth Tiyapairat were detained separately at military bases.
/>Mr Newin also claimed that on the day he was released, soldiers escorting him ordered him strip searched. He was wearing nothing but his underwear when he was later set free on a street without a baht on him. He then flagged down a taxi to take him home, he said.
/>Council for National Security chairman Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup, reacted by saying: “Pretending to pull a sad face and telling a lie is normal for politicians wanting to draw sympathy for political gain.”
/>One of the soldiers who escorted Mr Newin that day insisted his team had taken the politician back to his house on Chaeng Wattana road and the whole episode was photographed. They had to take photos as they were aware the politician might one day distort the facts about the search.
/>“But we admit we conducted a body search by asking Mr Newin to take off his clothes. We wanted to find a Khmer amulet that he often carried. One respected figure told us that if we wanted Mr Newin to lose his power, we must take his amulet,” said the soldier. However, no amulet was found. The politician was later told to put his clothes back on before being sent back home. “We didn’t forcefully strip him. We just asked him to take his clothes off. We searched his body and found nothing. During the search, we drove our vehicle around the area near his house several times. As the search found nothing, we let him put his clothes back on and drove him home.
After the post-coup mayhem, the odds of Newin and the Army ever coming together again seemed remote, but never discount the cardinal rule of Thai politics — there are no permanent friends or enemies, only “interests”. Indeed, just two years after the coup, Newin and the Army found their interests aligning once again. This time Newin and Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the commander-in-chief, met in the Army barracks to finalize what would become the “ultimate betrayal”. At the time, Newin and his political faction remained aligned with Thaksin, but in December 2008, Newin betrayed Thaksin by joining other coalition parties in forming a new government under the Democrat Party. According to the Bangkok Post (December 11, 2008),
“Then the PPP clique was resurrected under the newly-founded PueaThai party and tried to form a new government with its former coalition partners, Gen Anupong reportedly tried another trick.
During this power vacuum the army chief was reported to have become the key man seeking an agreement from the former PPP’s coalition partners to switch their support to the opposition Democrat party and form the next coalition government. Amid intense lobbying by both Puea Thai and Democrat camps, many key members of the coalition parties and key factions within them were seen visiting Gen Anupong at his official residence in the compound of the First Infantry Regiment off Vibhavadi RangsitRoad, both in small and large groups.
Among these special visitors were reportedly Newin Chidchob and Sora-at Klinprathum, two faction leaders in the now dissolved PPP. The two men were seen at Gen Anupong’sresidence on Dec 4 along with Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army’s chief-of-staff. Later, Pradit Phataraprasit, secretary-general of Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana party reportedly called on Gen Prayuth at his residence, also in the regiment compound.
In the meantime, Democrat secretary-general Suthep Thaugsubankept in touch with Gen Anupong by phone. Mr Suthep and Gen Anupong became acquaintances when the Council for National Security was in power.
On Dec 6, shortly before the Democrat’s plan to form a new coalition government was announced, Mr Suthep reportedly led a group of key members of the Democrats’ prospective coalition partners to meet Gen Anupong at the residence of former army chief Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, who is well respected by Gen Anupong. Even though the meetings were supposed to be secret events, they ended up in the open because of the unusual manner of the visits. Suddenly, Gen Anupong was viewed by the media as the “coalition formation manager”.
And so it happened, Newin and the coalition parties betrayed Thaksin, taking the side of the Democrats (and the Army). According to Newin and Anupong, the meetings did not entail any negotiations or bargaining — they did everything selflessly — acting only to restore peace, tranquility, and honor to Suvarnabhumi. As reported by the Bangkok Post (December 9, 2008),
“Gen Anupong accepted that meetings between him and politicians from the Democrats and other smaller parties at his residence at the First Infantry Regiment on Vibhavadi Rangsit road paved the way for the Democrats to eventually form a new coalition government.
The Dec 3, 4 and 6 meetings were attended by key figures of the former coalition parties of the previous government and influential Buri Ram politician Newin Chidchob, the leader of the breakaway faction of the dissolved People Power party. ”They phoned me for my advice. Some asked to meet me. But I was not involved in setting up the government. I only suggested that they do what is good for the country,” Gen Anupong said. Gen Anupong denied there was intense lobbying or hard bargaining during the meetings. ”The press reports were totally untrue,” he said.
Critics, however, took a different position — they argued that the Army, Newin, and the others struck a deal to advance their own interests. The Army and the establishment did not want a pro-Thaksin party in power for numerous reasons, while Newin simply wanted to expand his political power and influence—if the incentives were right of course. From Newin’s perspective, it would be difficult to draw “political benefits” if the establishment continued intervening and disrupting the functioning of pro-Thaksin governments (PAD, Courts, etc.). Newin also had a major corruption case hanging over his head, which may have influenced his decision to ally with the establishment over Thaksin. The Supreme Court later acquitted Newin of the corruption charges. Lastly, media rumors suggested a possible payoff of 40 million baht to each MP for switching sides.
Newin’s latest encounter with the Army came not in the political arena, but out on the pitch. A few days back, Newin’s football team — Buriram PEA — faced off against the Army Football Club. With Newin and the Army on presumably good terms, the match should have featured gentlemenly play and good sportsmanship, but such was not the case. Similar to a Buriram election and an Army power-play, the match featured all the dirty tricks and tactics. In the end, Newin’s team suffered a heartbreaking defeat in overtime, losing 1-0. The Army, as it always does, came out on top.
After the match, Not the Nation (spoof Thai news website) asked Newin how it feels to be humiliated once again by the Army. In his normal tears, Newin responded, “I’ve been double-crossed. The refs knew what the outcome was supposed to be — that’s what I pay them for damn it! I can assure you that you won’t see those refs on the pitch ever again. In fact, you may never see those refs ever again period.” In other post-game comments, Gen. Anupong was asked if Buriram’s loss might lead Newin back into the arms of Thaksin. To this Anupong responded, “Newin who? I’m retiring in a month — don’t ask me anymore questions—that’s Prayuth’s job now.”
Prayuth could not be reached for comment, but a gaggle of young female reporters did catch up with the dashing Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd. One reporter fawningly asked, “What do you think Newin will do now? Oh, and are you single?” The colonel responded emphatically, “I think from the final result it’s pretty evident Newin’s Khmer amulets no longer have the power they once did. Moreover, we had to remind Newin where his place is in the cosmological order. Indeed, while Newin is a master at rigging elections and government procurement contracts, at the end of the day, he knows who his master is—us. Politicians and pretty voters like yourself sometimes need reminding that political supremacy in this country lies not in constitutions or elections, but guns. And on your second question, I’m always single for a cute young thing like yourself, do pretty faces ever lie?”