Thaksin’s shadow party takes aim on the military

New Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej will also take the role of defense minister when the new cabinet of the People Power Party (PPP) is sworn in on Wednesday as the party seeks to reshuffle military officers aligned with the junta away from key command posts.

The prospect of Samak as defense minister has rattled the generals who orchestrated the overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Army chief Anupong Paojinda reportedly called Thaksin, who has used Hong Kong as a base since the election, to encourage a more neutral figure to head the ministry. Outgoing defense minister Boonrawd Somtas warned Samak that he could be sacked or jailed if he “interferes” with military affairs.

But although some analysts feel that the PPP, which is avowedly pro-Thaksin, might be provoking the military by making Samak defense minister, the party believes it’s already on the firing line and needs a strong figure at the ministry to ensure its own survival.

“There is no way tension can get any higher; it’s already up there,” said a senior PPP official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The gun is still pointed at our head. We need to see the clear picture. The chain of command on the ground is even more solid for their side than before the coup.”

Anupong replaced coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin as the army’s top commander last September. Since then, he has reshuffled mid-ranking officers twice to put his men in place and remove others with loyalties to either Sonthi or General Saprang Kalaynmitr, his top rival for the job.

A key Anupong loyalist, Lieutenant-General Prayuth Chan-ocha, commands the crucial First Army division headquartered in Bangkok. Anupong himself formerly commanded this unit, which is seen as crucial for staging a successful coup.

The army chief also installed close aide Lieutenant-Colonel Pattachai Chintakanont as head of the Bangkok-based Fourth Cavalry Battalion, another key unit in any putsch. In addition, he realigned officers in the north and northeast, as well as the First Infantry Division that oversees Bangkok and the Special Warfare Division in Lopburi, where Sonthi and military-appointed premier Surayud Chulanont once served.

To say the least, the moves have the PPP nervous.

“The Council for National Security has reshuffled a few times since it seized power so that men they trust literally control the equipment for a coup – tanks, guns and all that, including troops,” the PPP official said. “So if we allow the status quo to continue, the risk is great. We made a decision early on that the defense portfolio must go to the PPP, and there is no compromise about this.”

But shifting anti-Thaksin officers out of the way will not be easy. Before leaving office the junta passed a law that hampers a civilian government’s ability to influence military reshuffles. The previous law gave the prime minister and defense minister – the two post Samak will hold – the final say in a military reshuffle before it gets formal endorsement from the king. But the new law says any reshuffle involving officers with the rank of general must receive approval from a seven-member committee formed by the defense minister, his deputy, the defense permanent secretary, supreme commander and the heads of the army, navy and air force.

Moreover, it’s unclear just how much Samak will want to do Thaksin’s bidding now that he’s actually prime minister. The PPP official said Samak was initially lukewarm to the idea of becoming defense minister, and recently said he would wait a few years before pushing forward with key party goals. This has reportedly raised fears inside the party that Samak may be looking to consolidate his own power instead of simply acting as Thaksin’s nominee.

Although a fierce opponent of Prem Tinsulanonda – the king’s top adviser and a former army chief and prime minister who Thaksin’s allies believe masterminded the coup – Samak has close ties with the military. Much of his political support in the 1980s came from soldiers based in Bangkok. The conservative Samak also defended bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy protestors in 1976 and 1992, making him an unlikely ally of former student leaders who joined the PPP, such as Secretary-General Surapong Suebwonglee.

“Since he is not well supported in the PPP, Samak needs a power base to consolidate his leadership,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and a military expert. “He has very good connections with the military, particularly the conservative members, and may be courted by aggressive colonels who are looking to become generals.”

The defense minister position is the highlight of a decidedly unexciting cabinet lineup, which is another indirect result of the coup. The PPP cannot pick up where the deposed Thai Rak Thai government left off because the political playing field has been altered.

For one, the military-appointed Constitution Tribunal’s decision to dissolve Thaksin’s party and ban its executives splintered the group. Although the breakaway factions returned under the PPP-led coalition, each will demand a certain number of cabinet positions, and the PPP must ensure it can hold the coalition together.

Second, Thaksin must elevate loyalists he can trust who have shown a willingness to put their necks on the line. Thus, Noppadol Pattama, Thaksin’s personal lawyer, looks set to become foreign minister. Jakrapob Penkair, who led anti-coup protests, will also likely serve in the cabinet.

“The people who acted aggressively against the coup are now being rewarded openly,” Panitan said. “This needs to happen otherwise people won’t risk their lives for Thaksin the next time.”

Beyond that, strict rules on conflict of interest in the new constitution designed to prevent the cronyism of the Thaksin era may deter the country’s best economic minds from joining the government. Thaksin must also reward the “dinosaur” politicians and party stalwarts who held the base together to produce a win that topped expectations. This means giving key positions to some dubious figures like the probable interior minister, Chalerm Yoobamrung, who gave his son a hero’s welcome in 2002 when he returned to Thailand after fleeing the country for six months when faced with accusations of killing a police officer.

“The previous TRT government was pro-policy, and this one is pro-politics,” said a senior official with the ousted government who is not serving in the PPP government. “Thaksin must reward people who supported him regardless of whether they are actually qualified, so the quality of each minister is lower than before. In a cabinet there is always a trade-off between rewarding people and helping the country, but right now it’s all about rewarding people.”

Samak admitted his cabinet was less than stellar, but said there wasn’t much he could do about it. “I don't know what to do with the government’s image – it is unavoidable that it’s a little ugly, because only the daredevils are willing to join the Cabinet,” he said.

Despite Samak’s wish to stay on for a few years, many party officials and analysts doubt the new government will last a full term or even two years. Barring an internal PPP rebellion, the government will likely aim to accomplish a few key goals, such as reviving the Thaksin-era populism that cemented his support in the country’s northeast and settling the corruption cases against Thaksin. This includes freeing up the nearly $2 billion in frozen proceeds from his family’s sale of Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings two years ago, a move that sparked the overthrow.

PPP has also said it wants to amend the constitution to do away with the half-appointed Senate and confusing multiple voting system. This should be possible, as constitutional amendments need only more than half of the votes in the 630-member House of Representatives to pass, and PPP’s six-party coalition controls 315 seats. The main opposition Democrat party has also said it supports some changes to the constitution.

The military rewrote the constitution to weaken the power of elected governments, mostly through the creation of a half-appointed Senate that will likely try to thwart PPP’s legislative efforts. The charter also included a host of policy prescriptions that were not included in the previous 1997 constitution, which could prompt new legal challenges to PPP’s economic platform.

But although both sides have various cards to play over the next few weeks and months, reconciliation is in the air for now. Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin even said last week that he has talked to Thaksin a few times recently and still loves him as a brother.

Most analysts take those words with a grain of salt and believe conflict between the PPP and its detractors is inevitable.

“Both sides are strong but neither has total power,” Panitan said. “Now they are trying to save face and avoid conflict. But of course we know these people don’t like each other personally, and many bridges have been burned.”