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Thai constitution vote highlights power of military faction

Soldiers from the Chakkrapong army camp line up to vote in the Aug. 7 constitutional referendum. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

PRACHIN BURI, Thailand -- The Thai military is a dominant presence in Prachin Buri, a small agricultural town two hours east of Bangkok. The sturdy entrance to Promyotee Fort, the headquarters of Second Infantry Division, overlooks a market of single stalls. The layout of the town, with its narrow roads, is built around the sprawling, well-maintained army camps, such as Chakkrapong, where armed soldiers in fatigues guard the entrance, which has a sign in English: "Strong army, stable country."

On Aug. 7, a majority of Thai voters appeared to have heeded that sentiment by approving a referendum that allows the ruling military regime to remain in power. The referendum consisted of two questions. One was whether voters approved the country's latest constitution, its 20th since 1932, which was drafted by a military-appointed committee. Voters were also asked whether they approved allowing the current military junta to fill the Senate with its appointees and give them the power to select the next prime minister.

With the referendum outcome, Prachin Buri is likely to attract more attention since it is the home of the most influential faction in the Thai military. It is from the ranks of the Second Infantry Division, also known as the "Eastern Tigers," and an elite unit within it, the 21st Infantry Regiment, known as the "Queen's Guard," that all but one of Thai army commanders have emerged since 2004.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army commander, is one example. He headed the junta that staged the 2014 coup and became first in the faction to become the head of government.

The Eastern Tigers/Queen's Guard faction has replaced the traditional source of Thailand's numerous military coups, the Bangkok-based King's Guard, or the First Infantry Division.

Officials at a polling station help a soldier with his ballot paper. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

Military analysts credit Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who was the army commander in 2004-2005, with engineering the shift in power within the military, the most powerful institution in the country. He is known as the "big brother" of the Prachin Buri military alumni.

"When General Prawit was the army chief, the change began with more prestige given to the Queen's Guard that specially serves Her Majesty the Queen (Sirikit)," said Sanit Nakajitti, director of PSA Asia, a political risk and security consultancy in Bangkok. "The officers from the Queen's Guard in the Eastern Tigers have risen to higher positions in the army since then."

Prawit's successors as army commanders have mainly come from the Prachin Buri faction. They include Anupong Paochinda, who held the post between 2007 and 2010 and is now interior minister; Prayuth; Udomdej Sitabutr, who is currently the deputy defense minister; and the current office holder, Gen. Teerachai Nakwanich.

The rise of this faction from Prachin Buri also coincided with the decline of the traditional military elite that began in 1992 when the army came under public criticism for killing scores of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok, who were demonstrating against the then military government. 

The incident weakened the traditional military elite and provided an opportunity for Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council, the body of royal advisers, and a former army commander and prime minister, to play an influential role in military appointments, said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

Withaya Wongsongcherean, head of a polling station, holds up the publicity material used in Prachin Buri to inform the public about the referendum. (Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar)

The emergence of Prayuth in the 2014 coup marks the end of the traditional line of military authority. The National Council for Peace and Order, the current junta's formal name, has demonstrated "they don't feel they have to be [beholden to Prem]," said Chambers. "The overwhelming power of the post-2014 military junta, I think, partly reflects a belief in the NCPO that they want to establish a political equilibrium that sustains the arch-royalist clout" that was not achieved in the last coup in 2006.

The constitutional referendum, however, also revealed signs of resistance to the NCPO, said a Western diplomat, who noted that voters in northern and northeast Thailand, the stronghold of the Pheu Thai Party, rejected the new constitution. The Pheu Thai Party is the political vehicle of the Shinawatra family, whose governments were overthrown in the 2006 and 2014 military coups.

"Many of the areas in the north and northeast where the Pheu Thai won at the last general election [in 2011] were won by the 'no' camp on Sunday," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. In Thailand's southernmost provinces, where the military has been battling an separatist insurgency since 2004, the "no" vote also did well.

The Eastern Tigers/Queen's Guard faction is likely to continue to dominate the top ranks of the military. The new army commander is expected to be selected in September, when the powerful National Defense Council lists the names of military officers to be promoted in the annual military reshuffle.

Army chief of staff Gen. Pisit Sithisan is considered a frontrunner, according to analysts. No surprise, since he is a product of Prachin Buri's military tradition that embodies the esprit de corps of the Eastern Tigers and Queen's Guard.

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