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Rising clout of King's Guard dims Thai junta's political hopes

April's military promotions see Bangkok-based officers regaining upper hand

April's Royal Guard promotions show a shift in the military's controlling generals   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's former army chief, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, celebrates the fourth anniversary next month of ousting what remained of the elected caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Prayuth has lasted longer than military governments installed in 1991 and 2006, but approaching officer promotions could signal stormier clouds ahead. 

Seasoned observers say the annual mid-year promotions this month portend a decline in the influence of the 21st Infantry Regiment, also known as the Queen's Guard, and its broader base, the Second Infantry Division, collectively dubbed the Eastern Tigers, which are responsible for territories east of Bangkok stretching to the Cambodian border.

The Eastern Tigers engineered the May 2014 coup led by Prayuth and two other former army chiefs, Prawit Wongsuwan and Anupong Paojinda, who today serve as deputy prime minister and defense minister, and interior minister, respectively.  

Among the 260 imminent military promotions are officers of the King's Guard in the First Infantry Division of the First Army Region around Bangkok. They include Maj. Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, Maj. Gen. Songwit Noonpakdee, and Col. Chatree Kittikachorn.

The rising star in the King's Guard, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, is the frontrunner for the position of army chief in the more important September military promotions. Apirat is the son of Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, who led the 1991 coup that installed the National Peacekeeping Council as a junta for a little over a year. The Noonpakdees and Kittikachorns are also powerful military clans. 

Some analysts see the rise of the King's Guard as a return to the military's traditional pecking order. The military has this century re-established itself as Thailand's most powerful political institution after promising to withdraw from politics altogether in the wake of a bloodbath in 1992. The military were also involved in serious civilian loss of life in 1973 and 1976. The King's Guard has a history of involvement in coups, and regards itself as the custodian of military-political authority. 

"The 2018 mid-year reshuffle points to the Wongthewan (King's Guard) faction being back in the saddle for the first time since 2003," said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security issues at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. The promotions will strengthen Apirat's hand after September, Chambers said.

Bangkok-based diplomats have also noted that Thailand's new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun who, like his late father King Bhumibol Adulyadej, signs off on appointments in the military, bureaucracy, and judiciary, has a military background. While crown prince, he served in the King's Guard from the 1970s, including in counterinsurgency operations, through to the early 1990s. "He is military trained and has always kept a close eye on the armed forces and promotions," one Western diplomat told the Nikkei Asian Review.  

Unlike the military in Myanmar, the Thai military has always been deeply factionalised with constant competition between different classes attending military colleges, and later different operational units. This has "reinforced tendencies toward political involvement because it creates a cycle of winners and losers," writes Gregory Vincent Raymond, an Australian scholar, in his new book, 'Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation.' Raymond argues that an ascendant faction "promotes its own members and dumps non-members from key positions."

Prawit played such a hand in eclipsing the power of the King's Guard, a magnet for officers with military pedigrees. After serving as army chief in 2004, all but two of his successors have been Eastern Tigers. By mid-2014, this faction was at the height of its power, and able to set its own course ignoring traditional sources of authority associated with the palace, such as the Privy Council, a body of royal advisers. 

Following the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, the majority of privy councillors are now retired military men. 

The possible shifts in military power brokers come as Prayuth plays coy about the date of a much-postponed general election, and his future political role. There are growing signs that the election will not be held before February 2019. The unelected National Legislative Assembly has also rejected election-related laws and procedures that threaten to cause further delay.

Prayuth has tried to involve himself with traditional political parties, which have been  banned from activity since the coup. He has launched pro-poor campaigns to court  rural support, and has been in talks with politically influential provincial families. Future cabinet jobs have been offered to the scions of political dynasties that command large vote banks.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister who still heads the conservative Democrat Party, sees a sleight of hand in Prayuth's maneuvers. He accused a new military-backed political party of poaching politicians from smaller parties by offering plum positions in future governments.

"This goes against the spirit of the constitution, which is intended to keep those who are currently in power from meddling with politics and from becoming stakeholders in the next election," he said this week, according to the Bangkok Post, an English language daily.

Prayuth's has been wooing the populace in softer ways, but with limited success. He enjoys composing syrupy Thai ballads that seem to have a dwindling appeal. On the eve this month of Songkran, the exuberant Thai New Year, he released his sixth composition since the coup, 'Fight for the Nation.' Its lyrics included the stirring if unromantic: "I'm determined to fight for the nation/No matter how badly I'm torn down."

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