Who's who in the defence portfolio merry-go-round

opinion August 29, 2012 00:00

By Tulsathit Taptim

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Rising political tension cannot get much worse without a government-military conflict.

As Parliament resumes, the “reconciliation” agenda returns to the table, the laborious probes into the 2010 bloodshed make new headlines, and an armed forces reshuffle “time-bomb” is almost inevitable. What’s happening this week at the Defence Ministry, however, has generated a few theories. Is it a complex political game being played at the highest level, or is it something originating from the bitterness of one official scorned? Or is this one of those apparently gigantic problems that can be traced to a tiny source – a woman?

Our “Convergent Newsroom”, which brings together editors from all media platforms of Nation Multimedia Group, is receiving plenty of information on the possible motives of key players. This who’s who article is not meant to make any premature conclusion, but rather a wrap-up of each person’s background and what potentially motivated their action.
Former defence permanent secretary Sathien Permthong-in: A turncoat, yes, but the question is, “Why so?” A little more complicated question would be, “Why did a general who rose to the defence permanent secretary post thanks to the influence of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and most likely her big brother turn against them and lose his job in the process?”
One explanation is his “conscience” told him to abandon the Thaksin camp and join the other side. His outburst about “political interference” with this year’s military reshuffle has burnt the bridges to the people who made him permanent secretary, but most of all, it flies in the face of the fact that he got the job last year despite the armed forces reportedly favouring another candidate. If the above theory is to be proved right, we will see an angry reaction from the military in the next few days.
Another explanation is that his head was turned by someone, most likely a woman. This theory is based on Sathien’s relatively “soft” character. He must have been convinced that he was good enough to take Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat’s post. That became a misguided ambition that has gone horribly wrong.
Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat: News headlines and analyses portray him as a ruthless minister who made an example out of Sathien after they backed different candidates for Sathien’s replacement. Some sources, however, dispute Sathien’s claims that Sukampol was being dictatorial in propping up Army assistant chief General Thanongsak Apirakyotin as new defence permanent secretary. The sources said that, contrary to a perception created by Sathien, Thanongsak was well received by armed forces leaders, whereas Sathien’s nominee, another deputy permanent secretary, Chatree Tatti, is far less popular.
Other reports, however, paint Sukampol as a lone figure facing tough scrutiny at a recent meeting with military chiefs. Again, if they are really upset with him, they won’t keep it to themselves. We’ll know.
How the showdown with Sathien will affect Sukampol’s ministerial job – he’s always mentioned as a target for removal in the next Cabinet reshuffle – remains to be seen. In today’s politics, every defence minister has to perform a balancing act, proving that he can be in charge when needs be but at the same time showing that he is not too confrontational. He has been trying to walk that tightrope and must be thinking he has done quite a good job. He’s not the one to judge that, though.
Chief of the Joint Staff Worapong Sa-nganet: Remember this name. He could come from nowhere and grab the defence permanent secretary post if the conflict over Thanongsak and Chatree snowballs. 
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha: As of now, his job is safe, and it will remain difficult to kick him “upstairs” to the post of supreme commander next year. Prayuth will not be overly worried about the Sukampol-Sathien showdown. However, the Army commander-in-chief will have to keep a close watch on what happens to the so-called Job Assignments Committee of the Defence Ministry. The seven-member committee is powerful where top reshuffles are concerned, and unilateral attempts to meddle with the panel’s official decisions could land violators in jail. The current composition of the panel does not pose an immediate threat to Prayuth.
Thaksin Shinawatra: He was the very reason why the Job Assignment Committee came into existence. His alleged meddling with the highest-ranking reshuffle list in 2004 brought his government’s relations with the armed forces to the brink. All-out confrontation was averted through horse-trading and his reluctant agreement to have the law amended and the Job Assignment Committee set up. The panel was made up of the three armed forces leaders, the supreme commander, the defence minister, the defence permanent secretary and the director of the Defence Secretariat. As we can see, if the military leaders are united, political interference in reshuffles, ones that officially have gone through the panel, will be difficult. 
It’s now up to how Thaksin and Prayuth want to go with their rivalry. To go for broke, both men will need at least four voices on the Job Assignment Committee. Thaksin, however, knows better than anyone how careful he has to be, after what happened to him in 2006.