By SOMROUTAI SAPSOMBOON
VETERAN POLITICIAN Suthep Thaugsuban, once a staunch supporter of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, appears to be viewing the junta chief differently now, compared to the days when they were “friends in arms”.
Likewise, Prime Minister Prayut is not likely to see Suthep the same way as he did when he came to power following the 2014 military coup that he led while serving as Army chief.
Their friendship – developed before Prayut became premier and leader of the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – appears to be facing a tough test after almost five years.
In June 2014, just a month after the coup, Suthep said he had communicated with General Prayut during the anti-government protests that culminated in power seizure.
Suthep said this at a fundraising event for protesters injured during the anti-government rally organised by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). He was PDRC secretary-general at the time.
Between November 2013 and May 2014, Suthep led street protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government after it pushed an amnesty bill that would benefit all people involved in political conflicts, including corrupt politicians and killers of protesters.
Suthep, who formerly held the powerful position of secretary of the Democrat Party, quit the party to lead the protests and – to convince protesters he had no conflict of interest – promised not to get involved in politics again for the rest of his life.
He announced at the fundraiser that, through a phone chat app, General Prayut as Army chief had told him shortly before invoking martial law: “You and the PDRC people have become weary already. From now on, it’s the Army’s duty to take care on your behalf.”
He also claimed that he had spoken to Prayut about getting rid of the so-called Thaksin regime after the red-shirt street protests against the Democrat-led government in 2010.
Now, the NCPO appears to be dismissing Suthep’s claims about the junta chief and the distance between Suthep and Prayut is getting wider.
In July 2014, the former protest leader became ordained as a Buddhist monk, but left the monkhood a year later.
In late 2017, Suthep returned to politics by announcing his support for Prayut to return as prime minister after the next election. He formed a new political party called Action Coalition for Thailand, but said he would take no executive position or contest in the elections, to partly keep his promise of not getting involved in politics again.
However, when a new pro-junta party Phalang Pracharat was formed specifically to back Prayut’s return to power, Suthep’s stance as his staunch supporter weakened. He said his support for Prayut was just his “personal view” and that his party would decide later whether to back Prayut.
A source, who is a Prayut backer, said they were treating Suthep’s party as an “uncertain supporter”, unlike Phalang Pracharat and former senator Paiboon Nititawan’s People Reform Party, which are both firmly backing Prayut as a top contender for the PM’s post.
According to sources familiar with the matter, Suthep initially wanted the Democrat Party to play a key role in supporting Prayut’s return to power. However, no deal could be reached, which is why he had to create his own party.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, a key figure in the government, also wanted to set up a party to back Prayut, so certain senior members of the junta had to step in and talk both Suthep and Somkid into creating a new party together. However, no agreement could be reached as to who would be in charge of this party, so both of them went separate ways to create their own parties.
Though Somkid has denied any involvement in Phalang Pracharat, four Cabinet members who are top executives of the party are his men in the government’s economic team.
Suthep, meanwhile, failed to get General Prayut as his party’s prime ministerial candidate, because Phalang Pracharat appeared to appeal to the general more as it has drawn more than 100 former MPs and well-known politicians.
The veteran politician, meanwhile, appears to be in a difficult position – suffering from an image problem and being criticised for going back on his word about staying away from politics.
Maybe Suthep is among the people waiting patiently to get even with General Prayut.