Thai army reshuffle: A new rift between government and military?

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 28, 2012

The transfer of high ranking military officers to inactive posts by the defense minister may spark a new rift between the civil government and the armed forces over the control on military matters, such as the upcoming annual reshuffle of generals, major generals, colonels and other top army members.

Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat yesterday abruptly transferred Defence permanent secretary General Sathien Permthong-in and two other senior officers to inactive posts at the Defence Minister’s Office.

Sukampol signed the order – to take immediate effect – at 2.30pm. The move of the three officers came just a few days after Sathien unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to complain about Sukampol’s alleged efforts to interfere in the annual reshuffle of senior military officers.

The two other transferred officers were General Chatree Tatti, deputy permanent secretary, and General Pinphat Siriwat, director of the Defence Secretariat. The three were in charge of compiling the annual military reshuffle list. Deputy permanent secretary General Witthawas Rachata-nan was made acting permanent secretary of Defence.

Top army officers transferred“, Bangkok Post, August 28, 2012

There has been tension between General Sathien and Defense Minister Sukampol in the past week, as both have locked horns over who should succeed Sathoen as the permanent secretary for defense, as he is to retire later this October. Sukampol is favoring General Thanongsak Apirakyothin, assistant army chief and former chief of the Third Army Area in the North of Thailand. Sathien on the other hand wanted his deputy permanent secretary of defense General Chatree Tatti to take over.

All of them reportedly are somehow linked to active or former members of the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) – Sathien is married to a PT mayor, Chatree reportedly close to former prime minister and army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, and Thanongsak is rumored to have the support of Thaksin’s sister Yaowapa Wongsawat, wife of former short-time prime minister and banned politician Somchai Wongsawat.

This incident puts the spotlight on the infighting between the government and the armed forces and its implications forhow the promotions of army officers will play out in the future. After the coup of 2006, the interim government of General Surayud Chulanont introduced the Defence Ministry Administration Act, which also regulates the process of army promotions with the instalment of a so-called Defense Committee (or Council, depending on how you want to translate it). The committee, in theory, consists of seven members: the defense minister, his deputy, the permanent secretary for the defense, the supreme commander and the chiefs of army, navy and the air force.

The reality is that the position of deputy defense minister has been vacant for some time already, and due to the fact that the military side clearly outweighs the civilian side in this process, attempts by the government camp have been made to tip the scale in their favor by seeking to amend the Defence Ministry Administration Act.

Another possible scenario that was rumored earlier this year was to reshuffle positions so Sukampol would step down in order to let Prime Minister Yingluck to take over as defense minister (which she denied), as he would fill in the vacant deputy defense minister position and also put one of their own as permanent secretary for defense after Sathien retires – which would nearly balance out the power scale in the Defense Committee against the other four military members, where a weak link could act as the tie breaker in delicate decisions. UPDATE: A tweet by a Thai journalist reminded to add what is an open secret: This Defense Committee has actually never convened so far, as the promotion list for army officers is being sent back and forth between all members.

A different point that has been brought up in this case of Sathien’s successor is the important role of class association from the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS). Interpersonal relationships among classmates always plays a role in military promotions, such as during the promotion of General Prayuth Chan-ocha as army chief as he was Class 12 that allows him to stay on until 2014, when he has to retire at age 60. In the current case, Sukumpol was reported to consider General Chatree Tatti, until Monday Sathien’s deputy, as too young since he hails from Class 14, whereas the defense minister’s favorite General Thanongsak Apirakyothin graduated in Class 11.

There’s more to this story than the political and bureaucratic in-fighting between high-ranking soldiers: The compromise between the civilian government and the armed forces not to intervene too much into each other’s matters could be seriously put on the test as the military side could see Monday’s events as exactly that – Sathien certainly does:

In a letter dated Aug 24 and seen by the Bangkok Post Sunday, Gen Sathian requests a talk with the premier and accuses Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat of unauthorised “interference” in the legal procedure to promote senior officers at the general level.

Gen Sathian says in the letter that ACM Sukumpol did not heed his contention that his current deputy, Gen Chatree Thatti, was the most appropriate choice because of his high rank and seniority. (…)

A source said Gen Sathian has also discussed his conflict with ACM Sukumpol with Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont and sent a copy of the list of nominated officers, prepared by the Office of Permanent Secretary, to Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda.

Sathian seeks PM’s counsel over reshuffle“, Bangkok Post, August 26, 2012

Contrary to his usual behavior, General Prayuth’s response was somehow surprisingly tepid, saying that he sees no problem in the much debated move of the three officers to the Office of the Defense Ministry since the defense ministry has the right to do so and seeks to talk with the parties involved.

And all parties, both civilian and military, will need to talk if they want to uphold the status quo. The government clearly wants to increase their influence over the set-up of the armed forces, as it never has been monolithic but factionalized and also to prevent a possible military coup against the government of Yingluck.

However on the other hand, this should also put a spotlight on the self-entitlement of the armed forces to withdraw itself from any outside control in their matters and accountability, since the army sees itself and in fact is an independent factor in the Thai power struggle – and with lacking transparency, also an unpredictable force for the outlook of Thailand’s democracy.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.