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Yingluck and the generals

Asia Times - August 17, 2011

John Cole and Steve Sciaccitano Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's newly appointed cabinet has been the subject of much scrutiny and analysis since it was sworn in on August 10.

But the nature of the new government's relationship with the Thai military is perhaps most important given that the military toppled her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup and was involved in the armed suppression of pro-Thaksin street demonstrators that convulsed Bangkok for over nine weeks last year.

The two most important cabinet appointments for that relationship are that of deputy prime minister for security, retired police General Kowit Wattana, and the minister of defense, retired army General Yuthasak Sasiprapha. The selection of Kowit and Yuthasak reflects very careful political consideration, and undoubtedly indicates a desire by the new government not only to appoint trusted allies to critical posts, but also not to threaten overtly either the military establishment or royal palace.

In this regard, at least in the short term, the appointments appear to have succeeded brilliantly. Both officers are personally well-known to the ruling Shinawatra family, having previously been members of Thaksin's now banned Thai Rak Thai party, as well as having served as ministers in previous Thaksin governments. In addition, Kowit briefly served in the ministry of interior in prime minister Somchai Wongsawat's (Thaksin's brother in law) short-lived administration in 2008.

Before that, both also served full careers in their respective services, attaining four-star rank before retiring. They are known to still command respect from both the officer corps and the rank and file of the police and army. But while Kowit's and Yuthasak's appointments offer hope for stability in the near term, the potential for new political problems between government and military will nevertheless persist.

To understand the nuance and longer-term implications of their appointments, a look at their respective careers is instructive. This is especially the case because many observers of Thai politics, including much of the international media, tend to overestimate greatly the seeming monolithic nature of the Thai military. The false impression is often given that Thai military and police officers are more or less unified in their views and goals, but the more complex reality is often the opposite.

Many different groups exist within the Thai military, often built around classmates from the Armed Forces Prep School (AFPS) and the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA). (The AFPS acts as a feeder for all three service academies as well as the police.) Those groups are also known to revolve around loyalty to powerful senior officer patrons.

Loyalty to the monarchy has been a given, but after that academy classes and their patrons often compete with each other for promotions and assignments to influential positions. This internal tension is usually well hidden from public view, but when a very powerful and wealthy politician also has a class affiliation with a particular faction inside the military, history shows that the implications can be grave for political stability.

Thaksin Shinawatra exemplifies this potentially volatile dynamic. He is a graduate of the AFPS (Class 10), which he attended prior to matriculating at the Police Academy. He later rose to the rank of police lieutenant colonel before resigning to start a very successful business career in communications. This effectively gives Thaksin, as with any graduate of that institution, a built-in set of classmate relationships through his Class 10 affiliation which are very important in the Thai military and police institutions.

Royal connections

Deputy Prime Minister Kowit is a graduate of both the AFPS and the Police Academy. By all accounts a professional officer, Kowit has throughout his career been a no-nonsense leader and senior manager. An early indicator of his integrity was his selection for transfer to the Border Patrol Police (BPP) barely two months after his commissioning in 1970. He remained with the BPP continuously for 24 straight years, rising from a police lieutenant to BPP commissioner in October 1994.

Kowit's selection as national police chief in October 2004 was for that reason unusual, in that most ambitious police officers make their mark in the prestigious Bangkok Metropolitan Police. Since its establishment, the BPP has always been under the operational control of the Thai military rather than the police. Consequently, most officers with extensive BPP backgrounds, such as Kowit, rarely achieve promotions to senior flag levels.

Another important factor in Kowit's background is that the royal family was and is still the major benefactor and patron of the BPP, which played a key role in the fight against the Communist Party of Thailand insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s. Virtually every BPP senior officer, as well as most of its rising stars, were in the BPP's early days all personally well-known to members of the royal family.

Also extremely rare for a BPP officer was Kowit's attendance at the Royal Thai Army Command and General Staff College (Class 56). This was the same staff college class attended by Crown Price Vajiralongkorn, who is now heir apparent to the throne. Selection for attendance at the staff college (usually at the rank of senior captain or major) is a sign that an officer is considered among the best in a given year's group.

The experience is also second only to the military academy as an opportunity for informal networking between members of different CRMA classes and the most highly regarded and rising mid-grade officers. Kowit was able to make many influential friends among his army classmates, many of whom attained general officer rank and some are still serving now in key army positions.

His contact there with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, as well as his service in the BPP, may also have been important factors in his selection as national police chief in October 2004. Additionally, the significance of Kowit being selected by his superiors to attend the Royal Thai Army's Staff College cannot be overstated each annual staff college class accepts only four police officers, of which only one is typically a BPP officer.

Following the 2006 putsch, despite not playing an active role in the intervention, Kowit was allowed by the coupmakers to remain in his post as national police chief. In addition, he was also named third chief deputy of the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy, the name of the coup maker's junta. In this regard, it should be noted that Kowit is an AFPS (Class 6) classmate of most of the key leaders of the coup.

A short time later, in February 2007, Kowit had a major falling out with the junta over policy issues and was subsequently removed from his national police chief post. He refused to go quietly and retire early, and after contesting his removal was allowed to remain on active duty until his mandatory retirement in September 2007.

Traditional army elite

Yuthasak, 74, graduated from the CRMA (Class 8) and exemplifies what might be called the traditional elite side of the Royal Thai Army (RTA). He is married to one of the three daughters of the late national leader Field Marshal Praphat Charusatien and is the son of a famous three-star army general.

