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Thai king's favorite to take over army, as PM's choice ignored

Move shows Prayuth's waning influence over military as big protest looms

Thai army chief Apirat Kongsompong speaks during an event with troops in Bangkok on Sept. 11.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- King Maha Vajiralongkorn's favorite serviceman, Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, will take the reins as Thailand's next army chief in October after the incumbent's term expires, according to the government's public journal, Royal Gazette.

The rise of Narongphan reflects the influence of the palace over the military, a trend that emerged in 2016. Narongphan, who will serve as chief for three years, is a palace loyalist and trusted by the king, as were the current leader Gen. Apirat Kongsompong and his predecessor Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart.

The appointment also shows the waning influence of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, himself a former army chief. Prayuth had favored Gen. Natthapon Nakpanich, the deputy army chief, to be Apirat's successor. But the prime minister was unable to make headway against the choice of the monarch, who wields ultimate authority in this Southeast Asian kingdom, and of Apirat.

While Narongphan's appointment was expected, it also comes at a tricky time for Prayuth. A poll published in the local daily Matichon showed that 58% of those surveyed believed another coup was likely. This reflects concerns about a political showdown on Sept. 19, when an expanding youth-led protest movement is expected to hold a large rally in Bangkok.

Rumors are swirling that Apirat could stage a coup before he steps down. The hawkish army chief has little stomach for dissent and sees liberals as enemies of the state. "COVID-19 can be cured, but hating the nation is a disease that has no remedy," he said in August, as the youth protests gained pace. "We cannot cure people who hate their nation."

Apirat will rise to the position of deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Royal Household, according to the Royal Gazette.

Analysts said Narongphan would be stepping into his new role in a tense political climate and might feel that he had to take a tougher stance against protesters, pointing to the anti-government demonstrations in 2010, 2009 and 1992 that resulted in bloody clashes.

"The army has a strong conservative culture and has responded to social pressure from that point," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank. "The army still has a Cold War structure and so is its mindset."

But a confidant of Prayuth dismissed the possibility of such intervention from the government. "This rumor has been driven by Thai reporters who like to ask the prime minister questions to provoke a reaction," the source in the prime minister's office told the Nikkei Asian Review. "At security meetings, the focus is on public safety for the upcoming protest. We are monitoring likely instigators of violence."

A military intelligence source said Narongphan's humble beginnings earned him respect within the army, a point that is particularly pertinent at a time when the public is turning against perceived elitism within Thai government.

"He has a commoner's background and was not the son of an elite military family like Apirat," the source said. Apirat descends from a line of military officers. "Narongphan was hand-picked by the king based on his military dedication and loyalty to the palace."

Apart from dealing with the unrest, Narongphan has another big task ahead of him. The incumbent chief pledged to reform the army after a soldier went on a rampage and shot dead 30 people in Nakhon Ratchasima in February.

The promised range of reforms include disallowing soldiers to own many types of weapons and removing retired officers from military housing. Critics said those reforms do not go far enough to address the myriad structural problems within the military.

The last coup in Thailand in 2014 installed Prayuth as prime minister. He, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, both also former army commanders, were members of an influential faction in the military that staged the coup and led the country as a junta for years.

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