A file photo of Gen Prawit Wongsuwan

When playmaker plays captain

Taking up the position as acting Prime Minister, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan is under the spotlight as he assumes responsibility for political developments. While he has long been adept at playing behind-the-scenes kingmaker, the question of how he will perform as the country’s temporary leader remains.

Gen Prawit Wongsuwan with a face mask on.

On Friday morning, a black Mercedes-Benz parked at the entrance of the Government House. Waiting en masse were journalists hoping to interview Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, who had just arrived for his first day in the office as acting Prime Minister, having taken the position a day earlier.

Journalists were still coming to terms with the first change of Premiership in 8 years was reflected in the honorifics they used in their greetings, some using “good morning Deputy PM sir” as opposed to “good morning Prime Minister.”

Questions were fired off, mostly about what Prawit planned to do in the position, the future of the cabinet and the matter of parliamentary dissolution. This time, instead of using his famous dictum “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he gave no response and slowly, nonchalantly made his way through the crowd of reporters with the help of two escorts.

Thus started the day of long-time war veteran turned kingmaker as he assumed the office previously held by his beloved brother-in-arms, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was suspended as PM by the Constitutional Court while it deliberates a controversial 8-year term limit issue.

Big brother from the east

Born in 1945, Prawit studied at Bangkok’s famous St Gabriel School before entering a career in the military. Enrolling in the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School in 1965, he graduated as a part of Batch 17 from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA), which trains commander-level police and soldier, in 1969.

Thereafter, he started his military career as a rifle platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Battalion. In 1981, he was promoted to commander of the 2nd Infantry Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, (Queen’s Guard), known as Burapha Payak or Eastern Tiger military faction.

It was there that he met Prayut Chan-o-cha and Anupong Paochinda, brothers-in-arms who would later take up key positions in the military, eventually staging a coup and taking control of the Kingdom’s government. 

In the 1980s, the 2nd Infantry Division, which oversees Eastern Thailand, assumed a growing importance in national security matters.  This was the result of developments in neighbouring Cambodia: a civil war which led to the establishment of the Khmer Rouge regime and eventually a Vietnamese occupation of Phnom Penh. As a result of the prolonged conflict, the the 2nd Infantry Division became critically important  in overseeing border security and stability.

Two years before Prawit became Battalion leader, the 2nd Infantry Division and several other units were reportedly tasked with delivering arms and supplies to Cambodian resistance forces. They worked together with the Khmer Rouge to fend off Vietnamese forces and unite the anti-Vietnamese resistance.

Within this context, reports emerged that the Thai police and military were conducting trans-border businesses with the Khmer Rouge involving timber, gemstones, vehicles, and other goods. By the 1990s, the value of such businesses were estimated to be worth 120 million USD. 10 per cent was allocated to border security personnel, the remainder being split between Thai businessmen and the Khmer Rouge.

The combination of career and financial opportunities propelled those working in the 2nd Infantry Division to importance in the security and political sphere.  Gen Prawit was one such individual. He was appointed 1st Army Region Chief in 2002 and Army Chief in 2003 under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration. 

Thaksin later accused in his Twitter that it was Gen Prawit who ‘cling on the table’ requesting for the position. Prawit was the first member of Burapha Payak to take the Army Chiefdom. Gen Prayut and Anupong later followed suit.

After his retirement, Gen Prawit entered another battlefield - politics. He was appointed Defence Minister in the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, serving from 20 December 2008 to 9 August 2011. As advisor to the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) in 2010, he was involved in the crackdown on red shirt protesters that left at least 94 dead and over 1,500 injured. 

In 2014, when Prawit’s younger brother-in-arms Gen Prayut staged a coup against the Yingluck government, Prawit was appointed deputy leader of the junta, deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Another brother Gen Anupong later assumed the Interior Ministry position.

Gen Prawit has been an important political supporter of Gen Prayut for 8 years, especially during the 2019 General Election that resulted in the newly-established Palang Pracharat Party forming a coalition government.  This allowed Prayut to continue serving as PM until his suspension in August 2022.

