The shadowy world of the Thai military has provided intriguing signs of change this week as its generals appear poised to step back from the frontline of politics.
Thailand’s new royalist army chief, who took command yesterday (Friday), is due to oversee a return to civilian government while apparently consolidating King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s grip on power.
General Apirat Kongsompong belongs to the King’s Guard of the First Infantry Division, heavily associated with the divisive king, rather than the officers who staged the May 2014 coup.
It seems there is a shift in power in Asean’s second-biggest economy away from the generals from the so-called Eastern Tigers, who have dominated the armed forces in recent years, back to Bangkok-based units.
Apirat, 58, is the son of General Sunthorn Kongsompong, who led the 1991 coup that resulted in a popular uprising and an end to the military’s direct involvement in politics until the 2006 putsch against populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
It seems the King’s Guard is recovering its traditional role since overplaying its hand in the early 1990s.
Thai voters have been promised a general election by May 2019 under a military-drafted constitution that observers say is aimed at limiting the role of political parties while enshrining the generals’ influence.
Previous deadlines given by the junta for democratic elections to be held have been pushed back. But the regime is making consistent noises about a 2019 election and political parties are mobilising in a momentum shift that will be hard for the junta to halt.
Only time will tell if genuine power is handed to civilian politicians. As we have seen in neighbouring Myanmar, it is easy for the authorities to go through the process of holding an election without handing any meaningful authority to the electoral winners.
The Thai junta will also have noticed the ease with which Cambodia’s veteran prime minister, Hun Sen, has abandoned any pretence of democracy this year and the inability of the west to challenge his grip.
If a Thai election is held, it will provide a test of the popularity of the self-exiled Thaksin.
The tycoon has always won widespread support in the northeast with his heavy spending policies – like subsidised health care and farming subsidies – which the military establishment and Bangkok elite saw as corrupt vote-buying.
Whoever wins the sprawling region, known as Isaan, secures a commanding parliamentary majority, and no one has so far challenged Thaksin’s grip on the northeast in any 21st-century election.
Thaksin might face a challenge from another populist premier with a taste for political power.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told the media this week that he was “interested in politics” as observers watch to see if he will try to carve himself out a governmental role after a general election.
“I can say right now that I am interested in politics because I love my country, like all Thais,” the 64-year-old general said, using his trademark mix of affability and vagueness.
Prayut is prevented from standing in an election next year under his own constitution because he would have had to resign last year to do so. But he could return as prime minister if a political party nominated him for the role.
The smiling general could also be chosen as an “outside prime minister” if two-thirds of both houses backed him in a scenario where the party with the most seats failed to secure a parliamentary majority.
While political activities remain heavily restricted, no election date has been named and the generals maintain full control of government, it remains too early to speculate about how any return to democracy would proceed.
Added to this unstable mix is the shifting balance of power within the military as the destabilising king appears to be asserting his influence. The doors remain firmly closed on this process.
The courts gave us a window into the shady world of the military this week after a judge convicted a Thai trader of fraud over fake bomb detectors sold to the armed forces.
Five years ago the owner of British supplier of the bogus product, Global Technical, was jailed but the wheels of Thai justice turn slowly when the generals are implicated.
In 2010 it was revealed the GT200 bomb detectors, which were also supposed to detect drugs, were found to give completely random positives.
Other armed forces associated with heavy corruption, like the Iraqi military, bought the worthless devices. Thai troops used the GT200 in the bloody southern Thai provinces where a fierce Muslim insurgency is responsible for daily bombings.
The devices had high and variable prices, boosting suspicions of corruption behind their purchases.
In 2010 the authorities said the devices had a successful detection rate of 20 per cent but then army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, who is now interior minister, praised the GT200’s “successes”.
The Thai authorities bought more than 700 of the bogus detectors since 2004 for an estimated US$21 million.
Defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan this week said the devices were tested and working when the orders were made.
Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich said the use of the GT200 stopped “ever since foreign governments proved that they are ineffective”.
The scandal is only one incident that came to public attention while the closed world of military procurement normally remains cloaked in secrecy. In this, however, the Thai armed forces are not unique.
While it seems military rule in its current form will probably end around the fifth anniversary of the 2014 coup, observers can be confident that the generals’ grip on power will remain stubbornly in place.
The Thai military remains the kingdom’s dominant institution. Picture credit: Wikimedia