Academic Supalak Ganjanakhundee explains that in the recent 2022 military shake-up, the ‘red rim’ soldiers who are symbolically close to the king have taken over many key positions, reflecting a core problem at the root of the Thai democratic transition that has been plagued by military coups.
On 10 September 2022, the Royal Gazette published a Cabinet Order showing the change of position of 765 military personnel.
From the whole list, only a few positions and names have been seized by political and security observers as signs of which faction has gained major ground in the armed forces, information that will serve as a hint for the future of civilian politics in a kingdom where the coup d'état is one method in the political toolbox for resolving political conflicts.
According to Supalak Ganjanakhundee, an independent academic from the Pridi Banomyong International College (PBIC), Thammasat University, this year's reshuffle is another confirmation of a shift in power to military units related to the king, and this has political significance in both military and civilian politics.
Prachatai: What does the 2022 reshuffle tell us?
Supalak: Generally, it tells us about the continuity of the power structure in the armed forces that has lasted for the past 4-5 years. Since the change of reign, there have been slight changes in military factions.
In the past, we only had Burapha Phayak (Eastern Tiger) and Wongthewan (Divine Progeny), meaning mainly the soldiers who started their careers in two main Army divisions. Those who started in the 1st Army Division based in Bangkok belong to the Wongthewan faction. This group was close to the old central power, which was the palace.
On the other hand those from the 2nd Army Division in Eastern Thailand belong to Burapha Phayak. Since the time of Gen Prawit Wongsuwan as Army Chief, with the short intermission of Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin (the 2006 coup), the power equation has been mainly controlled by Burapha Phayak whose members include Gen Anupong Paochinda and Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.
There may be confusion about whether the Burapha Phayak faction is the same as the Thahan Suea Rachinee (Queen’s Tiger Guards). The answer is no. The latter refers to soldiers who started their careers in the 21st Infantry Regiment in Chonburi Province (a branch within the 2nd Army Division).
Among them, those who are still in power are Gen Prayut and Gen Anupong. Gen Prawit used to work there but he later transferred to the 2nd Army Division so he became the ‘Big Brother’ of Burapha Phayak.
When the new reign started, there were changes within the military factions. The rise of Gen Apirat Kongsompong to Army Chief was the prologue to changes in the military factions that are related to politics.
Gen Apirat had been close to King Rama X in both his origin and background. He came from the Wongthewan group and from the Kongsompong family (son of the 1992 coup maker, Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong). Apirat has served in the 1st Division through and through. His service in the South was also as part of the 11th regiment which is under the 1st Division.
Gen Apirat’s rise resulted in other Wongthewan members being promoted. But the thing that changed the power equation happened when Gen Apirat and a group of soldiers, I counted up to about 15 in total, were subjected to special training at the King’s Bodyguard Academy in Thawi Watthana Palace, an operation directly controlled by the King when he was Crown Prince.
This group of people wear symbols that signify their close relationship with King Rama X such as T-shirts with a red rim under their uniforms. this was when the “red rim” soldier started.
The most interesting changes are in the Army, the entity that has the biggest role in politics and covers the entire capital city’s perimeter. The changes are seen in the form of overlapping characteristics of the red rim soldiers as some are either Burapha Phayak, Queen’s Guards, or have a close relationship with the “3 Por” (Prayut, Prawit, Anupong).
This is the Thai military culture that likes to have their own people in many spots to help support each other interdependently. That is why we can see the overlapping factionalism.
Gen Apirat Kongsompong (middle) leads other high-level commanding officers in a physical test on 21 February 2019. (Source: Army PR Centre)
Those who underwent the special training, known as the 904 Program (904 is the King’s security code since the time he was Crown Prince), can be categorised in three groups. First, the elite squad, consisting of a small number of officers, have taken over key positions in the armed forces that can direct manpower or ideology.
Second, a group that was transferred from the 1st and 11th Infantry Regiment in line with the law passed in 2019 had their status changed from government officials to royal personnel. This group has considerable firepower and is combat-ready.
Lastly, a group selected from the royal bodyguard corps will be chosen for their military skill and discipline. They will be placed in many units and will not enter the palace unless called upon to provide security, join parades or serve other purposes.
In general, the 2022 reshuffle saw the red rim soldiers taking over almost all important positions in the armed forces, especially in the Royal Thai Army (RTA) and the Royal Armed Forces Headquarters (RTARF). For example, Gen Chalermpol Srisawat, a red rim soldier, retains his position as the RTARF chief.
Notably, Gen Songwit Noonpackdee, another red rim soldier, has moved up from the Chief of Staff to RTARF Deputy Chief. This means that he has a great chance to rise to RTARF chief when Chalermpol retires in 2023, if nothing unprecedented occurs.
