The relationship between Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been interesting to observe over the last few months:
1. First, the possible amendment of the Defence Ministry Administration Act. Section 25 of the Act gives the power to transfer and appoint senior military leaders to a 7-person committee. This committee is made 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, and particularly now when it is relatively unified, control over the reshuffle.
In the recent annual reshuffle, which was announced on September 30, Prayuth was able to promote many of his classmates from Pre-cadet Class 12 and so-called Burapapayak (Tiger of the East) although a general linked with Puea Thai – a Thaksin classmate whose wife is a red shirt – did get the permanent secretary position.
Asia Times on the dominance of Prayuth’s classmates:
In promoting a disproportionate number of his Class 12 allies, Prayuth runs the risk of losing support within the officer corps due to perceived favoritism and not matching through action his rhetoric about improving professionalism and unit readiness.
Before the floods, Phea Thai clearly announced their intention to amend the Act. The Act was passed by the National Legislative Assembly after the coup and despite their being a compromise with Puea Thai getting the Permanent Secretary position, neither the party nor red shirts are happy about the Act. Puea Thai have been egging to change it. The red shirts and various Puea Thai MPs have come out to support amending the law. Unsurprisingly, Prayuth and Pravit (the Defence Minister in the Abhisit administration) have come out against amending the law. The Democrats have also spoken out against the amendment of the Act although have been less strenuous in their criticism – see Matichon Weekly, October 14-20, page 8, บทบาท “ประชาธิปัตย์” ปกป้อง คุ้มครอง พ.ร.บ.กลาโหม กฎหมายของ “อำมาตย์” for more details. It should be noted prior to this Act coming into effect in 2008, the Prime Minister and Defense Minister controlled the transfer and appointment of senior military officers. Puea Thai would be happy to return to this position, but this would not likely satisfy Prayuth and the establishment.
In late October, Khao Sod reported that a parliamentary committee on law, justice and human rights, which is chaired by Peua Thai MP Pol Gen Wiroon Fuensaen (พล.ต.อ.วิรุฬห์ พื้นแสน) had proposed a motion to study the pros and cons of the Act and what action to take. This was only a proposal which had been submitted by another Pheu Thai MP, Pracha Prasopdee, who is the vice chairman of the committee. Pracha’s proposal consider whether to allow a Defence committee which would allow the Minister, Supreme Commander, a few other military leaders, and retired officers or civilans who will appoint and transfer military leaders. There was a suggestion that parliament may consider the issue in December, but BP ran out of time to see what is happening with this so will Puea Thai go with the compromise position of this committee and exactly what will the composition of the committee be?
2. The Military and the floods: Trying to be unified with the government. Initially, it was noticeable that Prayuth has tried to maintain a unified front with Yingluck. You have the numerous trips that Yingluck and Prayuth made early on. This is summed up by this amusing photo of Yingluck and Pravit (with actress Pancake looking on) from Matichon Weekly (September 23-29)
Then in late September, Yingluck requested the army’s help and Prayuth provided 10,000 soldiers as reported by AFP:
Thailand deployed about 10,000 soldiers on Friday to help victims of floods that have killed 188 people and left vast swathes of the country under water.
Backed by 500 military vehicles and more than 100 boats equipped with loud speakers and flashlights, the troops will patrol flood-stricken areas to ensure people’s safety, the army chief said.
“The military is ready to ease the plight of the people so please support the soldiers,” General Prayut Chan-O-Cha told reporters before leaving Bangkok to inspect one of the 23 waterlogged provinces.
He said that army had also dispatched 12 medical teams to offer first-aid and psychological treatment.
The deployment came after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose older brother Thaksin was ousted from office by royalist generals in 2006, ordered the military to take action to assist flood victims.
At the end of October, this was increased to 50,000 troops.
Then as noted in Matichon Weekly, October 14-20, page 14, สงครามน้ำ-สงครามอำนาจ “ปู-บิ๊กตู่”คู่พระนาง กับเกาเหลา กอ.รมน. และศึกหน้าห้อง”บิ๊กอ๊อด”, Prayuth was trying not to create problems with Yingluck, was joining Yingluck in trips upcountry, and was refusing to answer questions where the answer would suggest conflict. The latter has been a problem for Prayuth as, at times, he has been a bit hot-headed. Then, when the opposition Democrats called on the government to impose a state of emergency, which if declared would likely give some powers to the military, Prayuth came out against this idea.