Most of his early career was spent in various positions in the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division (King's Guard), then the most prestigious unit in the RTA and the choice assignment for sons of generals and important politicians. As an aside, 1st Infantry Division officers are not currently as influential as before, with the current RTA leadership favoring instead the so-called "Eastern Tigers" of the 21st Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division (King's Guard).

As a rising young army officer in the 1980s, Yuthasak and his academy class were closely aligned with General Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, with whom he later served as deputy minister of defense when Chavalit was minister of defense under Thaksin. That close relationship continues to this day, as Chavalit, a former premier and army commander, is also affiliated with the Puea Thai Party and maintains close personal ties with Thaksin.

Although Yuthasak also previously served under former army commander General Prem Tinsulanonda, who served as prime minister from 1980-1988, the two are not known to have had any connections since Prem became president of the royal advisory Privy Council. Nor has he maintained any relations with military leaders of the 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin from power. Yuthasak's relationship with the palace is functional, as one would expect given his background and service in the King's Guard, but is not especially close.

Assuming that the new government makes no moves that fundamentally threaten the current army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha's and his top deputies' interests, there is a good chance, at least in the near term but also perhaps beyond, that Kowit and Yuthasak's appointments will protect Yingluck's new government from any future military interventions in politics.

In particular, their presence is expected to help protect her elected administration against the possibility of any extra-constitutional action by younger military academy classes. This latter consideration may seem far-fetched in the current conciliatory environment, but is actually a very real threat.

For example, the members of AFPS Class 24 and their supporters throughout the Thai military have neither forgotten nor forgiven the killing of their classmate Colonel Romklao Thuwatham by unknown black shirt-wearing assailants during the army's suppression of pro-Thaksin protests on April 10, 2010. Romklao's death was an important factor in strengthening and unifying the Thai officer corps before the final May crackdown on protesters, a development not fully appreciated by most in the media.

Whether or not Yingluck's new government is sincere in promising reconciliation and non-interference in areas the current military leadership considers vital remains to be seen. One early indication will be the results of the upcoming military reshuffle, the annual senior officers promotion and transfer list which will become effective on October 1. Upon becoming minister of defense, Yuthasak promised not to conduct a "get-even purge" of supporters of the 2006 coup, and stated that he would allow the current army and air force chiefs to remain in their positions.

Civil-military markers

In addition, several significant longer term security issues will require immediate attention and provide important markers for the prospects of sustained political stability, as well as the new government's effectiveness. Perhaps the biggest of these is the Muslim insurgency in the country's southernmost provinces, which ignited in January 2004 when Thaksin was still in power. Yuthasak has already announced that he will visit the south in anticipation of the new government's upcoming presentation to the senate of its policies for dealing with the conflict.

While it is too soon to expect a fully developed policy for ending the insurgency, his early visit points to the urgency and importance of the problem. Yuthasak's handling of the military's role will also have implications for political stability: a poor decision early in Thaksin's first administration in 2002 to end army control in favor of the police for security in the South is held by many as a key cause for the upshot in violence and the army's disaffection with Thaksin.

A second major issue concerns the procurement of new weapons and equipment by the various military services. The new government's likely decision to reemphasize the existing system that centralizes the process for all equipment and weapons acquisitions at the ministry of defense and the defense council will likely be strongly resisted by the three armed services, namely the army, navy and air force.

While in recent years the principle of centralized procurements has been well-established, the reality has been that only under Thaksin was the procedure strictly implemented and adhered to, with the prime minister having the final say. Under Thaksin, this system was often used as an opening to put through his own negotiated deals with foreign governments.

Following Thaksin's 2006 removal, the process lapsed into a structure without an effective government veto. Individual commanders-in-chief of the three armed services were almost always able to push through their preferred deals with sometimes disastrous results. The now infamous deals in 2009 to purchase armored cars from Ukraine and MI-17 helicopters from Russia concluded by former army commander General Anupong Paochinda point to the flaws of the prevailing procurement procedure.

A third potential sticking point will be the question of control over the flow of sensitive information generated by the military's very effective intelligence apparatus. While the new administration's control of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Thailand's equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency, is not in doubt, the more dangerous issue to future stability is control of the very large and effective Armed Forces Security Center (AFSC).

Traditionally, the military has always bid to retain control over the AFSC, which has a significant domestic intelligence capability, even when a civilian government has been in power. This time, Yingluck and her security team led by Kowit and Yuthasak are expected to push hard for full control of the facility, including through the appointment of its commander. Their efforts to do so could well be very contentious with the current military leadership led by Prayuth.

A fourth area of potential civil-military tension will concern the ministry of defense's internal management. It has been common in the past for newly appointed government officials, some in and some out of uniform, to seek opportunities for personal enrichment from their top level appointments. If the new government's appointees are similarly motivated, Yuthasak will risk forfeiting much of the top brass respect he is now believed to command.

Despite media criticism of many post-2006 procurements and other military spending, the Ministry of Defense has a fair share of young professionals genuinely dedicated to protecting the country's vital security interests. If the programs they administer, some of which are very important and highly effective, suffer from corruption and mismanagement, so too will Yuthasak's perceived effectiveness and value to Yingluck's government.

For example, the Ministry of Defense currently hosts a very effective fledgling cyber-security program, which is essential to protect both Thai military and civilian government networks, especially against the potential threat of Chinese hacking and interference. Whether programs such as these are allowed to proceed in a professional way without political interference will be an important test for both Yuthasak's leadership and the Yingluck administration's future stability.

[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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