In the RTA, Army Chief Gen Narongpan Jitkaewtae has secured his position for another year. And if no accident occurs, he will retire in 2023. There has been a rumour of conflict between him and Gen Prayut in the way that Gen Narongpan wanted to keep his post until retirement, while Gen Prayut wanted to have his beloved brother-in-arms from the Queen’s Guard, Gen Charoenchai Hinthao, who will retire in 2024.
If he waits until Narongphan’s retirement, Charoenchai will have only a year left in service as RTA Chief which may be too short to support the 3 Por to stay in power. The repercussions of these conflicts could be seen when the military-owned Channel 5 saw its Director, who is close to Narongphan, resign. Another sign is the military’s harsh reaction toward the LAZADA ads campaign.
Eventually, Gen Prayut, who was not in a good position, lost, making Charoenchai the RTA Deputy Chief having to wait until Narongphan’s retirement.
Conflicts of this kind can also be seen in other units like the case of Lt Gen Tharapong Malakham, the 1st Corps Commander. He has been seen by military and political observers as belonging to Burapha Phayak and was believed to be Gen Prawit’s beloved brother. Normally, the 1st Corps Commander would be promoted to 1st Army Region Deputy Chief at the least, or skip all the way to Chief, depending on connections.
But Lt Gen Tharapong was deflected from this path to become an Army Special Advisor, showing that Burapha Phayak may have been sidelined.
On the other hand, Wongthewan soldiers who have become the red rim soldiers have benefited, like Maj Gen Phana Klaewplodthuk, who was promoted to 1st Army Region Chief. I understand that it is because he shares a similar background to Gen Narongphan (the Army Chief) as he was in the 31st Infantry Regiment’s Rapid Deployment Forces, the Special Forces.
Phana also has quite a solid background with the red rim soldiers to the point of having been in support of Gen Apirat. Phana was appointed head of the Stryker special unit after the RTA purchased Stryker armoured vehicles from the United States. We can see that there is a slight difference within the red rim soldiers regarding the Wongthewan group.
There is also a crossover between the two camps as Maj Gen Amarit Boonsuya, a Burapha Phayak member, rose from the 2nd Infantry Regiment to 1st Army Region Deputy Chief, a position believed to be the core of Wongthewan’s power.
Another unit that does not pose significance in terms of power but reflects the power struggle is the post of Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Gen Sanitchanok Sangkhachan, a close aide of Gen Prawit, rose from the deputy position to Permanent Secretary. However, the Ministry is not a combat unit and has no battle capability. It means that Burapha Phayak’s power has been in decline in general.
Actually, it has been this way for quite some time. That is the reason why Gen Prawit has to build political influence by becoming the leader of Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP).
In the Navy and Air Force, the reshuffles were on the same lines. The changes there would not reflect any political significance but only show who is affiliated with what faction within the armed forces. The Air Force may try to close the F-35 Fighter deal while the Navy submarines deal may not get anywhere and may end in failure.
The reason is that the Navy does not have much negotiation power. Those in power like Gen Prawit and Gen Prayut also do not believe in defending the Navy much as they can always explain that the deal was delayed due to the bad economy.
Also, the Air Force, whose weapon systems are based almost solely on the NATO system, is in a better position than the Navy that has turned sharply to Chinese weaponry when the US would not sell high-tech equipment to anyone who was heavily dependent on Chinese weapons.
Red rim vs green rim, which is stronger?
We have to admit that it is the red rim. The green rim (other personnel who are not red rim) may have problems creating their own political identity because the 3 Por are in decline. Leaving aside the chance of being endorsed by a higher power, I think the 3 Por’s military mission has run out of steam, and its political mission almost the same.
What they had to do during the transition between reigns has already been done, and the mission has already passed to other generations in the armed forces. It can be seen that the current red rim soldiers do not have to listen to orders from the Prime Minister/Defence Minister, and his brother in the government, let alone other politicians.
We may have to consider the factor of who can get closer to the royal palace. It may be said that Gen Prayut and Gen Narongphan are in the same position and have relatively equal access to the centre of power in the palace. Gen Prayut may have a better chance as he administers more as the PM. But if it is a matter of military power, I think there is no need to communicate through Gen Prayut.
What Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit are doing right now is making people in the military help secure their own power in order to prove to the palace that they can control politicians and soldiers. But on the military side, there is no longer a need to use a proxy because the late King Rama IX and the King Rama X are very different in their approach to the military.
Taking into account a ‘2M2C’ model analysis (Monarchy, Military, Capital, Civil Society), will the 2022 reshuffle affect the political landscape in the near future?