Also, as per Prachatai:
In the report published by the Nation Group’s Krungthep Thurakij and Kom Chad Luek on 7 Nov, a ‘high-level source at the army’ was quoted as saying that high-level military officers had discussed the leadership of the Prime Minister and agreed that she was indecisive in handling the flood problems, and as a result, brought the country into crisis.
The source listed 12 points of failure of the Yingluck government which, he claimed, had been concluded by the high-ranking military officers.
BP: As the Prachatai article noted:
The Army Press Office The army’s letter, which was dated 7 Nov and signed by Maj Gen Pholphat Wannaphak, Head of the Army’s Public Relations Centre, said that the report, which had cited the personal opinion of an unnamed military officer, might mislead the readers into thinking that the army had discussed the issue, but in fact it had never done so.
The letter insisted that the army was part of the government structure and followed the government’s policy particularly in helping people who were currently affected by the floods.
The letter asked Krungthep Thurakij to correct the news report and present the correct version to the public
BP: Also, Prayuth then was asked about this and said he knew nothing about it, refused to criticize the government, and then said “I admit that if the [situation] is bad, the military is part of this. We didn’t well too because there are people in difficulty. If it is good then there will be no people in difficulty. All parties must accept responsibility together” (ผมยอมรับว่า ถ้ามันไม่ดี กองทัพบกต้องมีส่วนด้วยว่า เราทำไม่ดีด้วย เพราะยังมีประชาชนที่เดือดร้อนอยู่ ถ้าดีแล้วต้องไม่มีคนเดือดร้อน ทุกส่วนต้องรับผิดชอบทั้งหมดด้วยกัน). Thai Rath’s headline was “….. Big Tu [Prayuth] protects the PM” (บิ๊กตู่ป้องนายก).
The Defence Minister Yuthasak also stated that Prayuth had telephoned Yingluck and stated that there was no meeting and no score given out to clear the air.
Wassana in the Bangkok Post:
But Gen Prayuth has distanced himself from this assessment. He also said he has never criticised the government, publicly or in private.
“What I have done is to support the government because we are a state mechanism and are legally obliged to do as ordered. This is not the time to criticise or blame anybody. It is the time to help people in trouble. We don’t have time to talk about other things,” he said.
“We have discipline. We never criticise our superiors. The prime minister is our superior and she should not be criticised on whether or not what she is doing is right,” he went on.
Gen Prayuth has been very cautious and careful every time he speaks, even though he is a hot-tempered general. He has avoided talking politics and making any remark that could put him in conflict with the red shirts since the power changed hands after the elections, from the Democrats to Pheu Thai.
BP: This doesn’t mean that Prayuth has suddenly gone all red, but he is strenuously avoiding criticizing the government and tries to maintain a unified front (publicly at least). If Prayuth is doing all this back-scratching, he will also want the favor returned……
3. Polls show military outshining the government. However, as the industrial estates became flooded in early October and people started to lose confidence in FROC, the government war room, because of the confusing and inaccurate information, the military began to shine in the polls as shown in the three polls below:
An ABAC Poll that surveyed 2,513 people in 19 provinces throughout the country between October 1-15 and one question asked those surveyed for their rating out of 10 on the level of satisfaction for various entities in helping the people during the floods (แสดงค่าเฉลี่ยคะแนนความพอใจต่อหน่วยงานและคณะบุคคลต่างๆ ที่ช่วยแก้ปัญหาน้ำท่วมของประชาชน).
1. Soldiers 9.47
2. Volunteers 9.44
3. Media 9.12
4. Celebrities, singers 9.01
5. Local officials, Governors etc 8.86
6. Royal Irrigation Department 8.49
7. Government 8.6
8. Police 8.49
9. Opposition 7.17
A Suan Dusit poll surveyed 2,136 people in Bangkok and surrounding provinces between October 26-29 and one question asked those surveyed on how much confidence they had in various entities in the help provided regarding the flooding situation in Bangkok and surrounding areas (ประชาชนมี ความมั่นใจ ต่อความช่วยเหลือในสถานการณ์น้ำท่วมกรุงเทพฯ และปริมณฑล จากฝ่ายใด?)
1. Military 84.88%,
2. Media, 80.24%,
3. Government, 71.11%,
4. Governor of Bangkok/BMA officials, 70.22%,
5. Government officials/local officials, 67.18%
6. Volunteers/various foundations, 66.15%
An ABAC Poll that surveyed 1,478 people in Bangkok and surrounding provinces between November 1-5 which rated out of 10 the level of satisfaction for various entities for helping the people during the flood (แสดงค่าเฉลี่ยคะแนนความพอใจต่อหน่วยงานและคณะบุคคลต่างๆ ที่ช่วยแก้ปัญหาน้ำท่วมของประชาชน เมื่อคะแนนเต็ม 10).
