Thai Army’s plan to take power-Asia Times
May 15, 2012
[FACT comments: Look, anybody is a FOOL who thinks we can trust Thai military. They’ve had it their way for decades and they have no intention of giving up control over a simple matter like public opinion. Thailand always follows the US. This time it’s following them into citizen internment camps.]
Thai army secretly plans for the worst
Steve Sciacchitano and John Cole
Asia Times: May 11, 2012
Over the past four months, the Royal Thai Army (RTA) has quietly embarked on a multi-faceted, kingdom-wide program to strengthen internal unity and improve capabilities in a number of key areas. This program has been implemented without media coverage or public knowledge and builds on previous programs, some of which go back several years.
While each of the measures can be justified individually on military or bureaucratic grounds, taken together they collectively point to a design to prepare the army to defend its interests against political opponents, including presumably criminally convicted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
RTA challenges ahead could include potential instability provoked by Thaksin’s return from self-exile as a free man through a controversial government-granted amnesty. Another would be any government attempt to curb the army’s political independence, either by transferring RTA commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and replacing him with an officer more to Thaksin’s liking at this October’s annual reshuffle, or longer term through a significant reduction of its budget.
External challenges could also take the form of more heavy flooding on a scale of last year’s disaster, challenging the army to live up to the popular expectations built through its professional handling of last year’s crisis or face a grassroots backlash. It must also look to ensure stability during the royal succession when the 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej finally passes from the scene and heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn accedes to the throne.
The RTA’s internal strengthening program can be divided into two broad areas: personnel actions and force structure and command expansions. While the most dramatic development is the planned activation of two new combat divisions – one each in the north and northeast, the heartland of the army’s Thaksin-aligned “red shirt” opponents – perhaps the most revealing was a seemingly innocuous Prayuth-ordered personnel action.
In early February, Prayuth had a specially designed test administered to all serving battalion commanders. Thai battalions vary in strength from roughly 500 to 800 soldiers, depending on the type of unit, and there are approximately 210 colonels and lieutenant-colonels commanding battalions kingdom-wide. Although billed as a test, the 17-page document was in fact more of a detailed survey soliciting the hand-written views of commanders regarding the most difficult issues now facing the army.
To call this move unusual would be an understatement. In past years, RTA senior generals would have regarded battalion commanders as too junior to merit such interest. As field tested in the September 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin’s administration, the importance of battalion commanders has risen significantly, particularly in light of the still polarized political situation.
While these commanders may be junior when compared to the likes of Prayuth, to the soldiers and junior officers under their direct command they are the ultimate authority, senior enough to be rendered almost unquestioning obedience, yet close enough to their rank and file soldiers to know many of them by name.
In the event of a future coup or counter-coup, or even a civil war, battalion commanders will be the critical key links in the chain of command in getting units to move out of their garrisons and onto the streets, or conversely by issuing orders not to mobilize. RTA officers organize and ally themselves by their respective Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA) graduating class.
History shows specific classes tend to rise or stagnate together, meaning competition among CRMA classes is a significant factor in determining and further defining an individual officer’s loyalty. At any given time, the RTA’s various levels of command are usually dominated by two or three consecutive CRMA classes, which may be allies or rivals for influence. For example, Prep Class 10 officers, known for their allegiance to classmate Thaksin, were systematically sidelined by coup-makers after the 2006 putsch.
With this in mind, Prayuth’s survey can be interpreted as an attempt to establish and maintain personal relationships with this key group of officers, as well as a bid to identify those officers who might be unhappy with the army’s leaders or policies. Assuming officers filled out the test honestly, the results would show who might be inclined to join with the known pro-Thaksin faction within the military.
Insiders have reported that the results have been favorable to Prayuth’s leadership and that several battalion commanders have been called to Bangkok to meet individually with the commander-in-chief to share and discuss their respective ideas. The most important result of this innovative testing/survey program seems to have been to strengthen support for Prayuth with the battalion commanders and thereby further unifying the army under his command.
In a related move, Prayuth has also acted to broaden his base of support within the army by supporting the promotion and assignment to key positions of officers outside of his own prep class. This is significant because there had been a serious degree of dissatisfaction within the RTA officer corps over Prayuth’s perceived favoritism in promoting his own Class 12 officers at previous reshuffles.
While this shift is no doubt due in part to the advancing age of Prayuth’s classmates, many of whom are fast approaching mandatory retirement, Prayuth apparently made a conscious change in his management approach.
The recent promotion of two officers from Class 13, a younger academy class, to the commanderships of the powerful 2nd and 3rd Army Regions is a clear example of Prayuth’s changed approach. The 4th Army Region Commander was already a Class 13 member. Insiders expect the trend to continue at the upcoming annual military promotion and reassignment list, usually announced in September with an effective date of October 1, with the first Class 14 officer to be promoted to four star level and given an assignment to one of the five key positions in the RTA hierarchy.
