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Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, remains Thailand's prime minister, but Gen. Apirat Kongsompong has been tasked with reshaping the military. (© Nikkei montage/Source photos by Reuters)
Asia Insight

All the king's men: Thai military power shifts away from Prayuth

Monarch's faith in rival faction sends clear message to coup leaders

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent | Thailand

BANGKOK -- When diplomats in Bangkok meet Thailand's military top brass, they look for clues on where officers stand in the context of royal protocol. One sign is easy to spot: the image of Prince Dipangkorn, the king's 14-year-old son. It is pinned on the left breasts of a select few military leaders' deep-green uniforms, alongside their service ribbons.

Among those who currently sport the pin is the hawkish army commander in chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong. "Only a small network of people is allowed to wear it," said one Western diplomat after a meeting with Apirat, who is described by many foreign envoys as "fiercely loyal to the king."

The pins and the list of those who wear them reveal not only allegiances but also a major change in the relationship between two of Thailand's most powerful institutions -- the monarchy and the military -- early in the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. Understanding this shift is vital for gauging where the country might be headed after its seemingly endless cycle of coups.

Seasoned observers and political insiders say the new king has placed his faith in the senior generals of the King's Guard, a Bangkok-based faction that boasts a rich army pedigree. This, notably, is not the faction of Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the military takeover in 2014 that installed a junta, and who just secured a second term as prime minister after the first general election in eight years.

Another official who wears the princely badge of loyalty is Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, commander of the First Army region and the man considered Apirat's likely successor in the annual military reshuffle in 2020. Both men hail from the King's Guard, as does the current leader of the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division, Gen. Songwit Noongpakdee, who is expected to follow Narongphan.

Put simply, the King's Guard looks set to hold sway over the military for the coming decade.

Well-wishers celebrate the king's coronation in Bangkok on May 6. As crown prince, he entered the King's Guard in the 1970s, going on to serve in counterinsurgency operations.   © Reuters

Defense analysts say the monarch's choice of trusted lieutenants stems from his own military record. As crown prince, he entered the King's Guard in the 1970s, going on to serve in counterinsurgency operations. He subsequently ventured into the air force, another source of loyalists, headed by former Air Chief Marshall Sathitpong Sukwimol -- now the king's private secretary.

All this has broader implications as the country transitions from five years of military rule to a quasi-civilian government. It affirms a new military pecking order, more than a decade after the competing Queen's Guard eclipsed the King's Guard's influence over the troops.

The architect of the Queen's Guard's dominance was Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, who was promoted to army chief in 2004. Using his extensive connections within the military and the political class, he laid the groundwork for promoting generals from his faction.

The Queen's Guard soldiers are elite troops of the 21st Infantry Regiment, within the 2nd Infantry Division, also dubbed the Eastern Tigers. They are based in the province of Prachin Buri, east of Bangkok. Prayuth is one of the standard-bearers of the Queen's Guard, as were four of the six army chiefs over the last 12 years.

Naturally, Prawit remained a Prayuth confidant during the five years of the junta, serving as the deputy prime minister and defense minister. Gen. Anupong Paochinda, another former army chief from the Queen's Guard, was also a key figure in Prayuth's coup and junta.

The king, however, "seems to be proactively trying to shape the military's future by placing the King's Guard, the faction he was part of, in the driving center of army power," said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security at Naresuan University in the north of the country. "It is thus the king's monarchized military, reflected through the King's Guard factional control rather than the Queen's Guard clout."

Kasit Piromya, Thailand's former foreign minister, is not surprised by the tilt that has effectively neutralized the Queen's Guard and its politically ambitious generals. "The king clearly wants a vertical hierarchy without any distractions and divisions that can cause splits in the army," Kasit told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He views the Queen's Guard as an aberration and something abnormal, and it is something he has been aware of as the crown prince."

Experts on Thailand's military say the army's factional rivalries have contributed to the repeated coups.

Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has experienced 13 successful putsches out of 22 attempts. A common thread is how the spoils have been shared: with the winning faction rewarding its generals with plum positions at the expense of nonmembers.

Now, that old order is crumbling under a drumbeat for change emanating from the palace, according to Gregory Vincent Raymond, an Australian academic and author of the recent book "Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation."

"We are entering a completely new era," Raymond said. "In this era, the factions may now be receding in importance as the military fundamentally renegotiates its relationship with the monarchy."

