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Coup calculations in Thailand

Asia Times - January 17, 2014

John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano, Bangkok With hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters occupying large swathes of the national capital and a series of shadowy armed attacks on their encampments, speculation is rising that Thailand could be on the brink of another military coup.

A similar protest movement paved the way for the September 2006 putsch that overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's administration. But the situation now is substantially more complicated, militating against the prospect of another army-led takeover.

During his more than three years as commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), General Prayuth Chan-ocha has earned the reputation for sometimes speaking before thinking. Most recently, the military leader caused a stir when, after several weeks of ruling out a military intervention in Thailand's escalating political crisis, he cryptically told reporters that he could neither open nor close the door to a future military coup.

According to well-placed military insiders, Prayuth's equivocal comments were almost certainly not meant as a veiled warning that the military is preparing to intervene unless a settlement is reached between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's embattled government and the Democrat Party-linked People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). More likely, they say, Prayuth was building on earlier comments he made that a coup would not resolve the conflict while emphasizing how dangerous the polarized situation has become. This week Prayuth raised concerns that recent attacks on PDRC-related targets may have come from an "armed group".

Yet there are many reasons for Prayuth to stay in his barracks. The government's aligned United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group, also known as the Red Shirts, is capable of extensive resistance to any military intervention, particularly in their strongholds in the country's north and northeastern regions, as well as areas surrounding Bangkok. The army would have great difficulty asserting control in those areas without the use of large-scale force, regardless of the UDD's ability or willingness to stage insurgent tactics.

Additionally, several Thai army units are comprised mostly of draftees from those same provincial areas. In a conflict situation, it is conceivable that army units in those regions would refuse to suppress Red Shirt protests staged in the name of preserving democracy. During the army's 2010 lethal crackdown on UDD protesters in Bangkok, where over 90 people including soldiers were killed street battles waged in April and May, certain Bangkok units were not mobilized due to questions about their loyalty.

While Prayuth has consolidated his control at a series of military reshuffles, including through promotions of soldiers involved in the 2010 lethal suppression, questions have arisen about his ultimate loyalty. An apparent taped telephone conversation between Thaksin and current Deputy Defense Minister General Yuthasak Sasiprapha leaked to the press revealed the two discussing an apparent secret deal where Prayuth agreed not to resist the passage of a blanket amnesty that would allow for the criminally convicted Thaksin to return to Thailand in exchange for a lucrative sinecure for Prayuth upon his retirement from the armed forces this September.

The alleged deal sparked outrage within the mostly anti-Thaksin, pro-royalist officer corps and engendered a quiet but strong anti-Prayuth backlash in certain military quarters. Prayuth's career-long loyalty to the royal family, ties which secured his current position atop the military hierarchy, have recently been called into question by staunch royalist officers. Others believe Prayuth has played an astute balancing act by nominally falling in-step with Yingluck's civilian leadership while at the same time growing and protecting the military institution's interests.

Thailand's military leadership has always been careful to ensure that their extra-constitutional interventions to remove sitting governments have retroactive legal protection for those who led the putsch. This was easily done during the Cold War-era of military dominance but can no longer be assured. The 2006 coup-makers included immunity from prosecution in their 2007 constitution, a charter that has been challenged on various fronts as "anti-democratic" by Yingluck's Puea Thai party-dominated parliament.

There are historical parallels to Prayuth's predicament. In 1989, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, soon to be army commander and later prime minister after leading his own coup, explained to one of the authors before his putsch why he would never try to seize power: it had become too difficult compared to the past. It was not so much the actual overthrow of the government, which Suchinda said could be accomplished relatively easily as long as the members of a single military academy prep school class in key positions agreed to participate.

The hard part, according to Suchinda, was the following days during which the coup leader would have to, first, personally go to the royal palace and beg the monarch for forgiveness, which if successful would result in a royal pardon and legal immunity for the coup group. Second was the necessity of convincing the international community to recognize the new coup-installed government and thereby ensure that the Thai economy and banking system was not placed under sanctions.

Less than 15 months after this conversation, Suchinda helped lead the coup which overthrew the government of then elected Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan. Given the solidarity of his military academy classmates (Class 5), the actual seizure of power was the easiest part of his putsch. Prayuth's situation is considerably different in that the academy class system has become highly factionalized and the international community is likely to respond strongly to a telegraphed coup that deposes Yingluck's elected administration.

Given the lack of any external threat, apart from the insurgency raging in the country's three southernmost border provinces, Thailand's officer corps' main day-to-day concern is not war preparation. Rather, many RTA officers are more concerned with the influence and power they wield within the Thai political system, which has grown substantially since the 2006 military coup and remained largely unchallenged during Yingluck's two and a half year tenure.

Prayuth has so far kept the military above the fray of the current street protests, positioning the armed forces as a mediator rather than agitator. That could change, however, if the security situation deteriorates, particularly in the scenario of a large scale clash between UDD and PDRC supporters. Troops were initially stationed to protect government buildings but the army has allowed the police, a pro-Thaksin bastion and target of the PDRC's reform calls, to manage the frontlines. Soldiers have since been deployed in areas around protest sites to protect demonstrators from anonymous assailants.

Class priority

US military advisers have worked in Thailand since the Korean War era and have imparted an organizational structure virtually identical to the US Army (albeit an early 1960's version). Despite this structure, the driving ethos for the Thai officer corps is not military professionalism, and, with a few exceptions, officers devote much of time to personal business and political concerns.

Most of the currently serving two star generals and higher level officers are graduates of the Armed Forces Preparatory School and the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (Thailand's West Point) or another service academy equivalent. (While only 15% of all new officers each year hail from the Prep School-Military Academy system, fully 80% of all officers selected for promotion to the two star or higher level are products of this system.)

