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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's ex-army chief poised to contain rifts in ruling party

Prayuth's closest aide leads Palang Pracharath as pandemic-hit economy struggles

Prawit Wongsuwan, the former general, center left, benefited from his proximity to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center right. The two hold hands as they take part in a water-pouring blessing in Bangkok, April 11, 2019.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- When former army chief Prawit Wongsuwan took over as the leader of the largest party in Thailand's 19-party ruling alliance, it provided the latest indication of just how close it is to the country's influential military.

Palang Pracharath Party's nod to Prawit, on the last weekend in June, brought an end to the leadership of technocrat Uttama Savanayana, the finance minister. The change came as the party found itself in turmoil close to the end of its first year in government.

Prawit, 74, had no challenger since behind-the-scenes deal-making had already made him Palang's de facto leader. The former general benefited from his proximity to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, another retired general who served with Prawit. After Prayuth led the 2014 coup and became junta chief, Prawit was Prayuth's deputy, and has continued as deputy prime minister in the ruling alliance.

Factional fighting erupted within Palang after the government approved a 1.9 trillion baht ($60 billion) coronavirus relief package for millions of Thais who lost their financial livelihoods when the country was closed to stop the virus' spread.

"It is a record amount, we have never had so much money approved to spend as a relief package, and government parliamentarians have been talking about this figure and clamoring to use it," a source close to Prayuth told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"There was pressure on the prime minister to resolve this, which is why Gen. Prawit was given the task to head the party," said the source, indicating that Prawit's new role has less to do with his political ambition than being a Prayuth-backed step to contain internal party squabbling.

"He can keep control of the [members of parliament]. He has the military behind him to enforce it," added the source. "The prime minister needed a strong hand and someone he can trust."

Prawit Wongsuwan has seen his reputation grow as Thailand's ultimate power broker.   © Reuters

Observers are not surprised that Prayuth turned to Prawit at such a crucial time for the country's economy. The appointment has furthered Prawit's growing reputation as the country's ultimate political power broker, a view widely shared by the cognoscenti across Thailand's political divide. He is credited for attracting seasoned politicians, provincial godfathers and heads of regional clans, who belong to seven factions, into Palang's camp.

"Prawit has continued to wield the ultimate power in the regime. He dominates the government and he dominates Palang Pracharath," said Paul Chambers, a Thai national security expert, at the Naresuan University in northern Thailand. "In terms of support from the army, Prayuth counts on Prawit, since he has had much influence over the army after he became the army chief in 2004."

Thai military analysts share similar sentiments about Prawit building the latest political arm of the military with an eye on extending Prayuth's run as prime minister past a single term. For that, he and his military allies strove to avoid failures of previous post-coup pro-military governments that lacked clout, said journalist Wassana Nanuam in a book about the aftermath of the 2014 coup.

"Past coup-makers were unsuccessful because the military did not understand the game of politics," Wassana wrote.

Prawit's ability to set a new tone stems from his influence within the military. He and Prayuth rose through the ranks of the politically ambitious Queen's Guard, an elite infantry regiment under the 2nd infantry division, dubbed the "Eastern Tigers." The two have also counted on Anupong Paochinda, a retired general and former army chief who was also in the Queen's Guard, to form an effective troika since the 2014 coup. Anupong has been the country's powerful interior minister for the past six years.

The Queen's Guard was in the vanguard of staging the 2014 coup, Thailand's 13th successful putsch since 1932. Political insiders say that its leaders had an influential role in staging the 2006 coup to overthrow the then-elected government, and also wielded influence from within the military compound in 2008 to set up a pro-military government in parliament.

By then, Prawit had tapped his military ties to set up a high-profile foundation, a common vehicle in Thai politics to build networks and secure funds. The Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Project, launched in 2006 with the blessings of the palace in this Southeast Asian kingdom, has a committee packed with 16 retired generals, including ex-army chiefs.

"It is one of the strongest foundations in the country, and has a wide network of influence," said a Thai military intelligence operative. "There is no hiding its military ties, because the foundation's headquarters is in the 1st Infantry Regiment's compound in Bangkok."

Early this year, Rangsiman Rome, a young opposition parliamentarian, drew attention to Prawit's foundation. He was threatened with libel after a speech outside the parliament's chambers about the ties the organization has with the country's billionaire oligarchs.

"This foundation has helped to build ties between the military and big companies," Rangsiman told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It opens the door for access and influence."

Prawit's family members hold positions of power -- with one brother being a former police chief and another a former admiral -- and he has cultivated ties with political parties in both the ultraroyalist, pro-military camp and their opponents in the pro-democracy camp.

Political insiders reckon that his political clout enabled him to get away lightly when the nominally independent National Anti-Corruption Commission absolved him for owning 25 luxury watches, which he did not report as assets belonging to him. Prawit told the initial inquiry that he had borrowed the watches from a dead friend -- an excuse mocked by the public.

The only check on his power, according to Bangkok-based diplomats, is the new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has neutralized the influence of the Queen's Guard in the army. The diplomats said there has been a chill in the relationship between the palace and Prawit, pointing to him being sidelined as the defense minister in the Palang-led government, a post he had held previously during the five years of military rule.

"The days ahead will tell us if Prawit is still out in the cold or ties have warmed with the palace," said an Asian diplomat, with an eye on a likely cabinet reshuffle, now that Prawit is party leader. "Prayuth has little say in this matter."

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