That officer, Lieutenant General Udomchai Sitabut, widely viewed as a professional officer currently assigned as commander of the critical 1st Army Region, is believed to be on track to replace Prayuth as RTA commander-in-chief upon his mandatory retirement in September 2014. Udomchai is also a 21st Infantry Regiment alum who as a Special Colonel succeeded Prayuth as the commander of that prestigious unit. He is also a recipient of the Thai Medal of Honor and is known to be close to the royal family.
At the same time, the RTA is quietly expanding its force structure. In a program approved several years ago, the RTA has started to activate three new combat divisions, two of which are to be situated in Thaksin’s geographical stronghold. The new 7th Infantry Division has begun forming in the country’s north under the 3rd Army Region, with a new headquarters located at Mae Rim on the eastern side of Chiang Mai city.
In northeastern Thailand, in the 2nd Army Region, the new 3rd Cavalry Division is being activated with its headquarters in Khon Kaen. While neither of these two divisions is fully formed yet, both have major combat elements already assigned and would be capable of deploying several thousand soldiers in the event of an emergency.
A third new division, the 15th Infantry Division, has been activated in the country’s South under the 4th Army Region. The decision to activate this division was made several years ago and was officially classified to keep the details secret until the unit was fully formed. The 15th has now been almost fully fleshed out, with new three infantry regiments each with three infantry battalions.
The entire division is being based in the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani where a Muslim insurgency is active. The 4th Army Region now has two line infantry divisions assigned and approximately nine new paramilitary units with regular army cadre, known locally as Taharn Phran, each comprised of six to eight 140-man companies are also planned to be activated and permanently based in the deep south.
The 15th Infantry Division was activated for clear military reasons, but even here there are political implications. For the past seven years, the RTA has reinforced its units in the south by rotating for periods of one year six combat battalions drawn from the 1st (Central), 2nd (Northeast), and 3rd (North) Army Regions into the southern provinces.
With the formation of the 15th Infantry Division well underway, Prayuth secretly decided in January to move forward to this July, instead of July 2013, the date when these rotations would cease, a full year earlier than originally planned. If this decision holds, it means that the divisions which are based in and around Bangkok, which earlier had units deployed to the south, will now be back at full strength and will increase the force Prayuth could deploy in the capital in the event of a political crisis.
However, RTA staff insiders say that the recent series of coordinated insurgent attacks in the south, as well as intelligence that indicates a steady rise in the insurgency’s capabilities, have caused Prayuth to have second thoughts about fully discontinuing the rotational program.
High water marks
The RTA is also making serious detailed plans for dealing with another season of above average rainfall and the potential for more massive flooding. The RTA Command and General Staff College last month convened a two-week closed symposium where uniformed officers and sergeants from squad leader up to regimental commanders of units directly involved in the flood relief effort last year were ordered to participate.
Armed with meteorological evidence that points to the potential for a recurrence of last year’s floods, the army has put together an updated operations plan based on lessons learned from last year’s relief operation and participating units have already received orders to prepare.
Equipment such as small inflatable boats and individual life preservers which will make participating units more effective in flood relief operations have also been procured and prepositioned at designated units, particularly with infantry regiments and their line battalions.
Selected RTA engineer units in the Bangkok region have already been ordered to begin work on flood mitigation efforts, such as cleaning canals, with at least two units having recently received special major budget increases for this mission from the royal family.
Prayuth is also bidding to build support within the army military education system, which collectively has been the most distrustful of his tenure. On this past April’s mid-year reshuffle list, Prayuth approved the promotion of Major General Pawpol Manerrin to Lieutenant General and reassigned him from deputy superintendent to the new superintendent of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA).
Never in recent memory has the deputy at CRMA been promoted to superintendent, especially one from a very junior class four years younger than the officer he replaced.
According to insiders, the selection of Pawpol signals the increased importance Prayuth is now paying to education and training. Other changes are expected to be made in the months ahead. The most significant of these is a recently approved plan to expand the army training command to be commanded by a four-star general with a much larger budget and wider responsibilities, including over all reserve military training at civilian schools throughout the kingdom.
Each of these measures can be explained and justified on their own terms. An expansion of the number of divisions is on the surface indicative of an increased personnel and procurement budget. More emphasis on professional education improves the readiness and capability of the army. More forces deployed to the South could improve security there (although if not well trained it could worsen the situation). Preparing for more flood relief efforts requires no explanation considering the scale and cost of last year’s disaster.
Taken together, however, these moves constitute a massive, self-initiated and coordinated program whose elements are tied together by a drive to increase the internal cohesion and loyalty of the army. While it’s difficult to predict exactly what this multi-faceted program will mean for stability in the months ahead, one thing is certain: Prayuth’s RTA is clearly preparing for any future contingency it may face and bolstering its ability to act on its own initiative in a potential political crisis.
While Prayuth has until now been successful in keeping these measures largely secret from the public and press, he and his staff were always aware that Thaksin would eventually learn of them, given his known inside contacts in the RTA. At the same time, the secret moves could be interpreted as an indirect warning to Thaksin of Prayuth’s determination to defend and forward the army’s interests.
Steve Sciacchitano and John Cole 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.