Fight over leadership of the army backfired
This year's military reshuffle is a curious outcome of unanticipated events which have deprived the government of its thunder.Two key players, Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - who wields power via Defence Minister Sukampol Suwannathat, are at the centre of drawing up the reshuffle list.
The prevailing situation is like an uneasy calm preceding the next round of horse-trading at the mid-year rotation, scheduled for April.
Back in July, Sukampol made the first move after consulting with Thaksin in Hong Kong.
He circulated the name of Army assistant chief General Thanongsak Apirakyothin for the position of per?manent- secretary for Defence, to replace General Sathien Permtong-in, who is scheduled to retire this month.
Military observers believe Thanongsak's name came up for two reasons - Thaksin and Sukampol want to revamp the armed forces to enable them to promote Prayuth upstairs by next year, and because the two also aim to sideline his leadership between now and next year.
What Thaksin is trying to accomplish is not just t a clean military slate, but one filled with his allies.
It is an open secret that the Pheu Thai Party is rooting for Army Chief of Staff General Sirichai Distakul to succeed Prayuth.
If the ruling party can have its way, Prayuth would next year become the Supreme Commander, replacing General Tanasak Patimapragorn.
So, Sukampol has given his blessing to Thanongsak in a subtle move to force Prayuth to come up with a new line-up for the Army's top echelons. The government's best scenario is to see Sirichai promoted as Prayuth's deputy.
But this best laid plan has crumbled because of unanticipated events.
Sukampol neglected to share his thoughts with his ally Sathien who is equally close to Thaksin and had a different game plan for rotating the top brass.
It has been unfortunate for the government that two loyal allies of Thaksin happened to negate one another instead of working in concerted efforts. This gave Prayuth the last laugh in seeing his position strengthened, rather than weakened.
A bid to hype up the 2010 political strife also backfired by uniting the military hierarchy to oppose the meddling in their job assignments.
The Sukampol-Sathien row has allowed Prayuth to step in and help save face for the defence minister.
Without Prayuth's intervention, the row could easily have escalated into a government-military confrontation if the commanders opted to side with Sathien.
In exchange, the government has apparently agreed that Prayuth can have a final say on the Army's top echelons.
Prayuth will not rotate his deputy Dapong Ratanasuwan with Sirichai, hence blocking the government push to groom the latter as his successor.
In a bid to ease the government's pressure on military involvement in dispersing the red-shirt protests, he has made a significant concession to restore the powerful clique derailed by the coup. To accomplish this, he will promote First Army Region chief, Lt General Udomdej Sitabutr, as his assistant. Udomdej will be the last of the coup-linked clique to lead the elite Army unit.
Udomdej's successor is slated to be Major General Paiboon Kumchaya, seen as close to the pro-Thaksin camp before and after the coup.
As long as Prayuth gets to keep his job until retirement in 2014, Sirichai will have no chance of succeeding him.
If Thaksin wants to regain control of the armed forces, he should start picking a new horse. His choices include Udomdej, Paiboon or the rising star Kampanat Ruddit, who presently leads the Narathiwat task force fighting the insurgency in the far South.