PM outflanked ahead of annual military reshuffle
The routine Army order to transfer 129 battalion-level commanders signals the start of a power play between professional soldiers and caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
By approving the rotations, Army Commander-in-Chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin sent a message to Thaksin that the military would not get involved in nor condone his attempts to cling to power.
Just days after Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda drew an analogy - comparing the military to a horse and the government to its jockey - Sonthi made it clear that the horse is prepared to bolt from under the rogue jockey. As the jockey, Thaksin had better be prepared to keep a tight grip on his reins or else he might fall off his steed.
Sonthi's move on Monday amounts to a pre-emptive strike, crippling the ability of Thaksin's military allies to intervene in or exert undue influence over political affairs. If Thaksin wants to retain his clout and use the military as a power base, then he has to plot round two to counter Sonthi's blitz.
Since taking the government helm in 2001, Thaksin has given his blessing to fast-track promotions for officers from Pre-Cadet Class 10, his classmates at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School.
Even though he is an elected leader, he knows that when push comes to shove in real politics, his military allies can play a decisive role in ensuring his survival.
As the political crisis has gripped the nation for months, Pre-Cadet Class 10 officers have emerged as defenders behind Thaksin's throne.
Last year, the embattled prime minister manoeuvred for the appointments of his allies to key positions dominating the military presence in Bangkok, the seat of government.
Assistant Army chief General Pornchai Kranlert, First Army Area commander-general Lt-General Anupong Paochinda and First Infantry Division commander Maj-General Prin Suwanathat are seen as the linchpins of Thaksin's control over the military.
This coming October, Prin is due for a transfer after completing a three-year term. Pornchai is slated for promotion as Thaksin wants to see him wield greater influence on his behalf.
Anupong faces an uncertain future after government supporters spread rumours that he might be wavering in his loyalty to Thak-sin. Lt-General Jirasit Kesakomol, seen as a staunch Thaksin ally, is expected to succeed him.
Jirasit is presently the commander of the First Army Corps.
To push for Pornchai's promotion, Thaksin's allies have hinted that Sonthi might be kicked upstairs. If the government gets its way, Sonthi is likely to succeed Supreme Commander General Ruengroj Mahasaranont, who faces mandatory retirement in September.
Before Thaksin could make his first move to re-align the Army chain-of-command, Sonthi ordered sweeping transfers of combat commanders.
Top combat commanders, seen as close to Prin and Pornchai, were moved to staff positions or units located upcountry. Key infantry, cavalry and artillery commanding officers in Bangkok were completely shuffled out.
Many new commanders are veterans from the Queen's Guard of the 21st Infantry Regiment based in Chon Buri. These officers came from crack troops known for their valour and professionalism.
After Sonthi drew up a new line-up of combat forces, he won kudos for distancing the military from politics.
With the backing of combat commanders, the Army chief has gained the leverage to try and deter Thaksin from meddling in top-level transfers.
However, Thaksin still has the final say in the composition of the list of annual military rotations as it is up to him to seek the royal nod.
After his subordinates were delegated to inferior positions, Pornchai may not have the clout to replace Sonthi.
Thaksin would drive a wedge in the Army if he insists on bypassing seniority to promote his ally Pornchai.
A possible compromise is for Sonthi to keep his job while Thaksin has his say in elevating Pornchai to the position of deputy Army chief.
Should the government decide to transfer Sonthi regardless of the consequences, Thaksin may have to choose between two lead contenders, assistant Army chief General Paisal Katanyu and Army Chief-of-Staff Sophon Silpipat.
Compared to Pornchai, the two officers are more acceptable among the ranks to carry the Army's torch.
The replacement of Prin will likely generate heated debate.
Thaksin has lined up many division commanders from Pre-Cadet Class 10 as candidates to succeed Prin. As Prin's division is the most crucial unit in projecting military influence, the government obviously wants its trusted ally at the command post.
If professional soldiers are to stay in their barracks without fear of political reprisal, it is imperative that Prin's successor should be a career soldier and not a government crony.