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Amnesty and loyalty in Thailand

Asia Times - August 9, 2013

Steve Sciacchitano and John Cole, Bangkok An audio clip of what purports to be a secretly recorded telephone conversation between former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the present deputy defense minister, Yuthasak Sasiphrapa, posted anonymously on YouTube has caused a stir in the media and among political elites.

In the July 6 clip, the two men discuss a secret way by which Thaksin, convicted of corruption and currently living in self-imposed exile, could secure an amnesty that would allow his return to Thailand without serving a pending two-year jail sentence. A current legislative push for an amnesty has sparked new street protests and opposition resistance that threatens to destabilize the two-year government of Thaksin's sister and present prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

The taped conversation proposes to initiate an amnesty through a military administrative channel that would pave the way for an executive order that could be quickly enacted by Yingluck's government without parliamentary deliberation. The process would be secretive by design and implemented quickly to avoid the public scrutiny and outcry that could derail the order.

The two men are also heard expressing confidence that military opposition to Thaksin's return could be easily defused by arranging post-retirement sinecures for army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patima-prakorn. Both are generally regarded as heads of a dominant anti-Thaksin, pro-royalist faction in the military, with Prayuth viewed as the de facto chief.

Under Yingluck's Peua Thai party-led administration, Prayuth has been allowed strong authority over decision making for the army. This has included numerous Prayuth-led initiatives to build unity and professionalism among soldiers. He has also overseen the promotion of more than 100 officers to the rank of major-general and orchestrated reshuffles that have strengthened his hand over the rank and file. At the same time, Prayuth has come under criticism from certain royalist quarters for being too close to Yingluck's Thaksin-aligned government.

As part of the supposed arrangement in the YouTube clip, the upper ranks of the army would gradually be filled with Thaksin supporters after Prayuth's mandatory retirement next year in September, thereby hedging the possibility of another coup like the one that ousted Thaksin from power in September 2006 and eroding the institution's current dominance by royalist soldiers.

Coup rumors spread in recent days as the government girded for a possible confrontation in the streets over parliament's first reading of a controversial amnesty bill that critics claim is designed specifically to bring Thaksin back to Thailand. Yingluck imposed the Internal Security Act in areas around parliament to guard against protestors blocking legislators from the building. At the height of the political tremors, Prayuth strongly denied that the military would intervene.

It was unclear from the YouTube clip whether military commanders involved in the 2010 lethal crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators would be included in an amnesty accomplished by executive order. Adding pressure on military leaders, a Thai court said in an inquest ruling on Tuesday that soldiers were responsible for the shooting deaths of six people at a Buddhist temple during the military crackdown on May 19, 2010. To date, nobody has been held accountable for the deaths and destruction caused during the unrest and crackdown.

Thaksin's supporters have protested against previous suggestions, including trial balloons floated by Thaksin himself, that military members be included in an amnesty. However, legal protection against future prosecution would likely be a key precondition for Prayuth and other military leaders to tacitly support Thaksin's return through a back-channel amnesty.

Speculation about the audio clip's authenticity has run rampant in the local media, with some suggesting it was strategically released to undermine military unity ahead of a new period of political turmoil. Despite Yuthasak's initial denial that he was the one speaking on the recording, few doubt that it was him. Thai army officers who spoke with the authors in reporting this article many of whom know both Thaksin and Yuthasak personally also believe it to be genuine.

Much of the critical commentary about the YouTube clip concerns the behind-the-scenes nature of the arrangements being discussed to secure Thaksin's return and the potential political upshots of such a move. The conversation raises an even more important question, one that goes to the heart of Thailand's politics over the last half century: is Thaksin's apparent confidence that he can win over and take control of the military justified?

Hostility and suspicion

As prime minister, Thaksin spectacularly misjudged the determination of the military to act against his elected government in 2006, when he was overthrown after attempting to gain control of the military by promoting his own loyalists to key command positions. Thaksin politicized senior officer promotions long before the pivotal September 2005 reshuffle, including his promotion of his cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra, to the army's leadership in 2003.

Thaksin's alleged desire to take control of the military's procurement budget and conflicts over private business interests with certain key generals fueled perceptions in the military hierarchy that Thaksin was not only promoting his loyalists beyond their experience and seniority but also working to reduce the military's political and commercial power.

While there is little evidence apart from the contested audio clip to indicate the current army leadership is willing to make amends with Thaksin, there is one significant difference between the situation now and the run-up to the 2006 coup: the prolonged illnesses of both King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.

The Thai military owes its political influence primarily to two factors: its history of removing sitting governments from power through extra-constitutional actions and via its longtime close and enduring relationship with the Thai royal family as part of its core mission to defend and protect the monarchy. There are other ways not commonly appreciated that the military exercises political influence, including through an extensive internal intelligence apparatus.

The military has not always exercised this power in a vacuum, however. Ever since Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat's military regime in the 1950s, the royal family and military have in the main supported one another. The military, of course, is the defender of the kingdom against external enemies, but it also sees itself as the main supporter of the royal family against internal threats, including a communist insurgency that took aim at the monarchy in the 1960s and '70s.

The royal family has acted as the military's primary patrons and encouraged respect for the military as an institution defending the national interest. Over the years, royal family members have also taken interest in the careers of certain individual officers, particularly those assigned to the elite King's and Queen's Guard regiments.

Since 2008, King Bhumibol has stayed in Bangkok's Siriraj hospital before returning to his palace in the sea resort town of Hua Hin last week. Queen Sirikit was through great personal effort able to manage most of the palace's interests and affairs during Bhumibol's illness, including the royal family's relationships in the military. But a stroke she suffered last year as acknowledged in royal household announcements has in recent months prevented her from playing this same strong leadership role for the monarchy.

