Thailand has spent the last two decades mired in a cycle of street uprisings, coups, and court decrees dissolving political parties. The Shinawatra family’s long feud with the royalist-military establishment has dominated Thailand’s political drama for the last decade.
Prior to the formation of the Pheu Thai Party’s government, Army Chief Gen Narongpan Jittkaewtae assured that no coups would take place while he was in command, declaring the word “coup” should not exist in anyone’s lexicon.
All eyes are now on whether the Pheu Thai government’s new Defence Minister, Sutin Klungsang (image below), can work productively with the military to maintain the coalition government’s stability.
As a civilian in charge of military affairs, Mr. Sutin will face a number of issues, including military reform, southern instability, and military relations with other countries in the area. Sutin is the first civilian to serve as defence minister without also being prime minister.
Former civilian defence ministers who also served as prime ministers include MR Seni Pramoj, Chuan Leekpai, Samak Sundaravej, Somchai Wongsawat, and Yingluck Shinawatra.
Observers highlighted that incarcerated former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, generally seen as Pheu Thai’s de facto leader, wanted to ensure that the military did not pose a threat to the Pheu Thai-led government and had been devising strategies to avert future coups.
The Thaksin administration was deposed in a coup on September 19, 2006, and the government run by Yingluck, his younger sister, was deposed in a military coup on May 22, 2014.
The Pheu Thai-led administration has finally been created, but Thaksin remains distrustful of the military as a result of his experience with a military coup, according to military sources close to government affairs.
As a result, he was eager to enhance civilian oversight of the armed forces within the new government and limit the power of the “three brothers in arms,” according to the sources.
The “Three Por” generals (above image) allude to former Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) chairman and former Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, and former Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda, as well as their influence in Thai politics.
While the PPRP and the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party are now Pheu Thai coalition partners, Gen Prawit was not granted a cabinet position, and Gen Prayut resigned as a UTN member and left politics.
According to the sources, Gen Vit Thephasdin Na Ayutthaya, a former PPRP top strategist and close adviser to Gen Prawit, and former Secretary-General of the National Security Council Gen Natthapon Nakpanich, who is loyal to Gen Prayut, were earlier tipped to serve as defence minister.
Mr. Sutin, a Pheu Thai MP for Maha Sarakham, was ultimately elected over them.
“Pheu Thai [at Thaksin’s request] chose Mr Sutin to demonstrate that a civilian can run the Defence Ministry,” insiders stated.
However, a compromise has been reached, with Gen Natthapon slated to serve as the Secretary-General to the Defence Minister.
Furthermore, another civilian, Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai, is expected to be put in charge of national security. Mr. Phumtham, who is also the Commerce Minister, is close to Thaksin.
All eyes are on the new government’s efforts to restore calm in the deep South, as well as who will be nominated to replace Gen Wanlop Rugsanoh, (above image) the government’s chief negotiator.
When the previous government left office, Gen Wanlop, who had been chosen by former Prime Minister Gen Prayut, was forced to resign.
According to sources, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin desires a civilian to oversee the peace process, but it is difficult to locate skilled and experienced personnel for such a specialist post.
The military wants a former senior military officer with regional experience to take over.
According to the sources, if Mr. Srettha picks a civilian to fill the position, it will reflect the government’s goal to reduce the military’s role and influence.
According to Dr. Prommin Lertsuridej, the prime minister’s secretary-general, “there is no hidden agenda behind the appointment of a civilian as defence minister.” This is consistent with international standards.”
Dr. Prommin, who is close to Thaksin, refuted that such an appointment was made to avoid future coups, adding that every Thai should work together to prevent coups.
According to the sources, it remains to be seen whether the government will try to amend the Ministry of Defence Organisation Act BE 2551 (2008) to abolish the committee in charge of appointing military generals, paving the way for the defence minister to take over the appointment of armed forces leaders.
The committee consists of the chief of the armed forces, the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, as well as the permanent secretary for defence, who each have five votes, while the defence minister and deputy defence minister, both of whom are party members, each have just two votes.
Mr. Sutin currently does not have any deputies, so he only has one vote.
It is also unclear whether the administration will dissolve the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), as Thaksin did when he was prime minister. Following the 2006 coup, the defunct Isoc was resurrected.
Mr. Sutin has stated that the prime minister, who also serves as the director of the Isoc, should make the decision.