With personnel who Prayut and Prawit tried to place in key positions sidelined (Tharapong and Charoenchai), Gen Prayut’s future is related to the monarchy. Supalak sees that “Gen Prayut already has no use.”
Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha
Firstly, many may think that Gen Prayut still has brothers in the armed forces, but for the Thai military, under intensive questioning about who they are loyal to, the PM or the King, they are likely to choose the latter. The PM can be anyone as long as they can prove that they are loyal to the monarch.
Secondly, Gen Prayut and the 3 Por administration does not look well in the eyes of the elite. We can pretty much see the elite starting to raise a fuss over the economic performance due to the bad and irreversible economy. Such an administration will have problems when there is no trust in it and Gen Prayut may have no ability to quickly recover economically.
In that sense, can we say that the military has stepped back from politics?
Not really, it is because they have no need to step out and support the 3 Por. And the 3 Por’s enemies are many. Some of the capitalists do not like them. Youth does not like them. There are also some in the elite who do not like them.
It cannot be clearly said that the whole military opposes them, but the dissent is not lessening. There have been rumours that personnel in the Navy have started to not want the Chinese submarines. There may be a small current of resistance.
Will Phana’s becoming 1st Army Region Chief affect the chance of a coup?
Yes. Without good cooperation from the 1st Army Region Chief, the 1st Army Regiment and its 1st Battalion, and the 11th Army Regiment, a coup cannot succeed. There has been no successful coup coming from any other part of the military. The 2014 coup that saw the use of soldiers from the east was conducted under Prayut’s order as Army Chief to transfer them into Bangkok a long time in advance under the pretext of a military exercise.
So if whoever becomes the 1st Region Army Chief cooperates well with the coup makers, that coup will be successful. If the 1st Army Region does not do cooperate, they will be in a position to know the movement of all personnel within its jurisdiction, which will become an important factor. The character of the current Chief is similar to that of the Army Chief, which makes me think that the two may think alike.
Has Prem Tinsulanonda’s faction still has any influence?
Prem’s faction members are already old and are all retired. When Burapha Phayak rose to power, those visiting Prem went only to express their stance because Prem was close to King Rama IX and the royal palace and everyone had regard for him.
Prem Tinsulanonda (1920-2019)
However, there is currently no Prem, physically or in terms of influence. The one who could inherit his role is Gen Surayud Chulanont who is now the President of the Privy Council, but he is laying quite low and does not have as much charisma as Gen Prem because he was affiliated with the Special Forces at the border. Surayud also seems to lean toward the US too much so he is not that popular.
Does what we see here have anything to do with the 2006 coup?
The 2006 coup was not only a prelude to the systematic return of the military, but also a return of more priority for the bureaucracy. Before the coup, kamnan (sub-district chiefs) and village chiefs had 4-year terms, but this was replaced with retirement at 60 after the coup.
The Ministry of Defence Personnel Administration Act B.E. 2551 has the same base principle as that. As far as I have learned from interviewing a coup-maker (Gen Sonthi), he said that the management of civilian-military relationships is important. The military’s ideal is having no involvement from civilians. They do not want the elected government, politicians, or political parties that come from the people meddling in military affairs such as military reshuffles. If possible, they want to do it by themselves.
Another legacy of the 2006 coup is the saying that the 2006 coup was a waste. That is why there had to be a 2014 coup to do what Gen Prayut did - militarise Thailand. The 2014 coup differed from the 2006 one in the way that Gen Prayut wanted to finish what the 2006 coup started - supremacy for the bureaucracy.
That is why we saw 2M (Military, Monarchy) start to shine from 2006 to its completion in 2014 under a more systematic manoeuvre. But the beginning of it all was surely in 2006 because the key players in the coup were the same group of people, i.e. Gen Prayut and Gen Anupong, and Anupong managed to secure the momentum until the next coup.
We can see that the 3 Por started to have influence after 2006, and then Burapha Phayak managed to dominate the military even though it was under a civilian administration at the time. It was just when Gen Anupong threatened the elected government of Somchai Wongsawat by giving an interview in a televised program after the protest crackdown on 7 October 2008 against the People’s Alliance for Democracy (the yellow shirts). That was the most obvious incident showing how the Army Chief wanted to establish military power.
Another thing that I see as a highly important legacy of the 2006 coup that still persists nowadays is how the monarchy’s role is being promoted. After the 2006 coup, there was resistance like the red shirts. And the palace was made to have more of a role in street politics by the military and its supporters.
