Perfect plot ousts great manipulator

Published on September 21, 2006

When it came to the final showdown, Thaksin Shinawatra, the great manipulator, was outsmarted by a military coup executed to an almost perfect script.

When he learnt about the coup on Tuesday while he was in New York planning to address a UN Assembly meeting, Thaksin still believed he had control over the situation. He called Maj-General Prin Suwannathad, commander of the First Infantry Brigade, who assured him that everything was under control.

Prin had called his subordinates, all battalion commanders. They misled him by maintaining they were ready to move if and when the order came, but it was not clear if they were in fact not ready to move or they never had any intention of moving.

Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the Army chief and head of the Administrative Reform Council, was reaping the benefits of his reshuffle of more than 129 battalion commanders in July to pre-empt a possible coup from forces that could further consolidate Thaksin's grip on the military.

The reshuffle of the middle-ranking officers effectively weakened the power of the members of the Class 10 of the Chulachomklao Military Academy, who are staunch supporters of Thaksin. The ousted premier is a Class 10 alumni. Historically, Bangkok and its vicinity have always been important turf for coup makers.

When General Suchinda Kraprayoon launched his coup in 1991, he had virtually complete control over the Thai military, but the situation is completely different with Sonthi, the first Thai Muslim to reach such a prominent post.

The man who built his career through the Special Warfare Command was presiding over a divided military. He could only oversee the key military units in Bangkok at arm's length because these important units are controlled mostly by members of Class 10.

Any strategist knows the capital must be captured if a coup is to be successful.

Gen Sonthi also had weak links with the Air Force and Navy commanders. The Air Force commander is known to be a close ally of Thaksin. The Navy commander is also reported to have a good relationship with Khunying Pojaman Shinawatra, Thaksin's wife.

"The coup will never succeed. The military lacks unity. Any coup attempt is very risky and doomed to fail," said one middle-ranking military analyst who observed the developments on the front line while the coup was under way on Tuesday evening.

He said it would be almost suicidal for the plotters to stage the coup because if they fail they could face execution.

The big difference is that Gen Sonthi has the full support of the Thai elite and the general population, who have become fed up with the political deadlock over the past six months. Most importantly, Gen Sonthi is seen as defending the Thai monarchy and trying to get the country out of a long-running political crisis.

It is still not clear which of Thaksin's legal advisers prepared the clumsy declaration of the state of emergency issued from New York. In that emergency announcement, Thaksin removed Gen Sonthi from his post because of his attempt to stage a coup. With this emergency law in hand, when Thaksin returned to Thai soil he could have rounded up all the conspirators and eliminated them.

Khunying Pojaman acted quickly. She was scheduled to travel to Singapore very late on Tuesday night. She swiftly changed her ticket to a 9pm flight and fled the country as the drama was about to unfold.

The military showdown finally boiled down to a power-play between Bangkok-based military personnel and those from the provinces.

The key players supporting Gen Sonthi in this coup were Lt-General Spreang Kalayanamit of the Third Army, which oversees the Northern Region, Maj-General Sanit Prommas, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, whose tanks rolled into the capital during the day, and Lt-General Anupong Phaochinda of the First Infantry Division in Bangkok. Lt-General Anupong was a member of Class 10, but he was never a part of the Thaksin clique.

Gen Sonthi had the military advantage because he is Army chief. The Second Army, which looks after the Northeast Region, and the Fourth Army, which looks after the Southern Region, were not part of the equation. Gen Sonthi had to capture Bangkok.

Saprang brought his military personnel down from the North, which is the Third Army area and looks after the Northern region of Thailand. He made it appear as if they were heading to the Southern provinces to take new positions as part of the regular military rotation. However, his personnel camped in Bangkok on the way and stayed on to take part in the coup.

Anupong kept his low-profile role, but his First Infantry Division, located on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, provided crucial support for the coup.

Former security tsar Prasong Soonsiri is reported to have offered political advice to the coup leaders. Meechai Ruchuphan acted as a legal adviser to the Administrative Reform Council, writing out a series of laws, which will replace the 1997 Constitution. The Bank of Thailand has also jumped aboard by monitoring the financial movements of members of the Thaksin government.

As it turned out, most of the members of Class 10 stayed inside their barracks - they were nipped in the bud.

With the neutralisation of Thaksin's military support, he was left without any power base. Besides, he was only a caretaker prime minister. There was no Parliament.

Thaksin had assumed that he would have control over the military in Bangkok as well as a loud voice in the international arena. He had thought that by staying abroad he could avoid a coup because Gen Sonthi would not be able to hold him in custody. He had expected that he would go to the UN General Assembly to tell the whole world not to recognise the status of the coup leaders in Thailand.

Thaksin, the shrewd political operator, miscalculated badly. The bloodless military coup was executed smoothly, in a typical Thai style. There has been little resistance from the general public, which has long yearned for a quick end to the political crisis.

Now Thaksin is left to ponder where he might find political asylum, with London being the most likely haven.