All sides vying for military support

national June 26, 2012 00:00

By Avudh Panananda
The Nation

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In the face of a political tug of war, the opposing camps are trying to claim the military as a prize trophy.

It is strange but true that the army is a fixture in the political landscape even though all leading figures, including the top brass, keep saying troops should remain in their barracks.

The struggle between the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his opponents in 2005 ended up in a coup the following year.
After the junta had faded out in 2007, political strife escalated under successive civilian governments from 2008 to 2010. The yellow shirts were involved in street protests, culminating in the October 2008 bloodshed and the seizure of Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports a month later.
The red shirts descended on the streets in 2009 and 2010 causing tragic losses in a number of violent incidents.
Two former Army chiefs, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin and General Anupong Paochinda, were key players in the political strife. And incumbent holder of Army torch, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, is balancing on a tightrope in order to keep his troops from taking sides in the prevailing polarisation.
Will he succeed where his two predecessors failed? More importantly, how long can he steer clear of polarisation when all sides have already viewed the military under various shades of political colours?
The red and yellow shirts, as well as the opposition Democrat and ruling Pheu Thai parties, all play up the military card for the sake of political expediency. 
Despite a clear voting outcome in the 2007 general election, the anti- and pro-government camps are gearing for a showdown over issues like reconciliation and charter change, which are linked to the granting of an amnesty for Thaksin.
Prayuth is right at the vortex of a brewing political storm. The Pheu Thai Party and red-shirt allies are determined to push for a charter rewrite, which will in turn generate Thaksin’s amnesty. The opposition movement, comprising the Democrats and yellow shirts, is equally firm on pulling the plug on an amnesty for Thaksin.
Tension has been building up, as evidenced by the mushrooming of politically-motivated litigation and the increasing numbers of political rallies. The actual showdown between the anti- and pro-government camps should coincide with the planned referendum vote on new charter next year.
The pro-government camp has been keeping Prayuth on a tight leash through handlers like Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat and red-leaning Defence permanent secretary General Sathian Permtong-in.
The red-shirt leaders, including Jatuporn Promphan and Kokaew Pikulthong, often rely on anti-coup comments to rein in the military.
The anti-government camp, particularly the People’s Alliance for Democracy, has reminded the military of its sacred duties to safeguard the country and uphold the monarchy, in a bid to sway the soldiers to its side.
Last week the Democrats voiced disappointment at Prayuth and other top commanders for siding with the government on the issue of Nasa’s request to conduct climate research from U-tapao airbase.
Faced with increasing volatility, Prayuth appears to have adopted a survival strategy of sweet-talking to all sides while keeping true options close to his chest.
He has dispatched his deputy General Dapong Ratanasuwan to keep the opposition happy, and designated his chief-of-staff General Sirichai Distakul to keep an eye on political developments and work with the pro-government camp.
Under his watch, the Internal Security Operations Command has, meanwhile, turned blind while the opposing camps are build up respective mass movements to sway public sentiment.
Unfortunately he appears to have chosen the role of an uninterested observer awaiting retirement instead of giving his all to end the bitter social division.

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