By making appearances, the creation of discourses during the protests, and having support from the military, it all served as an important momentum to grant the military an essential role to safeguard security during the transition period because, at that time, there were enemies of the monarchy, which was created by the military.
The 2006 coup formed the first brick in the foundation of what currently stands and we still cannot find the way to change it. Forget returning to what it was before, even trying to change part of it is already difficult. At the beginning of the new reign [Gen Prayut] said there would be no use of the royal defamation law. But now the law is being used in a more senseless way. This is what the 2006 coup has built.
Did the 2006 coup lead to an end of military factionalism based on class?
The Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA) class-based factionalism ended after the Black May incident in 1992. People hardly remember the name of the Army Chiefs from 1992 to 2006 and military news did not get so much attention.
It was only in the Thaksin era that class factionalism returned, but based on the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) and it still somehow persists as the commanders nowadays are either Class 22, 23 and 24 of AFAPS. Class factionalism ended with the Thaksin administration to be replaced by affiliation-based factionalism. Soldiers still value their classes but there was no power to promote their people.
It may also depend on individual characteristics. Take Gen Prawit for example. He prefers the class-based system because his class friends have all retired. He also has been taking a big brother role by supporting Prayut and Anupong who have grown with him since their time in the 21st Army Regiment.
In my opinion, the categorisation may not have any meaning in terms of sphere of influence, but it is useful as a tool for analysis and study. Categorisation makes it easy to say who is in which group. We can see the wish to dissolve Burapha Phayak and Wongthewan, leaving only the red rim and green rim. And how can we explain the red rim and green rim? It goes by who is close to the palace and who is not.
It can be simply said today that the red rim will be supported and the red rim will also support their kind because it is believed that doing so would please the palace more than supporting the green rim would.
Currently, we perhaps can say that loyalty toward the monarchy is more of an important factor to determine power within the military than loyalty to their own factions. This is the most important question in military affairs: when we look at soldiers, who are they loyal to?
In other warring countries, capability in warfare or commanding will be the determining factor, but as Thailand has no war, the chance for promotion shifted in the past to how well one soldier can lobby politicians, and now it depends on loyalty.
It then comes back to the 2006 coup that made the military base their career prospects on their ability to be loyal rather than battle capability. We can see it from how the budget has been spent. We rarely see soldiers conduct exercises, but rather royalty glorification events.
Where are the people in this issue?
When talking about the military and politics, it is the politics of the elite. There are not many of the people in there. But lately there seems to be a good sign after the youth have come out to address the highest issue in this society’s hierarchy. We see the demands to re-transfer the two army regiments that were transferred to the Royal Office.
We see Members of Parliament address military reform, which in my opinion has still not reached the core issue, but there are questions about military expenditure, the Information Operations, and the abuses of personnel within the armed forces.
Society has become more wary of military expenditure and its behaviour. There are people saying that the military’s mission should be changed. For example, internal security affairs should belong to the police. There are civilian entities that can do better at handling natural disasters. It is true that the military has war-grade vehicles to move people, but it comes with a very high cost.
When we talk about a relationship between the military and politics, we usually talk about the military-civilian relationship. In many so-called democratic countries, the civilian government is in the position to command the troops and the parliament will scrutinise the military’s use of force.
However, since the 2014 coup to before the 2019 election, the Thai government did not check on the military in the slightest. They gave the military whatever they asked. But after the 2019 election, the elected House of Representatives started to question many things, despite many being criticised such as for a request to review the use of Section 44 of the Interim Constitution (granting the junta leader absolute authority to order anything).
There was also a debate raised about the Elephant Tickets (the police’s way of lobbying for promotion). It can be said that parliament has started to work, I think people may want to see parliament be the ones who do the commanding and designating the security strategy while the military are the ones who implement it.
Military reform must be done systematically. It must involve the ideology and mission of the military, and also the laws regarding its powers and there is still no systematic study of what must be done.
There are laws that have not been touched upon. For example, the Ministry of Defence Personnel Administration Act B.E. 2551 gives the armed forces chiefs very great powers regarding military reshuffles. There is also the Internal Security Act that allows the military’s political wing, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) to take part in civilian and political matters, which makes everything complicated.
The military’s role in development is also another issue. The Thai military actually is not sophisticated in development work. We can already see what “development” means for soldiers. It is digging ponds, clearing drains, which is incorrect. Developing the country is something more than that. And the military cannot do that even with their great resources as they have not been trained for it.
We may start from the Constitution by clearly setting out the duties of the military. In Thailand, it is written that they have the job to protect the monarchy, defend the country, and development work. It sounds like they want to keep their influence, because these roles come with power. The Constitution must reduce the military’s role in things that are not within their competence.