Defence rift casts army in bad light

Defence rift casts army in bad light

'Don't start counting the bodies if the battle is not yet over" is a phrase that best describes the high-profile rift between Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, defence permanent secretary Sathian Phoemthongin and Chatree Thatti.

Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, left, Gen Chatree Thatti, above left, and Gen Sathian Phoemthongin have been embroiled in a rift over the military reshuffle.

The three generals have been deadlocked in a conflict as a result of discord over the military reshuffle. ACM Sukumpol wanted to promote assistant army chief Thanongsak Apirakyothin to replace Gen Sathian who is to retire next month while Gen Sathian favoured his deputy Gen Chatree. Gen Thanongsak, who is said to have support from former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is older than the armed forces chiefs, while Gen Chatree is younger.

Gen Sukumpol ordered the lightning transfer of Gen Sathian to an inactive post as the latter, together with Gen Chatree, submitted complaints about the nomination process to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda and Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont.

ACM Sukumpol tried to downplay the strife, saying "it has been fixed", but the latest move by Gen Sathian and Gen Chatree, who petitioned the Administrative Court over the issue, suggests otherwise.

Gen Sathian made the move in the hope that the court petition will halt the transfer order, enabling him to stay on in his position until he retires, while delaying the military shuffle process. He also hoped that Gen Prem would "screen" the reshuffle list before it is submitted to His Majesty the King for approval.

If the Administrative Court refuses to accept the complaint, it is feared the case will set a precedent and this means a defence minister has the power to transfer a general, or even an army commander from his post.

However, it appears ACM Sukumpol enjoys an advantage over his rivals. He can shrug off Gen Sathian's court petition as he had the Judge Advocate General's Department scrutinise all legal aspects of his move, especially Section 24 of the Defence Act which gives him the power to remove the defence secretary-general. Besides, intervention in military reshuffles, as alleged by Gen Sathian, is not unprecedented. Gen Surayud did it before when he was interim prime minister after the 2006 coup d'etat. More importantly, it appears that the defence minister's choice of Gen Thanongsak, who is to retire next year (compared with Gen Chatree who will be in the military service until 2015), is being hailed by the Supreme Commander and some army commanders. Some even admire Gen Sukumpol for his decisiveness. It's the first time that a defence minister has transferred such a senior officer.

In fact, the dispute is a surprise to the army as the generals are like brothers who all finished the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. ACM Sukumpol is a member of Class 10 while Gen Sathian and Gen Thanongsak are from Class 11.

More importantly, all three generals have solid connections with the Pheu Thai Party (Thaksin was said to have called Gen Sathian on Tuesday, asking him to stop complaining) while Gen Chatree is close to former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

Well, it's all about "power" causing a divide in the military brotherhood.

While it was quite certain that Gen Thanongsak would be named as new defence secretary-general in yesterday's meeting on the military reshuffle, attended by ACM Sukumpol, the supreme commander, and the three armed forces leaders, they reportedly reached a consensus without voting. And the list was ready for Prime Minister Yingluck's approval before being submitted to His Majesty to countersign.

But is the rift is mended as claimed by ACM Sukumpol?

Hardly.

Despite a call for reconciliation by those concerned, it is unlikely as Gen Sathian and Gen Chatree sent the issue to the Administrative Court.

In fact, there are concerns that the conflict may "go underground" given the fact that Gen Sathian is quite powerful, enjoying strong loyalty from his subordinates, while his wife, who is a local politician, cannot be overlooked.

And it is no coincidence that ACM Sukumpol has beefed up security, deploying more RTAF personnel at his residence and his office. While it remains unclear how the rift will unfold, this conflict has certainly cast the army in a bad light.

And that's a shame.


Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Wassana Nanuam

Senior news reporter

Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

Do you like the content of this article?
COMMENT (6)

Covid figures steady

The situation is improving with fewer new cases than expected, but the planned date for declaring Covid-19 an endemic disease remains July 1, a senior health spokesman said on Fridays.

14:00

More illegal migrants en route to Malaysia caught in Songkhla

SONGKHLA: Twenty more Myanmar illegal migrants heading for promised jobs in Malaysia were arrested on a dirt track near the Malaysian border in Sadao district in the early hours of Friday.

13:32

No quarantine for Covid high-risk people

The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration on Friday lifted the five-day quarantine requirement for people in close contact with Covid-19 cases.

13:25