As Thailand’s current coup interregnum drones on, with the country in the clutches of a rapacious and restrictive military dictatorship, tensions are rising between Prawit Wongsuwan, the 70-year-old deputy prime minister, and the Privy Council, the primary provider of advice to the monarchy, with the military arresting a top Privy Council aide earlier this month.
This takes place against the backdrop of an irritated and economically battered Bangkok elite, which welcomed the military after the May 22, 2014 coup that brought an end to the elected democracy dominated by surrogates of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in an earlier coup in 2006.
It hardly means the junta is on the way out. But “It’s thieves against thieves, crooks against crooks,” said a well-placed banking source who asked not to be identified, describing the military’s current activities as “political and economic bungling.” Agreed another banker: “Yes, a bunch of thieves on all sides, with no leader, military or civilian, offering a ray of hope for the Thai people.”
“At issue is duration – how long is this downward slide likely to last?” asked Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, in a March 8 op-ed in the Straits Times of Singapore. “If Thailand’s movers and shakers keep going after one another as if they were in a bottomless pit, they may find its walls insurmountable when they realize they have had enough and want to climb out.”
The 18-member Privy Council is arguably the most powerful body in the country despite the fact that it has no statutory role beyond providing advice to the king. It has been headed for many years by the 95-year-old former military chief Prem Tinsulanonda, who has long had the confidence of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Prem has been accused of being the mastermind of the 2006 coup that ended Thaksin’s political reign and kicked off eight years of crisis that only stopped, perhaps temporarily, with the 2014 coup that brought the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to power. The army denies Prem had anything to do with it.
At each other’s throats
In early March, Admiral Phajun Tamprateep, a former aide to Prem, was ordered to report to the police after he sent messages to associates regarding claims that police under the command of National Police Chief Pol. Lt. Gen Chakthip Chaijinda were paying for promotions. The messages suggested an army general was involved – as concurrent defense minister, Prawit is in charge of the police and is said to have gone after the admiral.
According to sources in Bangkok, Phajun was ordered to report to the Cyber Crimes Division under the Central Investigation Bureau on March 10 over claims he had violated the Computer Crimes Act, apparently for questioning the promotions in emails. He dismissed the order as frivolous.
Summoning an aide to the Privy Council is unprecedented. Local media quoted Prawit as saying the police were right to take legal action against Phajun because the message undermined the police. He insisted there had been no position buying as long as he has been in charge and that those who claimed they could secure police posts were lying to get money.
“Phajun is a Prem loyalist who was ordered to raise those concerns,” said a western observer in Bangkok. “The retaliation was the arrest. Prem and others feel Prawit is getting too big for his britches.”
Who’s in charge here?
Although Prayuth Chan-ocha – the former army chief who led the coup against the elected government of Thaksin’s sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – is the public face of the junta, Prawit actually occupies the center of power, several sources in Bangkok told Asia Sentinel.
“Prawit is definitely the real power in the NCPO,” one said. “Some call Prawit ‘the evil toad.’” There is said to be tension between Prayuth and Prawit over several issues, not least because in the Thai hierarchy Prawit is known as the mentor or “big brother” of the “Eastern Tigers,” a group of officers who started their careers in the 21st Infantry Regiment, also called the “Queen’s Tigers,” based in eastern Thailand. Former Commander-in-Chief Anupong Poachinda and Prayuth were also in the regiment and are called “little brothers.” Nonetheless, as prime minister, Prayuth gets the ink.
Prawit is said to have made the widely condemned decision in July to send nearly 100 fugitive Uyghur Muslims back to China after they had fled China to escape persecution and abuse. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees said it had previously been given assurances that the refugees would receive protection. Prayuth, the source said, wasn’t informed of the decision to send the refugees back until after they had already been shipped out.
Prawit was also the motivating force behind the decision to build the controversial Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin, the site of the king’s summer palace 200 km. south of Bangkok. It has since proven to be a major embarrassment for the army. Intended to venerate Thailand’s kings from the Sukhothai era to the current Chakri dynasty, the project has ensnared former Army chief Udomdej Sitabutr, a Prawit protégé, and half a dozen other officers in a scandal. They are believed to have enriched themselves by commissioning massive bronze castings of the kings for the park and then kiting the pricing through several negotiations. The US$28 million park was dedicated by King Bhumibol and built with public and private donations. Names of the officers involved and allegations of what has been stolen have appeared in a deeply detailed schematic on Wikileaks, which can be found here.
From 2004 to 2005, Prawit was commander in chief of the army, becoming defense minister in 2008 through 2011, when the Democrat Party was in power before being forced out by free elections. He returned to the defense post in 2014 and was also named deputy premier in Prayuth’s government. He was a backer of the long-running Yellow Shirt protests in 2013 and 2014 that ultimately caused so much chaos that the army stepped in to take over. He is also the deputy chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order.