Thai Generals Pass the Torch

Barring any last minute surprises, General Anupong Paochinda looks set to succeed coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin as the leader of Thailand’s military junta when he faces mandatory retirement later this month in a move that will likely ensure stability for the armed forces over what could be a turbulent return to democracy.

The well-regarded Anupong can be expected to steer the military clear of overt political posturing, but still give it the muscle to keep politicians in line. While many would like the generals to quietly go back to the barracks, the men in green must tread carefully between maintaining a strong hand to stave off investigations and avoiding the same fate of General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who sparked massive street protests that turned bloody when he became prime minister following a disastrous 1991 coup.

In some respects the army could be in a precarious spot. Although they managed to oust elected former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, bring arrest warrants against him, dissolve his Thai Rak Thai party, ban the party's leaders from politics for five years and write a new constitution, their grip on power still appears tenuous.

Since the coup a year ago, questions over military succession have lingered as top generals have sought an exit strategy ahead of an election scheduled for December 23. And countercoup rumors have persisted as the junta seeks ways to prevent Thaksin’s supporters – many of whom have regrouped under the People's Power Party – from returning to power via the election and possibly turning the tables.

The strong "no" vote in last month's constitution referendum indicates that Thaksin retains widespread political support, and his loyalists could manage a surprise victory at the polls. Moreover, PPP elected as its leader an outspoken right-wing politician who has vowed to fight for Thaksin and grant amnesty to banned members of his old party.

The new constitution does restrict the powers of political parties, but nearly all politicians have vowed to work together to amend it. And the new Internal Security Bill – the key piece of legislation that was supposed to cement the military's grip on power through an unaccountable superstructure – now may not make it out of the military-appointed parliament.

But, says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security expert at Chulalongkorn University and a foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, it will take time before politicians can stand up to the military. The army has upped its 2008 budget to 143 billion baht, from 86 billion before the coup, ensuring that it has more "negotiating power" with politicians, he says. If the Internal Security Bill does pass, soldiers will essentially be playing by a different set of rules with a mandate to closely monitor "national security threats" and set up "anti-poverty campaigns" in the countryside.

"Politicians must first fight among themselves to get elected and then form a weak coalition government possibly with military insiders," Panitan said. "It will take years before politicians can consolidate enough power to be able to confront the military."

Anupong, who is considered clean, has three years remaining until he must retire, whereas his volatile main rival, General Saprang Kalaynmitr, retires next year. A dark-horse candidate, Sonthi confidante General Montri Sangkhasap, must hang up his uniform in 2009.

"I don't think the military wants an army chief that will retire next year as it will allow the new elected government to bring in a new chief," said Panitan. "If Khun Anupong stays on for three years I don't think the politicians can move him easily."

The decision, which has been delayed for weeks, is likely to irk supporters of the outspoken Saprang, a rabidly anti-Thaksin general who claimed earlier that he would quit the army and possibly run for parliament if he was passed over for an officer with less seniority.

Saprang is by far the most outspoken general, at one point even speaking of the need to use machine guns to shoot dogs in a reference to protestors who launched a signature campaign to remove former army chief Prem Tinsulanonda as privy council president. But along with his tough talk against Thaksin, Saprang also has a taste for money and power.

He took over as chairman of two bloated state enterprises, the airport authority and the fixed-line telecom monopoly, and quickly found himself in hot water at both. At the state-run airport company, he came under fire for a week-long trip to England and Germany with 14 delegates that cost nearly $200,000. At the cash-strapped telecom firm, Saprang reportedly ousted its president for opposing a move to have the company donate more than $23 million of mysterious surveillance equipment to the army to help fight the Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces. The defense minister knew nothing about the gift, leading many to speculate it was nothing more than a slush fund.

By comparison, Anupong turned down the chance to take board positions on state enterprises, choosing instead to focus on the military's day-to-day work. A few years ago, Anupong might have seemed a strange choice to carry on the military's campaign against Thaksin. Many considered him close to the tycoon prime minister, who was his classmate at the Armed Forces Preparatory School. Indeed, it looked as if Thaksin had insulated himself from a coup by moving fellow graduates into key positions around Bangkok.

But somewhere along the way, Anupong switched sides, leaving Thaksin vulnerable. The trouble first surfaced in March 2006 after Thaksin held a meeting with Anupong, who reportedly vowed to be loyal to King Bhumibol Adulyadej rather than Thaksin.

After that, Thaksin sought to kick Sonthi into a ceremonial role and replace Anupong with another one of his classmates. But the plan failed. Instead, a July 2006 reshuffle of mid-ranking officers saw many of the premier's loyalists transferred, causing a split between Anupong and his fellow graduates to spill into the open. Then the coup sidelined Thaksin's guys completely.

Although Anupong played a vital role in the coup, his earlier association with Thaksin has led some to question whether he will do everything he can to protect the junta leaders once an elected government takes power. But since Anupong played such an instrumental role in the coup, he is just as culpable as his brothers in arms.