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Thailand Generals’ Election Rivalry Places Military on New Footing

BANGKOK — As they hit the campaign trail ahead of the looming general elections, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan are poised to test the loyalty of the kingdom’s military, a powerful institution that has propped up their political careers for nearly a decade since they grabbed power through the 2014 coup.

The contest follows the split by the two generals, both former army chiefs, into different political camps to tap the country’s ultraroyalist and pro-military conservative voters. This ostensible break marks an end to a period when, together with Gen. Anupong Paochinda, himself a former army chief and the incumbent interior minister, they controlled the country as a seemingly invincible troika with pro-military leanings.

The cracks appeared after Prayuth recently departed from the Palang Pracharath Party, the pro-military party that backed him in his bid for the prime minister’s post in the 2019 general elections, to join the newly formed United Thai Nation Party in his reelection bid. This enables Prawit, his military mentor, to seek the long-coveted premier’s post as the candidate of the Palang Pracharath Party.

Military intelligence sources say the looming contest between the two generals will place the military on an unusual footing, marking a departure from its stand in the last general elections in 2019. In those elections, coming after five years of junta rule headed by Prayuth, there was no dilemma for the commanders of a force with 335,000 active-duty troops, they add.

“But we should expect a twist this time,” a well-placed military intelligence source told Nikkei Asia. “We may see the military pulling away from supporting politicians like Gen. Prayuth or Gen. Prawit at this election because of the military’s own politics.”

Yet it does not mean the military is “withdrawing from politics — just Thai-style military neutrality,” he added. “The campaign messages from Prayuth’s camp or Prawit’s will not be a factor.”

Such a cold shoulder from the military comes in the wake of the diminishing influence Prayuth and Prawit have had over the army in recent years. Seasoned security analysts point to the annual promotions of the estimated 1,750 flag officers that signal this shift. Neither Prayuth nor Prawit, they say, played a significant role in the elevation of Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, a palace favorite, to a three-year term as the army chief.

The odds of securing military support are worse for Prawit, some observers reckon. “Prawit has a slim chance to obtain military support given that he is not close to the palace,” said Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a veteran political observer and author of “A Soldier King,” a recently published book about the military since the commencement of the current reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Bangkok-based diplomats have expressed similar sentiments during background discussions about palace favorites.

“[Prawit] retired from the defense service a long time back and currently holds no ministerial posts to command the military,” Supalak added, also pointing to Prayuth’s hand in Prawit’s fate: “[Prayuth did not] assign Prawit to take care of [any] security matters or anything related to the military.”

Prayuth may also enjoy the edge on another military front. He is the head of the Internal Security Operations Command, a Cold War relic that serves as the political arm of the military. Political insiders interviewed by Nikkei said that ISOC’s role will come under scrutiny — whether it will side with Prayuth’s camp over Prawit’s for the elections.

Gen. Narongphan weighed in this week with his own orders, instructing troops to remain politically neutral in the countdown to the poll, according to local media reports. This comes amid chatter in the barracks among conscripts, young soldiers and even captains, all under 30 years old, who favor opposition parties such as the pro-youth Move Forward and the pro-democracy Pheu Thai, according to military insiders.

The emerging signs of Prayuth and Prawit being at odds contrast with the image of a united front they projected soon after the 2014 putsch, which overthrew a Pheu Thai-led government. It was Thailand’s 13th successful military coup among the nearly 20 attempts since absolute monarchy ended in 1932.

Prayuth, Prawit and Anupong hailed from the Queen’s Guard, a corps of elite troops who had held key military positions for a decade until 2016. This unity, arising from time shared in a cabin in the military barracks, was pivotal in the coup they staged.

Such outward signs of being brothers-in-arms have not been lost on political insiders at Government House, the prime minister’s office in Bangkok. “They still appear close, attending meetings together, sharing jokes,” a confidant of Prayuth revealed to Nikkei. “It is part of their esprit de corps as brothers who have been together for years and eating rice from the same rice cooker.”

But officials at Government House have to contend with the rising tension between political allies loyal to Prayuth and Prawit. “They are targeting each other and confident of getting the support from voters who backed the government in 2019,” according to one official.

Senior political figures watching the unfolding competition between Prayuth and Prawit expect more barbs to fly as the election, most likely due in May, nears. “The split between Prayuth and Prawit is not cosmetic; the rivalry will increase during the campaign,” Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister, told Nikkei. “Prayuth is very ambitious and has moved Thailand further to the right. … He wants to continue in power.”

Source: Asia Nikkei