Graduating classes from these elite institutions maintain a separate identity, superficially similar to any military or civilian college alumni system. This system has produced a series of independent class organizations which eventually evolve into an active political action group with significant business and political interests and connections. As part of this process, and echoing centuries-old rituals, each commissioned officer annually swears his personal loyalty to the monarch and the nation but not the Thai constitution.

Loyalty therefore is afforded primarily to the monarch and in most cases in terms of day-to-day importance to one's Prep School and Academy class. The practical result is that officers learn early in their careers that classes compete against other classes for promotion and that successful officers from each class use their positions to assist less talented officers from their own class, with class cohesion becoming the paramount virtue.

To the occasional classmate who insists on making military professionalism his priority over class business and consorting with classmates, there is a standard harsh and effective punishment: the cutting off of all communication with the rest of the class. Usually such a punishment is extremely effective and rarely does the renegade stay outside the class for more than several months before being allowed to return to the fold.

Officers thus learn never to make significant decisions without consulting their classmates. Frequent meetings are also convened among classmates, sometimes within hours of breaking news, to discuss the potential impact on class interests, with text messages allowing for almost constant communication. Stories abound of former army commanders who still regularly share meals with classmates to discuss issues of mutual concern.

While this system still prevails, class cohesion has recently started to break down in line with the divisions in Thai society. This has been compounded by perceptions that Prayuth has favored fellow Queens Guard soldiers at recent reshuffles. So what happens if a soldier no longer trusts his classmates? Prayuth's perceived betrayal of doing a behind-the-scenes deal with Thaksin is the most blatant recent example of this breakdown in trust, but there have been others.

General Nipat Thonglek, a capable officer recently assigned as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defense, is perhaps the most openly pro-Thaksin senior officer in the Thai military. Nipat hid his political loyalties for years to avoiding thwarting his promotion, as happened to various officers who graduated from Thaksin's pre-Cadet Academy Class 10.

It is unclear how many more pro-Thaksin officers in the rank and file are masquerading as pro-royalists. To be sure, there has been factionalism in the military before but it was usually defined by one academy class against another. The current trend toward splits within classes is new and more unpredictable.

Royal protection

So what is the potential for a coup against this backdrop? The authors are not aware of any information to date to indicate that the military is preparing a coup, although as long-time observers of the Thai military it should be noted that such preparations are usually opaque. Moreover, Prayuth is scheduled to retire from active duty in September and he seems genuinely reluctant to jeopardize his legacy, including arranging for his younger brother's promotion and assignment to one of the RTA's most important positions.

If the military were actually planning to remove Yingluck's caretaker government from power it would also mean purging pro-Thaksin officers from the armed forces, a move that would risk a further split inside the military. The lack of trust between the two sides is apparently so great that the past practice of merely pushing the losers of intra-military power struggles into unimportant positions but allowing them to serve until retirement would likely no longer suffice.

In spite of all this, there are still a few circumstances that could push Prayuth to abandon his current role as mediator and become coup-maker. First and foremost, Prayuth could opt to intervene if the political situation deteriorates to the point that the military perceives a threat to the safety and security of the royal family. While this is unlikely during the pro-royal PDRC protests, it is nevertheless a constant concern in the minds of the officer corps.

After the April Fools Day coup in 1981, the army moved to restructure the mission of two key combat units to the protection of the royal family above all else. These two units, the 21st Infantry Regiment and the 9th Infantry Division (Royal Guards), are based respectively in Chonburi and Kanchanaburi provinces.

Normally part of the 2nd Infantry Division, the 21st Regiment comes under the control of the royal family in the event of a coup or national emergency. All officer and non-commissioned officer assignments to the unit must be vetted through the royal household. Additionally, while the unit gets its usual quota of conscripts (twice a year for two-year stints), these personnel are thoroughly reviewed by the royal household.

The 9th Infantry Division is located approximately a three hour road march to the west of Bangkok. This unit is part of a closely held secret program by Prayuth to convert it into a 21st Infantry Regiment-type unit which will also revert to royal family control in any crisis. Over the past three years, only officers and enlisted men (excluding conscripts) who have previously served in the 21st Infantry Regiment have been assigned to the 9th Infantry Division. All officers and enlisted men who were assigned to the 9th Infantry Division prior to this program becoming effective have all been quietly transferred to other units.

Prayuth could also intervene if the military comes to believe that the current protest situation has deteriorated to the point that the basic unity and integrity of the Thai state is at risk. Similar to their concern for the safety of the royal family, the threat of partition of the nation is also ever-present in the minds of the officer corps. That explains why the military is the main obstacle within the government to granting a degree of local autonomy to assuage the insurgency now raging in the country's Muslim majority southernmost provinces.

A final factor is growing concern over the continued ill-health of the King and Queen, who for decades have been an important influence over the armed forces. Senior officers have told the authors that Prayuth felt isolated after repeated requests for guidance from the palace went unanswered about a year ago. Some suspect this isolation was responsible for Prayuth's apparent willingness to engage Thaksin's overtures. If such a sentiment has affected the officer corps more broadly, it introduces a very unpredictable element into the military's political calculations.

Coup rumors will inevitably pick up again in the days leading up to Armed Forces Day on January 18. Part of the festivities for the annual celebration, to be held this year at the 11th Infantry Regiment headquarters in northern Bangkok, involves swearing an oath of loyalty to King Bhumibol. For this purpose, all of the Royal Guards units will be present, including those garrisoned outside Bangkok.

Over 20 up-country battalions are scheduled to be in the city for the celebration. Other services, including the Armed Forces Headquarters (formerly known as Supreme Command), will host their own celebrations and oath-swearing ceremonies at their own bases. While these scheduled mobilizations will not necessarily signal coup preparations, other motivations could yet put the soldiers and equipment conveniently in place.

[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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