Deputy Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr and assistant chief General Paiboon Koomchaya appear the main candidates to succeed General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the head of the Army.
Prayuth, who is in charge of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), is due to step down as Army chief at the end of September.
It is not yet known who will be given the role of managing Thailand’s military might.
Prayuth’s options include stepping down and appointing a trusted successor as the Army chief or extending his time at the helm.
Taking seniority and years before retirement into account, three candidates stand out for the position.
Along with Prayuth’s deputy Udomdej and Paiboon, the other front runner appears to be assistant Army chief General Chatchai Sarikalaya.
Chatchai was Prayuth’s Pre-Cadet Class 12 classmate, while Udomdej is from Pre-Cadet Class 14 and Paiboon is from the less senior Pre-Cadet Class 15.
Udomdej had been expected to succeed Prayuth. However, Paiboon has played a high-profile role since last month’s military coup, suggesting he could be awarded the top job.
Although Udomdej is NCPO secretary-general, Paiboon is in charge of legal and justice affairs, which the junta has prioritised as an important portfolio.
One option could be to give Udomdej the top job and make Paiboon permanent secretary of the Defence Ministry. Under this scenario Chatchai could be given a deputy Army chief post with a marshal-level rank.
The option that may suit Prayuth best as he attempts to steady the ship in Thailand, however, is extending his term after retirement. Such occurrences, especially in the military, are rare. The last case dates back to the late 1970s.
When it comes to the extension of the terms, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra extended his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat’s term as permanent secretary of Justice, while Thaksin’s sister, ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, extended the term of Tarit Pengdith as director-general of the Department of Special Investigation.
If Prayuth also appoints himself prime minister, key seats in the cabinet may also go to military leaders who will reach retirement age at the same time as he does.
Although the road map for the second phase of administration under the NCPO, the formation of an interim cabinet, has not yet been implemented, Prayuth chairs NCPO meetings every Tuesday.
These meetings could be considered de facto cabinet gatherings.
The military commanders in the posts of deputy NCPO chief can be seen as deputy prime ministers. Supreme Commander General Tanasak Patimapragorn might be considered deputy PM in charge of national security, Navy chief Admiral Narong Pipatanasai might be deputy Prime Minister in charge of social and psychological affairs and Air Force boss Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong might be the deputy PM in charge of the economy.
If that were the case, former Army chief General Anupong Paochinda might become defence minister while former deputy Army chief General Dapong Rattanasuwan might become interior minister and push for reconciliation.