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(October 5, 2018) Thailand's new military and new politics - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Most likely not in accordance with his preference, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is finding out that the military high command he seized power with during the May 2014 coup will be fundamentally different when he leaves office.

Even if Gen Prayut can manipulate his way into leading the post-election government, his political standing will not be as solid and secure because the new high command is no longer from his main base of support.

Thailand's new military line-up looks similar to the way it used to be prior to the rise of Gen Prayut and his fraternal brothers, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda.

These three generals -- Prawit, Anupong and Prayut in descending order of age, seniority and deference -- rose to the top as army chiefs for most of the volatile years in Thai politics from 2005. Gen Prawit first took the post in 2004-05, followed by unusually long stints under Gen Anupong (2007-10) and Gen Prayut (2010-2014). All three hailed from the 21st Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division with jurisdiction over the eastern border with Cambodia. The exception in the army chief post, in 2005-2007, was Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who climbed the ladder from the Special Warfare Division in Lop Buri and subsequently led the putsch on 19 Sept 2006.

Popular references to the concentric relationship between the 21st Regiment and the 2nd Infantry Division should not be confused and conflated. The fast-tracked 21st Regiment is widely known as the "Queen's Guard" or "tiger soldiers", under Her Majesty Queen Sirikit's patronage. The larger 2nd Infantry Division comprises the 2nd, 12th and 21th regiments -- all having to do with the number "12", which is the Queen's date of birth in August. In turn, all three regimental units under the 2nd Infantry Division are known as Burapha Phayak, or the "eastern tigers".

As leader of the military junta known as the National Council for Peace and Order, Gen Prayut stepped down as army chief after reaching retirement age after the coup, only to be replaced by Gen Udomdej Sitabutr (2014-15), his younger fraternal cohort who also rose up from the 21st Queen's Guard Regiment.

Strikingly, Generals Prayut, Anupong and Udomdej all became commanders of the 21st Regiment. Gen Prawit, however, started from the 21st Regiment as a Queen's Guard officer but was later seconded to lead the 2nd and 12th Regiments after a failed coup in April 1981. This is partly why Gen Prawit is seen as the eldest, most authoritative of this band of brothers since he ended up in command positions in all three regiments.

While he became army chief in 2015-16, Gen Teerachai Nakwanich was merely an "eastern tiger" officer but not the "tiger soldier" of the Queen's Guard mould, as he assumed command of the 2nd Regiment, not the 21st.

From these lines of regimental command, the Queen's Guard in particular, and the "eastern tigers" more broadly, soared to the heights quickly and ended up dominating the military's high command for more than a decade. From Gen Prawit's time as army chief in 2004-05 to Gen Teerachai's in 2015-16, commanders of the 21st Regiment, Queen's Guard, have been at the top for nine of those years, and 10 years for the Queen's Guard and the "eastern tigers" from the 2nd Infantry Division if Gen Teerachai's tenure is included. It has been a remarkable and unprecedented run.

But Gen Chalermchai Sitthisad, rising from the Special Warfare Division in Lop Buri, broke the streak of Queen's Guard commanders and the "eastern tigers" when he became army chief in 2016-18. He was seen as supportive of the Prayut government, and was the junta's ex officio secretary. Yet Gen Chalermchai stood apart from the 2nd Infantry Division. After reaching mandatory retirement age, he has been appointed as a privy councillor this past week.

Gen Apirat Kongsompong's appointment as the new army chief, with two years before retirement, shifts the line of army command back to the 1st Infantry Division with supervision over Bangkok and the central region.

The 1st Infantry Division consists of the 1st, 11th and 31st regiments -- all having to do with number "1". The 1st Regiment, in particular, is known as the "King's Guard" while the entire 1st Division is known as Wong Thewan, the army faction that traditionally staged military coups throughout the years prior to the ascendancy of Queen's Guard officers. The straight line of traditional mobility to army chief would be the 1st Regiment, the 1st Division, the 1st Army Region, and then the high command among the assistant and deputy chiefs or chief of staff, culminating with army commander in chief. Gen Apirat comes from the 11th rather than the 1st Regiment but he was realigned to oversee the 1st Division and the 1st Army Region.

In the culture of the Thai military, that his father was also a four-star general who co-led the February 1991 coup burnishes Gen Apirat's credentials and legitimacy. However, his job is likely to be new and different compared to past army chiefs. Gen Apirat is poised to reorganise and relocate key military units out of Bangkok over the next two years.

In recent decades, the navy and air force chiefs have been important but not decisive in the Thai military's role in politics. Yet their latest reshuffle is notable. The new navy chief, Admiral Luechai Ruddit, is known in the public domain to be the younger brother of an army general who was earlier appointed to the privy council. As a public domain internet search would show, the new air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Chaiyapruk Ditsayasarin, is also indirectly related to royalty.

The upshot is that the high command is no longer the army built by Generals Prawit, Anupong and Prayut. Although they can still count on regimental and battalion commanders they have groomed over the past decade, their influence over the army is likely to diminish over the next few years.

The longer and deeper these three former generals engage and enmesh themselves in politics, the more alienation and tension we will likely see between them and the new army, which is merely a reversion to status quo before the Queen's Guard found the fast track to top command. In turn, any useful understanding of Thai politics in the coming months requires familiarity with the dynamics and drivers of Thailand's new high command and the new kind of politics that is unfolding.