By Max Constant
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND
A renowned expert on Thailand's armed forces is warning that a military reshuffle by junta chief-cum-prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha could lead to a counter-coup further down the road.
Chan-ocha has ruled Thailand with a vice-like grip since overthrowing the elected government in a May 2014 coup, but Paul Chambers -- the director of research at the Chiang Mai-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs -- warns that the recent reshuffle may be a step too far.
“Chan-ocha is trying to personalize power by appointing people that don’t necessarily back the leaders of the diverse military factions at this point in time,” Chambers, who has written several books on the Thai military, told Anadolu Agency in an interview in the northern city of Chiang Mai on Wednesday.
“By supporting different members of different factions in equally high places, he balances the different factions off of each other, including his own faction.
"And so by associating all these groups, he propels himself up and gains more respect from Prem [Tinsulanonda],” he said, referring to the 96-year-old president of the Privy Council advising King Bhumibol Adulyadej and a former prime minister from 1980 to 1988.
Tinsulanonda, who was has been a king’s favorite since his days as army chief at the end of the 1970s, has been one of the most influential players in the country for almost four decades -- often behind the scenes.
He is highly respected within military circles and his choices have often prevailed during military reshuffles.
On Sept. 9, the appointment (effective Oct. 1) as army chief of Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisat, a leading member of the “special forces” faction was announced in the royal gazette.
Several analysts immediately noted that Sitthisat does not belong to the Tigers of the East -- a powerful military faction named after a Queen’s Guard military unit based in eastern Thailand -- to which Chan-ocha and deputy-prime minister-cum-defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the second most powerful member of the junta, belong.
The analysts said they consider the move by Chan-ocha to appoint Sitthisat a clear blow to the political ambitions of Wongsuwan.
“In that way, Prayuth Chan-ocha weakens Prawit Wongsuwan. He keeps Prawit down,” said Chambers.
Last month, a military-sponsored draft constitution was approved at a referendum. The constitution opens the way for a non-elected “outsider”, including a military officer, to become prime minister after the country holds elections that are planned for the end of next year.
Chan-ocha -- who analysts expect to make a move for the premiership -- has been ambiguous about his intentions, saying only that “the time has not come [to speak about it]”.
In Thailand, it is traditional for the leadership of the armed forces and -- during military regimes -- leading government positions to be monopolized by the most powerful military faction of the time.
There are currently three major military factions in the country's armed forces -- the Tigers of the East, the Special Forces faction and a third named Divine Lineage from the elite King’s Guard.
In the 1980s -- during the premiership of king's favorite Tinsulanonda -- counter-coups by military cliques opposed to the dominant military faction in the government occurred twice.
This is a possibility that Chambers doesn’t exclude in the future given the delicate balancing act that he sees Chan-ocha attempting.
“I have always thought that Prawit Wongsuwan is the person that has been able to keep the pieces in the military. But now that Prayuth Chan-ocha wants to dominate it, there could be a situation similar to Tinsulanonda’s experience, such as counter-coups attempts,” he said to Anadolu Agency.
The fact that the army commander is now not from Chan-ocha’s faction, and that the commander of the first army -- the key military unit involved in coups -- belongs to the Divine Lineage group and is known for being “adventurous” makes this hypothesis credible, according to Chambers.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.