Gen Prawit also played a major role in selecting the Senate, a 250-member junta-appointed body that plays a key role in political decision-making on matters such as the nomination of the PM or amending the Constitution.

As chairperson of the Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Foundation, which is based in the 1st Infantry Division (King’s Guard), he regularly holds discussions with and received donations from important political figures and wealthy business leaders.

The foundation HQ, which also serves as Gen Prawit’s residence, has been the site of many coalition meetings, especially in moments of political turbulence like when the government was facing no-confidence motions, or when Capt Thammanat Prompao, the parliamentary whip was demoted from his assistant-minister post by Gen Prayut following rumours of internal friction.

Long tenure or short? The future is still unclear

Prawit has been implicated in more than a few scandals before coming to post of acting PM. He was scrutinised during the no-confidence motions for a number of activities related to police promotions and his covert political influence as the chairperson of the Five Provinces Bordering Forest Preservation Foundation.

But one of the better-known involves his collection of luxury watches worth about 40 million baht.  The media first spotted his penchant wearing high-prices watches to cabinet group photo session in 2017.

Accused of being unusually wealthy and not revealing his wealth to the National Anti-corruption Commission (NACC)  before assuming office, he claimed that the watches did not belong to him, explaining that he borrowed them from a friend who passed away in February 2017 and later returned them. The NACC found Prawit not guilty.

Setting aside such accusations, the old general faces no criminal charges that could lead to his being removed from office, unlike Gen Prayut. What lies ahead under his temporary premiership is an open question.

The Constitutional Court ordered Gen Prayut to give testimony within 15 days. This signifies the minimum time that Gen Prawit will serve as acting PM. Wissanu Krea-ngam, the deputy PM and a legal expert said the testimony has already been prepared by Prayut’s legal team.

Thus far, his temporary administration has been fairly smooth. As of 27 August, the annual budget was approved by the parliament, one of the most important decisions before the end of its term. There are no pending no-confidence motions against the government either.

The annual police and military reshuffle is being finalised. Gen Prawit said on 26 August that the reshuffle list will be made in accordance with what Gen Prayut laid out before his suspension. Added to that, Gen Prayut still sits as Defence Minister and can be present at Government House and ministerial meetings.

There is still the question of whether there will be a cabinet reshuffle or parliament dissolution. Gen Prawit did not address either matter after becoming acting PM.

The powers of the acting PM are also under debate. Citing Section 48 of the State Administration Act B.E.2534, Deputy PM Wissanu says the acting PM has the same authority as the PM because Prayut was suspended so he could not give Prawit any approval or consultation as Prime Minister.

During a talk on Thai PBS, however, Pornson Liangboonlertchai, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University said that the Act may not include the exercise of political power for things like a parliament dissolution. According to Pornsan, the acting PM cannot fully act as PM, when his predecessor has only been temporarily suspended from office.

Speaking to BBC Thai, Prajak Kongkeerati, a political scientist from Thammasat University affirmed that a parliament dissolution or cabinet reshuffle could not take place without Gen Prayut’s approval.

“In any case, they will have to consult each other certainly, they [Prayut and Prawit] are brothers, brothers who staged the coup together,” said Prajak. 

He added that the pending Constitutional Court ruling has introduced a high degree of uncertainty into Thai politics. If the Court rules that Prayut has reached a term limit, a PM from the previous nomination list would be chosen to oversee the administration until the end.

If no one from the list receives an approval from parliament, someone outside the parliament can be nominated under a 2017 Constitution mechanism.

Regardless of the Court order, Prajak believes it will be difficult for Prayut to make a political comeback. And if Prayut is to be barred from continuing, it could lead to chaos, and possibly even a way out of the deadlock created by the 2014 coup.

“Thai society could move on, maybe escape the [current] crisis…Thai politics could return to a something more normal. Elections could be regularly contested. Competition could be based on policies. There would be no political parties left to prolong Gen Prayut's power as the coup leader.”

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