Prayut shores up support of military

Prayut shores up support of military

Prayut tries to appease factions

Assistant army chief Chalermchai Sittisart (centre) gathers with colleagues paying tribute to Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda on the latter's 96th birthday on Aug 25. Gen Chalermchai will lead the army from Oct 1. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
Assistant army chief Chalermchai Sittisart (centre) gathers with colleagues paying tribute to Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda on the latter's 96th birthday on Aug 25. Gen Chalermchai will lead the army from Oct 1. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

The appointment of a "red beret" army chief is being seen by military observers as a calculated move by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to loosen the long-standing grip of the powerful Burapha Phayak clique backed by Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwon.

Some observers also believe Gen Prayut approved the appointment of Gen Chalermchai Sitthisat to shore up backing from the main army ranks should he move into contention for the post of prime minister despite no standing for election.

As the latest military reshuffle neared, many observers were waiting to see if there would be any clash between Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit who wanted the Burapha Phayak (Tigers of the East) stranglehold on army chief to continue.

In the royally endorsed reshuffle published in Royal Gazette on Friday, however, assistant army chief Gen Chalermchai was named to replace Gen Teerachai Nakwanich, who retires at the end of this month, putting an end to weeks of speculation.

The contest had in recent times come down to a two-horse race between Gen Chalermchai and army chief-of-staff Pisit Sithisan, who is now the new deputy army chief.

A highly placed source said the appointment of Gen Chalermchai, who is from the "red beret" special army combat unit, is unlikely to cause a shift in power.

However it is likely to bring calm to the barracks after four Burapha Phayak army chiefs in a row: Gen Udomdej Sitabutr (one year), Gen Prayut (four years), Gen Anupong Paojinda (two years) and Gen Teerachai.

The last "beret" general to be chief was Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin who staged the 2006 coup that ousted the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

Other key army units, including those under the First Army which has the capacity to stage a coup and challenge the government, remain under the grip of Burapha Phayak.

New First Army commander Lt Gen Apirat Kongsompong, despite not being tied to the Burapha Phayak, is trusted by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. With Gen Apirat in control, the military regime sees no dangers, and therefore there is no concern about giving the army chief post to Gen Chalermchai.

Gen Chalermchai is known to enjoy the support of Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda and privy councillor and former prime minister Gen Surayud Chulanont, who is also a red beret.

"But what is believed to be the most important factor is that the prime minister wants to reduce distrust and discord between the Burapha Phayak and Si Sao Thewes [Gen Prem's clique]," said the source.

Gen Prawit, who is defence minister and regarded as the "big brother" of both Burapha Phayak and the National Council for Peace and Order, is disappointed with the appointments but understands the situation.

When rumours circulated that Gen Chalermchai would become army chief, Gen Prem was heard to extend moral support to Gen Prayut who was influential in Gen Chalermchai's nomination.

"In choosing the army chief, no one can give me orders. Gen Prem isn't involved in this. I made the decision along with Gen Prawit," Gen Prayut said.

However, political observers believe Gen Prayut was concerned to secure the blessing of Gen Prem and Gen Surayud, who still command wide respect in the army, in case he became premier as an "outsider".

Other observers feel Gen Prayut's involvement in Gen Chalermchai's nomination was intended to "seize back power" from Gen Prawit who has been in charge of military affairs since the coup.

But with the success of the Aug 7 referendum, which opens the way for Gen Prayut to stay on as PM, his popularity has climbed and given him the confidence to get involved in this year's military reshuffle.

According to the source, Gen Prayut has had his eye on Gen Chalermchai for some time, possibly since he was head of the Special Warfare Command. Gen Chalermchai headed the special combat command during the coup.

The source said Gen Prayut's decision to give the post to Gen Chalermchai is a win-win for the prime minister.

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