The row between General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Sondhi Limthongkul is a complex power game.
Many may have thought that the Army chief is trying to gag the People’s Alliance for Democracy leader. But the issue of press intimidation is just the tip of the iceberg.
For two consecutive days last week, about 50 to 100 soldiers protested near the office of ASTV Manager Media Group.
They voiced their loyalty to Prayuth and attacked Sondhi’s media outlets for being critical of their Army chief.
ASTV-Manager retaliated by writing that the rallies were attempts to try to intimidate the press. The Thai Journalists Association issued a statement voicing concern for press freedom.
A large number of prominent figures shied away from commenting on the matter.
Red-shirt leader Thida Thawornseth made cautious and supportive remarks for the protesting soldiers, however.
The pro-red media outlets gave scant attention to the rallies while the mainstream press duly reported on the military’s involvement in the bullying tactics.
Regardless of the impact on press freedom, Prayuth opted to send a clear message to Sondhi.
Last Thursday he made an inspection trip to the Si Sa Ket border areas, opposite Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Temple.
In responding to a question about the planned January 21 rally on the border dispute, he gave an emotional reply.
“Are you the government? If you are, then I will listen. But I don’t know what to do because you are not.”
Although he made reference to the PAD, he framed his reply as if he was speaking directly to Sondhi.
Based on his remarks, it is clear he is in the middle of crucial negotiations with the PAD. And he wants to reject whatever proposal it has advanced to him.
Further, the proposal is so sensitive to the fate of the government that he had no choice but to make his reply public in order to dispel any doubts on how he would steer the Army.
Since 2005, the PAD has been crusading to build up the ultra-nationalist sentiment over the border dispute with Cambodia.
It has sought to woo the military to back its agenda in regard to the border and anti-Thaksin issues. And it will not hesitate to destroy characters it see as standing in its way.
Former Army chief General Anupong Paochinda was a “good and patriotic” soldier until he fell from Sondhi’s grace.
Prayuth used to be a darling of the yellow shirts. The PAD and its media mouthpiece started to question his leadership after he appeared to get cosy with the pro-Thaksin government.
It is noteworthy that as Prayuth and Sondhi are drifting apart, the red shirts have made an about-turn to support the Army chief.
Preceding the Prayuth-Sondhi row, the International Court of Justice had scheduled April to hear final arguments from Thailand and Cambodia before handing down the legal interpretation of its 1962 verdict on the temple later this year.
PAD strategists had hoped to use the dispute as a catalyst to bring down the government. But Prayuth has poured cold water any plan to snare the Army in the PAD’s struggle with the government.
The Prayuth-Sondhi row took a curious turn with the appearance of the protesting soldiers. The men in uniform were subordinates of First Army Region commander Lt General Paiboon Kumchaya, seen as a Thaksin ally. The pro-Thaksin camp would certainly try to burn any bridges between Prayuth and the PAD. And Prayuth was slow to stop the rallies as he was reluctant to antagonise the people who have a crucial say on his retirement next year.