That relationship, some Thailand watchers say, is at the core of the nation's unique polity. "In Thailand, the monarchy and the military exercise authority in their own right, often without reference to the more familiar legislative, executive and judiciary," James Wise, a former Australian ambassador to Thailand, writes in his recently published book, "Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law."

King Vajiralongkorn's confidence in his old faction and Apirat, though, extends well beyond consolidating military authority.

Military cadets gather outside Bangkok's Grand Palace to celebrate King Vajiralongkorn's 66th birthday on July 28, 2018.    © Reuters

The army chief is presiding over a major shake-up of the military's presence in Bangkok that is expected to continue for the next 15 months. This includes relocating units from the capital to neighboring provinces, such as the 11th Infantry Regiment and the 4th Cavalry Battalion -- key front-line troops for staging coups.

Instead, security in Bangkok will be up to an elite Royal Command Guard that answers directly to the king. This special unit has grown to 5,000 personnel, absorbing soldiers from Rachawallop 904, which supplied the king's personal bodyguards when he was the crown prince. Members of the 1st Infantry Regiment will also be assigned to the new royal outfit, officially referred to as Royal Guard 904.

"These royal guards have gone from being a ceremonial unit to a combat-ready force," one political insider said. "They are training with units from the 1st Infantry Division and the 2nd Infantry Regiment for rapid deployment and riot suppression."

Significantly, Apirat is also looking to shore up an army camp in Chachoengsao, a province east of Bangkok, as part of his unfolding military revamp. In addition to redeploying troops from Bangkok to strengthen the often overlooked 11th Light Infantry Division in that province, he recently announced that the military's new order of 37 U.S.-made M1126 Stryker armored personnel vehicles will be sent to Chachoengsao.

Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, chief of Thailand's army and a King's Guard member, is overseeing a major reshuffle of the military's presence in the capital.   © Reuters

"It is an interesting choice to boost Chachoengsao, since it has strategic value, being close to the main international airport and the main sea port," said a Thai military intelligence source, referring to Suvarnabhumi Airport and the port of Laem Chabang. "It is a good base to establish a new force."

Some see the moving chess pieces as a means of checking the still-influential generals of the Queen's Guard and their subordinates at a military fortress in Prachin Buri, which neighbors Chachoengsao.

"The redeployment of troops to camps outside Bangkok is creating a new defense perimeter and appears to be part of a new military doctrine with the king's Royal Guard 904 at the epicenter," said Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights campaigner. "Previous power players, particularly key infantry, cavalry and artillery divisions, have been restructured and relocated."

The message to the military clique that has overshadowed Thai politics since 2004 -- carrying out one coup in 2014 and supporting another in 2006 -- is obvious. "This marks a further effort to dismantle the influence of the Queen's Guard's Eastern Tigers as having no place in the military-political landscape," Sunai said.

The rebalancing has been in the works for some time. Early hints emerged in December 2016, when the king formally succeeded his long-reigning father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died that October.

Among the new monarch's first moves was to retire eight of his father's allies who had served on the Privy Council, a body of royal advisers. He chose five replacements, including two generals from the King's Guard.

Today, the Privy Council includes three generals from the King's Guard and two from the Special Forces, among others. The absence of a general from the Queen's Guard has not been lost on palace watchers. "It is textbook style from the history of kings, where a monarch begins his reign with his own allies," said one politically connected observer.

A senior Thai journalist has also noticed a difference in how King Vajiralongkorn operates, compared with his father, who depended on political power brokers and intermediaries in his royal court. "King Bhumibol worked through proxies to help his agenda, and even with his relationship with the military," the journalist said. "But the new king does not like to work in that style, depending on intermediaries."

Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, center left, hails from the Queen's Guard and played a key role in the 2014 coup led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center right.   © Reuters

Likewise, the king has taken a hands-on approach to financial and other affairs.

In mid-2017, he took personal control of assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau, which were conservatively estimated at 1.4 trillion baht ($44 billion) three years earlier. The holdings range from prime real estate in Bangkok to major stakes in blue-chip companies like Siam Cement and Siam Commercial Bank. But he also announced that the dividends would be taxed like assets "belonging to any other citizen."

The king "prefers direct engagement," the journalist stressed, "as he has done with the military."

When it comes to the new military order, Apirat is a linchpin. And the restoration of the King's Guard atop the armed forces, coupled with Bangkok coming under the watchful eye of the Royal Guard 904, prompted the former Foreign Minister Kasit to predict a very un-Thai prospect for the immediate future: "No more coups."

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