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Govt ties with army strained by legal ploy

Aug 26. 2012
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By Avudh Panananda
The Nation

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Bid to pressure Democrats over 2010 crackdown appears to have backfired

With the government struggling to pin down the Democrats, it has ended up antagonising the Army and disappointing the red shirts.

If Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra lets the situation remain volatile, the country is at risk of going through a political rough patch and the government will falter due to its foolhardiness.
Last Friday, the Defence Council held a critical meeting, which should serve as a wake-up call for coalition politicians.
Based on meeting insiders, Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat was a lone figure forced to sit and listen to the collective voices of the senior echelons from all branches of the armed forces.
It is particularly interesting that Defence permanent secretary General Sathien Permthong-in, seen as a staunch ally of the red-shirt movement, has openly abandoned his direct boss Sukampol to side with the armed forces.
After sidelining Sukampol, the meeting decided to nominate deputy Army chief Dapong Ratanasuwan as the first secretary-general of the new Operations Centre for the Southern Border Provinces. That was seen as an act of defiance by the top brass, as the government had made it very clear that it wanted Army chief-of-staff Sirichai Distakul for the job.
The day before the meeting, National Security Council secretary-general Wichean Potephosree even said he was about to include General Sirichai in the staff for the centre. Wichean made his remarks to the press after receiving the green light directly from PM Yingluck.
The top brass had never before convened their council to meddle in any appointments made outside their jurisdiction. But in this extraordinary case, their chilling message is crystal clear – the armed forces are ready to confront the government if necessary.
In an astute reaction, Yingluck made a face-saving move by instructing the Council of State to review the legal provisions related to the formation of the centre. The staffing of the centre has been delayed and tension defused for the time being.
To understand why the five-star generals appear out of sync with their political overseers, it is necessary to look at the ongoing struggle between the government and the opposition over fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s pulling the strings to rein in the Democrats.
Yingluck is actually a bystander who has to deal with the damage inflicted on her administration because she cannot override her brother. The convergence of two courses of action is at the core of the conflict. In the first course, Sukampol is Thaksin’s hatchet man trying to realign the military’s executive team.
In the second course, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung is Thaksin’s point man trying to engineer a legal breakthrough designed to pave the way for the prosecution of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban in connection with the 2010 political strife.
Sukampol flew to Hong Kong last month to confer with Thaksin on the annual military reshuffle, while Chalerm, overseer of police as well as the Department of Special Investi-gation, has allegedly given his blessing to the build-up of court cases against Abhisit and Suthep.
In Thai politics, there is nothing unusual about the exchange of sharp words between the coalition and opposition benches.
Only the fate of Thaksin makes the Democrat-Pheu Thai struggle deviate from past precedents. 
If Thaksin wants to evade punishment and end his self-imposed exile, then he has to have complete backing from the military, seen as the last bastion of the ruling establishment or the bureaucratic polity.
He also has to silence the Democrats’ opposition to him getting a pardon.
To facilitate a homecoming for Thaksin, it makes sense for the government to apply pressure on the Democrats. But the traps laid for the opposition look to have sprung on the government instead of catching the Democrats.
Sukampol’s attempts to influence the military line-up are seen by the top brass as unacceptable intervention to weaken the military as an institution. Even red-leaning officers, like Sathien, have revolted. And the new roster envisioned by Sukampol and Thaksin has not benefited the red-leaning officers or their movement.
Legal minds in the pro-Thaksin camp may have hoped to use the 2010 bloodshed to snare the two senior Democrats and force them to stop blocking an amnesty for Thaksin. The plans to prosecute the two have inadvertently heaped blame on the troops, triggering the military’s wrath.
Without cooperation from the military, the government is likely to end up with no cases. The red shirts will remain discontented that their blood was spilled without accountability. The harder the government works to get the soldiers to change their statements on the violent incidents, the more this will backfire and alienate the armed forces.
It is high time for Yingluck to hold an open-hearted discussion with her brother, and urge him to think things through before throwing the baby out with the bathwater in his quest to outwit the Democrats.

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