Was Thai Army chief’s meeting with political bigwigs cover for a coup?

Was Thai Army chief’s meeting with political bigwigs cover for a coup?

AP

MAY 24, 2014

BANGKOK – Thailand’s all-powerful army chief started the extraordinary meeting by asking participants to give a progress report on their “homework.”

The participants were the country’s most important political rivals, plus four Cabinet ministers from the embattled government, election commissioners and senators. The homework: solving a crisis so complex it has split the Southeast Asian nation for nearly a decade, fueling repeated spasms of bloodshed and upheaval.

They didn’t know it then, but they only had about two hours to figure it all out. Just after 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the conference room would be sealed by soldiers, and the man who called the meeting, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, would become Thailand’s new ruler.

Accounts of those pivotal moments at a military complex in Bangkok known as the Army Club, relayed by two lawmakers who were present and Thai media, indicate that Prayuth had no intention of engaging in the kind of protracted negotiation necessary to mediate a conflict that reignited last year when protesters took to the streets.

The sequence of events raises questions about whether the meeting was a ruse to neutralize anyone who might oppose the coup. The fact it happened so swiftly suggests that Prayuth was already planning to do what demonstrators had pushed for all along: overthrow the government, if the two sides could not reach a compromise.

There was never much hope they would.

The intractable divide plaguing Thailand today is part of an increasingly precarious power struggle between an elite, army-backed conservative minority based in Bangkok and the south that can no longer win elections, and the political machine of exiled ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters in the rural north who backed him because of populist policies such as virtually free health care.

The army deposed Thaksin in a 2006 coup. And on Friday, it detained his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced from office earlier this month by a controversial court verdict for abuse of power, which she denies.

Deputy army spokesman Col. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said Saturday the junta would likely hold her for one week so she can “calm down and have time to think.”

When Prayuth declared martial law on Tuesday, the 60-year-old officer insisted he was only trying to restore stability and force all sides to talk. The next day, he summoned rival factions and Cabinet officials who had little choice but to show up.

After that initial two-hour meeting, everyone was told to come back with proposals to end the crisis, said a lawmaker who attended and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Could rival protest groups call off their demonstrations? Could an interim government be agreed upon? Should political reform (demanded by protesters) or new elections (demanded by the government) come first? Could the country hold a referendum on its fate?

When talks resumed Thursday, the atmosphere was much different.

Participants were ordered to leave their cellphones outside, more soldiers were on guard and they were heavily armed. Prayuth opened the meeting, saying his aim was to bring peace.

“What I’m doing today is in the interest of security,” he said, in a video released by the military’s TV station. “If this steps over anyone, then I have to apologize. I insist that I will honor every side, always.”

An hour later, there was, predictably, no agreement, the lawmaker said. The talks kept returning to a single point: how would the government go?

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the Cabinet could sacrifice for the nation and resign. Somebody else suggested that the civilian administration might just “take leave.” Others said ministers could step down one by one, or en masse.

The government officials said “they couldn’t do it, claiming they were brought to power by the people and therefore could not step down,” said Sirichoke Sopha, a former member of Parliament from the opposition Democrat Party who was present at the talks. “We pleaded for them to step back, asking them to sacrifice to save democracy, because we looked at the situation and it didn’t look good.”

The comments were filled with irony. The ruling party, which ascended to power in a landslide election in 2011 that was deemed fair, had insisted for months that Thailand’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army that had rendered it powerless, step by step.

Anti-government protester leader Suthep Thaugsuban, whose movement claims the government used its electoral majority to subvert democratic institutions, then held a private meeting with rival pro-Thaksin leader Jatuporn Prompan. They spoke, accompanied by aides, for 45 minutes. Afterward, both leaders whispered with Prayuth in a corner for a brief minute.

When the meeting resumed, Prayuth asked Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri if the government was still insisting it would not step down.

“We will not,” Chaikasem replied, according to the lawmaker.

Prayuth then told a representative from the Election Commission not to bother planning a vote anytime soon because it would be a “long time” before a ballot could take place. He told representatives of the Senate not to bother with trying to invoke a constitutional clause they had been pressing for to appoint an interim prime minister.

And then, Prayuth stood up and addressed the room.

“Sorry. I’m taking power” from this moment on, he said calmly, according to Sirichoke.

