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Turbulent Thailand

Rise of Thai king's guard erodes Prayuth's sway over army

Military reshuffle comes as prime minister faces anti-government youth protests

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends a photo session with new cabinet ministers at the Government House in Bangkok on Aug. 13   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Trusted military allies of Thailand's monarch have moved to extend their reach into the armed forces, the country's most powerful political institution, alienating Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from a pillar he needs to prop up his government.

This jockeying for influence played out during the behind-the-scenes lobbying to finalize the promotion of commanders of the army, air force and navy by September, according to well-placed political sources and military insiders.

The annual reshuffle of flag officers takes on added political significance this year, since it comes as Prayuth, a former army chief himself, faces growing youth-led anti-government protests, the likes of which have not been witnessed since the ex-general grabbed power in a 2014 coup.

According to military insiders, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the hawkish army chief and palace favorite, lobbied for Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, the assistant army chief, to succeed him in September as the new commander of the army, which has 335,000 active-duty troops.

Narongphan, the sources add, is trusted by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who began placing a stronger personal stamp on the military soon after his accession following his father's death in October 2016. Narongphan is due to hold the army commander's post till 2023, a three-year spell expected to further consolidate the realignment of palace-military ties.

In a country where demonstrations of loyalty to the monarchy are prized, both Apirat and Narongphan wear theirs around their neck -- special shirts with a red rim around the collar. The shirts show they have passed special training for soldiers in the elite Royal Command Guard, also known as Royal Guard 904, which answers only to the king.

The two generals also belong to the King's Guard, a Bangkok-based military faction with a rich army pedigree. The monarch himself served in the ranks of the Wongthewan, as the King's Guard is called in Thai, during military service in the 1970s while he was crown prince.

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.

"Apirat doesn't like Natthapon. ... there is some bad blood between the two going back to competition as they rose through the ranks," said a military intelligence insider. "And he is close to the king and wanted to carry out the king's request."

Prayuth's bonds with Natthapon deepened after he was picked to serve on a government committee to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

"Prayuth wanted a dependable ally as the next army chief to deal with the rising political tension sparked by the protests," added the insider. "Narongphan does not have close ties with Prayuth, just a professional relationship. It is more likely he will listen to the king than to the prime minister."

A similar turn has shaped promotions in the air force, an increasing source of palace loyalists in the wake of former Air Chief Marshall Sathitpong Sukwimol serving as the influential private secretary to the king. Political insiders say that a U.S.-trained officer, Air Chief Marshall Airbull Suttiwan, has been eyed to command the air force, leapfrogging senior figures vying for the top post.

"This year's reshuffle shows how much say the king had in the promotions," said one insider. "Airbull has the king's backing."

Seasoned military analysts say that Prayuth will be on unfamiliar ground after the changing of the guard in September. Together with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda -- both former army chiefs themselves -- Prayuth formed a powerful troika that staged the 2014 putsch to overthrow an elected government. They enjoyed unbroken rule, first in a junta and then as a military-leaning government after the controversial 2019 general election.

But while the trio of ex-generals had a firm grip on the government and the defense ministry, still packed with their allies, questions emerged over support they could command from the military since the 2016 reshuffle.

"The subtle schism between Prayuth-Prawit-Anupong on one side and the post-2016 army leadership on the other has increasingly intensified, especially with the ascension of the Wongthewan to senior army postings in 2018 and beyond," said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. "Especially since 2018, Prayuth has not been able to be assured of military backing."

Even among the colonels -- often deployed to lead troops in coups, of which Thailand has had 13 successful military interventions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 -- there is growing discontent with the "saam paw," a reference within the ranks to the Prayuth-Prawit-Anupong troika.

The trio has been accused of "using the military to stay in power, especially in terms of relying on soldiers to bolster Palang Pracharath in power," said Chambers, referring to the new political party formed ahead of last year's election to serve as a vehicle for Prayuth and his military allies to rule the country. "Prawit has relied on military carrots and sticks to cajole coalition parties and Palang Pracharath factions to follow Prayuth's lead."

Other observers say military operations in Bangkok -- pivotal to launching or crushing coups -- are beyond Prayuth's control. A new military blueprint unveiled by the king has realigned troops in the capital under the Royal Guard 904, whose numbers have swelled to a well-trained force of 7,000 and are expected to double in the months ahead. Roped into such exclusive royal service are units from the 11th Infantry Regiment, the 4th Cavalry Battalion and the 1st Infantry Regiment, which has been in the vanguard of past coups.

But this redeployment -- which appears to rule out the prospect of the previous style of coups -- has not stopped rumors of another putsch. Bangkok-based diplomats heard talk of a possible coup attempt on the eve of the anti-government protests led by students in the capital's historic quarter on Aug. 16 -- a rally that drew over 20,000, the largest public outpouring of rage since the 2014 coup.

"The rumor was about Apirat being unhappy with the way the government was handling things regards the protests and was planning to step in to address it," an Asian diplomat confided.

A military intelligence source expects the rumor mill to churn through September, when youth leaders are planning a larger protest in the middle of the month.

"A coup will happen only if there is a confrontation during the protests and people try to kill each other," he said. "There are tense days ahead for the transition from Apirat to Narongphan."

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