1. Military 9.56
2. Volunteers 9.1
3. Media 9.08
4. Police 9.05
5. BMA 8.34
6. Government 8.3
7. Celebrities/singers 8.25
8. Royal Irrigation Department 7.35
9. Opposition 7.26
10. MPs 7.03
BP: In some ways this is not surprising. The military has available manpower, experience in transporting goods, and the necessary vehicles that can be used in flooded areas. Other government agencies don’t have these capacities. The military’s sole job is to provide relief. BP also views that Prayuth has helped himself by not criticizing the government – which would only lead to a round of stories over tensions between the military and the government and which would not help the military’s image (see 2 above for more). Unlike with a state of emergency, the military does not have responsibility so it is an ideal position of being seen as helping.
Yes, one could argue that the military is an organ of the state and they are only complying with what Yingluck had told them to do, but the reality is that the military is an institution unto itself.
Finally some news stories
Thomas Fuller in the New York Times:
Troops and army trucks are rolling through the streets of Bangkok again. But this time it is not to battle protesters or overthrow a prime minister.
In a country deeply divided over the military’s role in civilian life, Thailand’s top generals have used the floods, the worst the country has had in decades, as an opportunity to showcase the army’s friendlier side.
Thousands of soldiers have been sent to the capital to help civilians. At the same time, the military has broadcast a series of slick television advertisements showing its soldiers as more than just battle-hardened fighters, including one in which children learn about soldiers who build roads and tend to the sick. “We are the people’s army,” says a voice at the end of the ads.
The head of the Thai Army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha — who led the troops that broke up antigovernment demonstrators in Bangkok last year in a violent episode that left at least 90 people dead — has repeatedly said that he wants the military to be seen as a benevolent, apolitical force in Thai society.
“I want people to love soldiers,” General Prayuth was quoted as saying in the Thai news media last month.
Army chief General Prayut Chan-o-Cha has even laid on the conciliatory language in recent weeks in what — after years of sometimes violent political struggles — remains a deeply divided country.
“In the current situation everyone must unify to fight,” he said this week. While the government of novice Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is now openly criticised for its management of the floods, the army is on the receiving end of an avalanche of compliments.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, agreed the army chief had played a clever hand.
“He knew that this crisis would weaken Yingluck’s government and the best thing to do was to give a helping hand and stay out of it.”
Relations between the army and Yingluck’s government are unsurprisingly tense. But analysts point out that army chief Prayut publicly rejected opposition calls for a state of emergency, which would have given him greater powers.
“How the army has come out of it — looking rather well — has somewhat offset, but not erased, the negative perception following the crackdown of April and May 2010,” Thitinan said.
“The army has regained some credibility. It gives them political capital to engage in the longer term.”
BP: Much easier to be providing relief than cracking down on protesters….
P.S. The Bangkok Post reported what happened on Friday:
The army chief has signed an order to transfer 221 battalion commanders to consolidate power to prepare for the expected fallout of a proposed pardon for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
An army source said Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha on Friday signed an order to reshuffle 221 colonels and lieutenant colonels in almost 40 army battalions.
The source Gen Prayuth made the reshuffle to reinforce his power and boost his confidence in army battalion commanders.
Those commanders control all important combatant units, including those in the infantry, cavalry, artillery corps and the special warfare unit.
Most of the officers promoted in the reshuffle are loyal to members of Class 12 at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, Gen Prayuth’s class, said the source
BP: Prayuth has strengthened his position further……. The relationship between Yingluck and Prayuth has not been as uneasy as one would have expected prior to the July 3 election. Prayuth was not hesitant to express his political views before the election. Prayuth is more cautious now. It is in interest to not create any public conflicts with the government as it avoids negative news coverage for him. The floods have benefitted the military and so Prayuth will seek to battle out with Puea Thai over amending the Act. It is more a question of whether a compromise can be reached. Any compromise will likely make it difficult for Puea Thai, in the short-term, to make wholesale changes as BP envisions Puea Thai will only be able to dilute Prayuth’s power. A compromise will avoid a fight with the army.
Hence, one option for Puea Thai going forward is to leave Prayuth in place until he retires, but to more evenly distribute the other positions.
btw, yes, yes, Thaksin and pardon news. BP has a bit busy and well wanted to finish this post first as any discussion of the pardon also relates to the current relationship between this government and the military (UPDATE: Corrected this final sentence)