Thailand’s generals play musical chairs – Part 2
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Thailand’s generals play musical chairs – Part 2

By Saksith Saiyasombut,

This is the second part in a two-part series on the upcoming military command reshuffle. In part one, James Harriman has reflected on the new ranks below the commander-in-chief. Today, this post highlights the aspirants on the top army post.

Every September is the time where the Thai military faces the annual game of musical chairs, where the many high-ranking generals are eager for a promotion. With the upcoming retirement of the current commander-in-chief Gen Anupong Paochinda, the question of the successor reveals the still substantial political weight of the kingdom’s highest ranking soldier.

But this year though, September can’t come fast enough for some.

In fact, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has already set July 20 as the deadline for commanders of the armed forces to send in their reshuffle lists to the defence permanent secretary, Gen Apichart Penkitti. These lists could even be in Gen Prawit’s hands before the month ends. According to the schedule, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva should be able to send the names for royal endorsement within August.

Democrats In A Rush To Anoint Prayuth“, by Wassana Nanuam, Bangkok Post, July 15, 2010

The government’s favorite candidate for the top post is Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, currently deputy commander-in-chief and a graduate of class 12 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School – this is where all future top commanders go through.

Like in many aspects in Thai society, interpersonal relationships and affiliation play a big role in determining the status of a person and his or her chances of being promoted.

To understand the importance of personal relationships and the graduation years inside the army to ascend through the ranks, I recommend reading Paul Chamber‘s lengthy, but in-depth essay on New Mandala. It also contains a handy list of all the current top army officers.

As Chambers has pointed out, Gen Anupong and Gen Prayuth were ex-commanders of the 21st Infranty Batallion of the Second Army Division, more commonly known as the “Queen’s Guard” – a highly influential military unit that also have played a decisive part in the military crackdown against the anti-government red shirt protesters on May 19. This unit has also over the decades been actively supported by Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanond.

Getting back to the government’s intentions, one has to look back at the most recent red shirts’ protests. It is reported that the relationship with prime minister Abhisit had its rough patches when Gen Anupong showed some hesitation to move against the protesters, while Gen Prayuth has maintained and even improved his ties to the government during the protests, so a promotion to the top rank can be seen as a reward for him.

With the potential appointment of Gen Prayuth comes also a long list of aspirants that are expected to take seats below him. James Harriman reflected on that yesterday.

Even though the promotion of Gen Prayuth is almost certain, there are some musings that he might face some competition. Gen Piroon Phaeopolsong, currently army chief-of-staff, is considered to be the dark horse in the race for the next commander-in-chief.

In late July, Matichon Weekly listed three reasons that would favor him for the top spot: Firstly, Gen Piroon hails from the same cavalry unit as Gen Prem, who himself would like to see one his of kind become commander-in-chief (แถมทั้งมีแรงดันจากบ้านสี่เสาเทเวศร์ ที่อยากให้ พล.อ.พิรุณ ซึ่งเป็นทหารม้าลูกป๋า ขึ้นเป็น ผบ.ทบ. สร้างประวัติศาสตร์ให้ทหารม้า มาเป็น ผบ.ทบ. อีกสักคน หลังจากที่ทหารม้าซบเซามาตั้งแต่หมดยุคป๋าเปรม). Also, as both Matichon Weekly and the Bangkok Post (already last year) have pointed out:

Another advantage of Gen Piroon, who has advanced in his career from the cavalry, is that he is regarded as one of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda’s proteges. The president of the Privy Council banked on Gen Piroon to make his dream of seeing the set-up of the new 3rd Cavalry Division in Khon Kaen come true. Gen Prem had reportedly made a remark to leading soldiers that, “If I see the 3rd Cavalry Division before I die, I will die peacefully.”

PM Abhisit, Gen Prayuth and their common future“, by Wassana Nanuam, Bangkok Post, December 12, 2009

Secondly, the 2nd Cavalry Division is regarded as one of the leading forces behind the storm on the red shirt protest site from the Sala Daeng area (the Silom intersection) and Gen Piroon, because of his role as army chief-of-staff and his cavalry origins, is regarded as one of the masterminds (กำลังทหารม้าจากกองพลทหารม้าที่ 2 รักษาพระองค์ (พล.ม.2 รอ.) ก็กลายเป็นพระเอก เพราะเป็นกำลังหลักในการบุกเข้ากระชับพื้นที่ด่านศาลาแดง ด่านใหญ่ที่สุดของคนเสื้อแดงที่เชื่อว่าอันตรายที่สุด ซึ่งก็มี พล.อ.พิรุณ ซึ่งเป็นทหารม้าในฐานะ เสธ.ทบ. ก็มีส่วนร่วมวางแผน ).

And lastly, Matichon names the ‘Buriram connection’ as a factor favoring Piroon, since he hails from the north-eastern province – same as influential and powerful politicians like Newin Chidchob, leader of the Bhumjaithai Party (key coalition partner of the government) and whose relatives are regional power brokers. (สิ่งที่ทำให้ พล.อ.พิรุณ ถูกจับตามองขึ้นมา ทั้งๆ ที่แรงแผ่ว ก็คือ “บุรีรัมย์ คอนเน็กชั่น” ด้วยเพราะเหตุที่เป็นคนบุรีรัมย์ เช่นเดียวกับนักการเมืองคนสำคัญ และฮ็อตที่สุด มีเพาเวอร์ที่สุดในยุคนี้ อย่าง นายเนวิน ชิดชอบ แกนนำพรรคภูมิใจไทย แถมซ้ำมีเครือญาติที่เป็นกำลังหลักในพื้นที่ของนายเนวิน).

Out of all three factors, the ‘Buriram connection’ appears to be the weakest argument, since no political party has a say in military issues except the Democrat Party. Nevertheless, Piroon’s Isaan origin could make him a more ‘agreeable’ candidate among all political factions in contrast to Gen Prayuth, who has not made big efforts to hide his opposition to Thaksin.

Also, Gen Piroon is a graduate of class 10, same as current commander-in-chief Gen Anupong – who is actually reported to favor Piroon to become his successor (ตัว พล.อ.อนุพงษ์ เองก็ไม่ขัดข้องหากเพื่อนรักที่เขาขุนมากับมือ จะขึ้นมาเป็น ผบ.ทบ. ก่อนปีหนึ่ง).

One factor that speaks in favor of Prayuth is that, since he is a class 12 graduate, his retirement will be in 2014. Piroon on the other hand, can only be commander-in-chief for one year. So, it is more likely that he will be pushed to be chairman of the Royal Army Advisory Board, a position that has little influence in the ranks.

So, in the more than likely event that Gen Prayuth becomes commander-in-chief, it will be seen as a further attempt to strengthen the ties between the Democrat-led government and the armed forces. The irony is though that with the impending dissolution case of the Democrat Party, the next commander-in-chief will survive the current government and with a new one, the game of musical chairs will start anew.

Further reading and sources: