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Thai military shake-up raises questions about Prayuth's authority

Redeployment of coup-prone regiments to temper political involvement

Thailand's long tradition of military coups, the last of which installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in 2014, may have come to an end.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand's new army chief, is due to redeploy regiments involved in staging coups in a major military shake-up, a measure expected to diminish Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's influence both on the military and politics.

The redeployments, which involve moving a key regiment and a battalion out of the capital and reorganizing other key units, are due to take two years. To fill the breach, security in Bangkok will be handed over to the elite Royal Command Guard -- a disciplined "Praetorian Guard" that answers directly to King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.

Since rising to the top military position, Apirat has clearly stated that he answers only to the king, and will not tolerate a return to the kind of unruly politics Thailand experienced at various times over the past decade. "If politics does not create riots, nothing will happen," he said in reference to the possibility of another coup.

The restructuring plan is believed to have received approval from Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart, Apirat's predecessor, shortly before he stepped down in September.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was himself the army chief in May 2014 when he overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which was by then in caretaker mode.

After four and half years in power -- longer than any elected government term Thailand has seen -- Prayuth has been manoeuvring to become prime minister in an elected government once a long-promised election is held -- possibly early next year. But his stay has also seen his authority within the military being whittled away, first with his loss of power to command troops, and now the latest military shake-up.

Thai military intelligence officers and Bangkok-based diplomats told the Nikkei Asian Review that Prayuth has been given little say in dismantling the military architecture that has helped install and prop up various military regimes over the past nine decades. After a revolutionary coup brought an end to Siam's variant of absolute monarchy in 1932, a long succession of politically ambitious generals attempted 22 putsches, of which 13 were successful.

The proposed changes could see the Thai military marching to a new step, and one with less direct political involvement.

Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, Thailand's new army chief, is fiercely loyal to the monarchy but also keen to turn the military into a more professional force.    © Reuters

"Under the new reign, there seems to be a push for the Royal Thai Armed Forces to become more professional and to dabble less in politics," one Thai intelligence officer told Nikkei.

"This is more than a broad hint to the Thai army to pull up its bootstraps to defend the country and not stage coups," a Western diplomat who has been monitoring the new palace thinking told Nikkei.

"Coups cannot be ruled out," said a Bangkok-based analyst. "But it may be difficult to launch a coup the old way if it takes over two hours to bring tanks to the city -- the threatened government will have time to counter it."

Under the new arrangements, the 11th Infantry Regiment and the 4th Cavalry Battalion will be moved from the capital to camps in nearby provinces. The powerful 1st Infantry Regiment will be absorbed into the new capital command, as will some troops from the 1st Infantry Division.

The Royal Guard Command has already absorbed the elite troops from Rachawallop 904, which provided the king's personal guards when he was crown prince. These soldiers are expected to play a more influential role in the army, including among conscripts. According to Apirat, they will help turn young grunts into "model soldiers."

"This is the first time Bangkok is seeing soldiers moved out of the city on this scale," Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security issues at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, told Nikkei. But this will not leave the city completely bare of the military. "Rather, Bangkok will become devoid of regular troops, replaced by soldiers and units personally under the control of commanders hand-picked by the monarch," said Chambers.

The changes reflect a new military order as Thailand goes forward with a delicate royal and political transition. Prayuth has already signaled that 2019 will be a momentous year in which his military government gives way to a more democratic elected government. A coronation is expected to follow that process, but its date has not yet been set by the king.

Apirat's father, Gen. Sunthorn Kongsompong, was the supreme commander and figurehead in a successful 1991 coup against an elected government. Apirat rose through the ranks in the Bangkok-based King's Guard, which has a rich military pedigree. According to military sources, his two most likely successors also belong to the King's Guard.

After being invested as crown prince in 1972, King Vajiralongkorn himself served with the King's Guard at a time when there were still communist insurgencies in outlying areas.

Prayuth and his deputy prime minister and defense minister, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, both rose up through the Queen's Guard, a military faction that belongs to the 2nd Infantry Division, sometimes referred to as the Eastern Tigers. This faction enjoyed a bigger say in military appointments over the past decade till this year, which has seen the resurgence of the King's Guard.

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