The situation has posed an unprecedented dilemma for known palace favorite Prayuth. The self-exiled Thaksin undoubtedly understands this, and that could explain the apparent proposed accommodation outlined in the YouTube audio clip. Prayuth, who has been a dedicated servant of the royal family for his entire career, might decide to come to terms with Thaksin while he still has time to negotiate such an arrangement and avoid future culpability for the 2010 crackdown.

This conclusion is admittedly based on inference from what is still a contested audio clip. Thai army officers who spoke to these writers before the secret recording was released claimed that Prayuth had for several months unsuccessfully tried to speak to someone in authority at the palace about several serious impending issues. While the issues were not specified, the sources indicated that Prayuth felt increasingly adrift without palace guidance.

To be sure, the notion that a powerful army commander could be bought off with the promise of a sinecure after retirement, as the tape seems to indicate, seems improbable. By the time a military officer reaches such a senior rank money is usually no longer a personal issue. Having occupied one of the most powerful positions in government, at times the most powerful, previous army commanders have often been more motivated by continued status and power.

The list of former senior military officers who entered politics and even became prime minister in the post-1970s era of elected governments include Prem Tinsulanonda, Chatchai Choonhavan, and Chavalit Yongchaiyuth. Others formed or joined political parties after mandatory retirement from the armed forces.

Dynamic shift

But here, too, there has been a change in recent years in the internal dynamics of the Thai army that would make Thaksin's supposed offer to Prayuth more attractive than in the past. The personal goal of many senior officers has traditionally been to rise to positions important or powerful enough to receive lucrative offers from private businesses seeking favors or special advantages. Certain other positions were desirable by virtue of the control they granted over parts of the military budget.

Military officers of modest backgrounds could also hope to benefit in this system, even if they were not particularly ambitious in a traditional military sense. In the authors' collective experience, perhaps half of all Thai military officers are content to spend their careers mostly in provincial garrisons, where the duty day isn't particularly strenuous and one doesn't have to be a general to benefit personally and materially from the system.

The officers of the individual graduating classes of the elite military academies have traditionally stuck together through their careers, acting as a kind of business and or political lobby for its members. More successful or talented officers, meanwhile, helped the less talented gain promotion and access to the system's benefits. Some classes were more influential than others, but as long as everyone played by the rules and no one class tried to grab everything for his clique the system functioned reasonably well.

With the rise of electoral politics in the 1970s and the growth of the Thai economy in the 1980s, the relationship between power and money started to become increasingly more muddled. Money was no longer simply a reward but also a source of power. Wealthy politicians and business interests began to assert themselves against the military.

The Thai army first began to feel this change in the late 1980s under the government of prime minister Chatchai Choonhavan. Chatchai, though a former general himself, favored business interests over the military in his government and replaced generals with ministers in many lucrative up-country positions. He was overthrown in a 1991 military coup, with coup makers claiming they were protecting democracy from corrupt politicians.

This trend has continued to the present. Indeed, one key source of the conflict between Thaksin and military leaders was control over certain commercial interests, according to military sources. The effect of being pushed out of business interests has greatly increased the competition between military academy classes for a smaller number of influential positions and has forced military leaders to seek other ways of providing rewards to influential up-and-coming classes and their associated officers.

This can be seen in the rapid expansion in the number of active duty general officers (major generals and above) in recent years. At first this was achieved by creating new activities that required new positions. For example, a corps headquarters was created in three of the four army regions, ostensibly for the purpose of commanding the region's combat units in the event of a war. Since the army regions were already the equivalent of a corps, this was in a military sense wasteful and redundant. It did, however, create many new senior officer positions.

More recently, there has been a growth in the number of officers being promoted to the rank of major general or higher without even the pretense of military necessity. It is difficult to know precisely the number of newly created generals who fall under this category because there are a few who, without seeming to have an assignment, do actually perform some relevant behind-the-scenes function.

The Thai army currently has 464 major generals and above on active duty with only approximately 230 being assigned to actual positions. The spirit of the expansion is captured nicely by the Thai army slang for such officers, nai phon daow tiam, or "satellite generals", with satellite referring to objects in outer space that go around in circles far from the center of things. The trouble for Thaksin is that while he may have been close to an agreement with Prayuth that would have kept the military in the barracks in the event of his return, public exposure of the plan detailed in the YouTube clip now makes it less likely to succeed. That means the deposed former premier will have to rely on an amnesty bill passed by parliament, with all the attendant risks of anti-government street protests, legal challenges and other unpredictable political turns.

For the Thai army, the cracks in the system first built by Field Marshal Sarit have now widened beyond repair. This, of course, does not mean that the military will remove itself from politics any time soon. There is a strong element in the military, including in the middle ranks, that is outraged at what the audio clip alleges about Prayuth's supposed dealings with Thaksin. These officers remain committed to preserving the old system. They believe that the military should continue to play an influential political role, particularly in the run up to and potentially after the royal succession.

At the same time, the unwritten rules by which individual officers and academy classes compete for rewards in the military hierarchy are changing. If Thaksin soon returns to Thailand as a free man via a political amnesty, association with his Peua Thai party will further subvert the military's traditional institutional loyalties and likely increase already intense factionalism. Whether that potential shift would bring the now largely autonomous military under stronger civilian control, however, is still far from certain.

[John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano spent several years in Thailand while on active duty with the US Army. Both were trained as Foreign Area Officers specializing in Southeast Asia and graduated from the Royal Thai Army's Command and General Staff College. They are now retired and the views expressed here are their own.]

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