The Royal Thai Army: Dissent in the ranks?
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The Royal Thai Army: Dissent in the ranks?

By Dan Waites

During this month’s parliamentary censure debate, which was broadcast live on Thai TV, Thailand’s political opposition spent 40 hours hurling accusations of incompetence, corruption and cold-blooded murder at Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and nine ministers. And at least one very important man was reportedly glued to the screen. Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, chief of the Royal Thai Army, said he would not be involved in the debate, claiming, “I’m not a politician”. But according to a special report in this week’s Matichon Weekend (March 25-31), he was very interested indeed in what the opposition had to say particularly about last year’s red-shirt protests:

He was afraid that Jatuporn “Tu” Prompan of the Pheu Thai Party and the leadership of the red-shirt UDD [United front for Democracy against Dictatorship] would have some new evidence that soldiers burned Central World or killed people to display in the middle of Parliament… but he thought wrong.

The opposition may have failed to provide “killer” evidence that proved the army either burned the shopping mall on May 19 or shot unarmed civilians. But part of a speech made by Pheu Thai MP Somchai Phetprasert certainly caught Prayuth’s attention. As reported in the Bangkok Post, Somchai “told the House that army units withdrew about 600,000 bullets from arsenals for the crackdown, including 3,000 7.62-mm bullets for SG-3000 sniper rifles.” Somchai said only 479,577 of the bullets were returned, concluding that 117,923 were fired during the protests.

Army chief-of-staff Dapong Rattanasuwan noted that the figure was “exactly right”. And at a time when the Department of Special Investigation appears to be trying to absolve the military of any responsiblity for the killings of at least 90 people last year, it was a damaging allegation (although as Bangkok Pundit recently blogged, Somchai was wrong to assume that all the bullets were fired). What the generals wanted to know was this: how had the figures gotten out?

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Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP.

In fact, they would have had an idea right from the start: “watermelons”. The Thai armed forces draw much of their lower ranks from the North and Northeast of Thailand, the heartlands of the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement. As such, the army is believed to contain an unknown – but probably sizeable – number of red-shirt-sympathising “watermelons”: green on the outside, red on the inside. And the generals, if reports are to be believed, are becoming increasingly worried about them.

From Matichon Weekend:

…Gen Prayuth has gauged the situation and considers that there is an attempt to make as many low-level soldiers as possible become “watermelons”. [It’s] meant to cause low-level troops to become rebellious, to not trust and believe in the commanders. And it might have the effect of making them not listen to orders in future, until it brings about a watermelon soldiers’ revolt.

Besides the bullet figures, Prayuth has complained about constant leaks of the contents of private army meetings to the press. “Whatever I say, whenever I say it, the reporters know straight away,” he has said. As a result, he has reportedly banned soldiers from taking mobile phones into meetings and ordered the use of signal jammers to prevent anyone from listening in. His frustrations have been clear in his bad-tempered dealings with the press, as Saksith Saiyasombut noted here.

Prayuth is also working to secure his troops’ loyalty. Matichon Weekly reports that he has had a VCD made containing footage of the censure debate – specifically of Jatuporn’s accusations against the army and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban’s speeches made in response. The VCD is being distributed to every soldier of every division in the army in order to clear up any “misunderstanding” by troops who might only have heard Jatuporn’s side of the story. Prayuth is also reportedly concerned by reports that soldiers are worried after being interrogated by the DSI over the red-shirt protest killings, and has issued statements assuring them that the army will stand by them.

And he’s expanding army welfare programmes. According to Matichon, the army is negotiating for the use of state or crown land in order to build houses and condos for retired troops. “In the past, it was thought that if they retire and have a small house or a small room to live in, that was enough. [Now] all of our soldiers want to have a house. I have to take care of them, because we send them to die, we use them to do everything. I have to take care of them completely,” he said.

Although temperatures in Thailand have fallen recently – literally and politically – they will not stay low for long. An election, likely to be very hard fought, is expected in the first week of June. But there have been constant rumours of a coup – whether before or after the polls. As Prayuth has said: “No matter who becomes the government, I will still be army chief”. If he plans to use his position to interfere in politics, watermelons could make things difficult.

Dan Waites can be contacted at jamesdanielwaites@gmail.com or followed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danwaites.