Another lawmaker who recounted the same narrative of Thursday’s meeting, and also spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was not immediately clear if Prayuth was joking.

But the commander started heading toward the door and turned back to say: “Stay here. . . . Don’t leave this room,” before walking out and climbing inside the back of a black Mercedes Benz.

Almost immediately, soldiers poured into the room and sealed off the exits. Outside, olive-green military trucks blocked the building’s entrance, trapping everyone inside. Troops with automatic weapons drawn fanned out and took positions, waving journalists away.

Suthep, Jatuporn and their entourages were escorted out by soldiers and taken into custody, as were the four Cabinet ministers.

Half an hour later, TV stations nationwide were forced to broadcast a signal from the military.

A stern-faced Prayuth suddenly appeared, flanked by the heads of the armed forces and police, informing his countrymen that the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council was now in charge.

 

A ‘reluctant’ leader, army chief Prayuth takes center stage in Thai political drama

General long opposed political interference, may lack concrete plan

REUTERS

MAY 23, 2014

BANGKOK – Just months before his retirement, Thai Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has taken on a responsibility he may much rather have dodged.

“Prayuth in charge,” the Nation newspaper blared across its front page Wednesday, a day after the 60-year-old soldier declared martial law, putting himself at the center of a nearly decadelong political impasse.

Thursday’s military coup “basically puts the lid on further conflict over the short term but leaves him holding the political ball,” said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s.

At a meeting of government agency heads on Tuesday, people present said Prayuth came across like an exasperated school headmaster, chiding the head of the government’s investigation agency for pressing charges against a protest leader.

“Stop, enough. In terms of prosecutions, softly, softly, OK? Otherwise this business will never end,” Prayuth told the agency chief, according to participants at the meeting.

Protesters took to Bangkok’s streets in November, accusing the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of corruption and nepotism. Since then, nearly 30 people have been killed in sporadic violence.

Prayuth denied that martial law, introduced Tuesday, amounted to a military coup, and said he had acted to restore order and investor confidence. Two days later, however, the army seized full power.

Yingluck, the younger sister of ousted former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was herself removed by a court ruling last week, but her caretaker government remains in place.

The government and the Shinawatras’ Red Shirt supporters have been calling for an election as soon as possible. But the anti-government protesters wanted a “neutral” interim prime minister to oversee electoral reforms to end what they see as the corruption of politics by former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin’s wealth.

Prior to the coup, both camps had protesters on the streets and gunmen in their ranks.

Prayuth warned last week the military might have to step in after a gun and grenade attack on anti-government protesters killed three people and wounded about 20 others, leaving the steps of the historic Democracy Monument smeared in blood.

“This is not a place he wanted to be in,” said Davis. “My sense is this was intended to pre-empt the likelihood of more and escalating violence in coming days. He’s always been a professional soldier. He’s now playing a political game that he’s not necessarily good at, in tough conditions.”

The military has mounted 18 successful or attempted coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, but the irascible general, known for his testy exchanges with the media, had said since becoming army chief in October 2010 that he would be extremely reluctant to follow suit.

He is close to the palace, the heart of Thailand’s establishment. He also belongs to a powerful clique that includes former defense officials and retired officers who despise ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Prayuth had been seen as loath to repeat a September 2006 coup that he helped execute as a deputy regional commander, and which plunged the country into years of turmoil and, in the end, failed to end Thaksin’s influence.

Prayuth has also been driven by a desire to restore the army’s image after clashes with pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010, when he was deputy army chief, in which more than 90 people were killed. He established a cordial relationship with Thaksin’s sister, recently ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, after her election in 2011 and repeatedly said he wanted the military to remain politically neutral.

He also has to be mindful of fissures within the army, with some soldiers openly sympathetic toward Thaksin’s cause. Aides to Prayuth said he struggled for days with the decision to impose martial law, with lots of late-night meetings.

The 100-year-old law he invoked had given the military broad powers over civilian authorities to maintain security, but beyond that, it was not clear if Prayuth had any grand strategy.

“I’m not sure he has a concrete plan, other than trying to get all the protesters off the streets,” said Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank. “I don’t think he can push the actual movements into a compromise — they are too embedded to do so. I think right now he is just trying to stop the violence from spiraling up, and then see what happens.”

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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