Thailand’s Thaksin prepares for war
By John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano
Newly appointed Thai Minister of Defense Air Chief Marshal Sukampon Suwannathat is quietly planning to activate a new “war room”, or secretive unofficial command center, to direct mass pro-government “red-shirt” demonstrations planned for the coming months, according to senior Thai military sources familiar with the situation.
The war room, created at the direction of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, will become operational by June, the same sources say. The senior military sources say that Thaksin, who lives in self-exile in the United Arab Emirates, ordered that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, his younger sister, be kept in the dark about the war room’s creation so that she may honestly deny its existence if questioned by the press.
Whether the announced red-shirt demonstrations are planned to
pre-emptively take control of Bangkok’s streets ahead of a possible new crisis, or plotted as a defensive strategy to counter any move by the military or anti-government protest groups, the war room’s creation signals the seriousness with which Thaksin views the potential for renewed open conflict.
Two issues that could stoke new bouts of instability are already at hand. The ruling Puea Thai party has commenced a process to gain parliamentary approval to draft a new constitution, a move widely perceived among Thaksin’s critics as aimed at voiding his criminal conviction for corruption and its attendant two-year jail term, and his return to Thailand as a free man.
Another initiative to give more civilian control over the promotion and assignment of senior military officers has the potential to spark a more direct military response. As currently written, the law gives de facto authority over these decisions to the three uniformed services’ commander-in-chiefs. Yingluck’s government, however, is driving to give more power to the government-appointed civilian minister of defense over those decisions.
Should the law be amended, Thaksin would be in a stronger position to elevate his loyalists into key command positions and remove key detractors, including current army commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a known favorite of the royal palace. Such moves would aim to neutralize the army’s ability to stage a coup against the elected government led by his younger sister.
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, a similar struggle over military assignments was a proximate cause of the 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin’s elected administration. In the run-up to the military reshuffle in October 2005, Thaksin attempted to place loyalists in key jobs that would have put them in line the following year for promotion to top positions, including the commanderships of the three uniformed services.
When Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister and army commander and current top royal adviser, learned of Thaksin’s interventions he challenged the list and denied it royal endorsement until it was changed. A behind-the-scenes power struggle ensued that ultimately resulted in the 2006 coup. It was during this initial struggle that top military officers began to realize that Thaksin was vulnerable and could be overthrown.
In the spring of 2006, prior to the coup staged in September that year, Thaksin ordered the creation of a secret operations center, a move that was not widely recognized at the time among the military establishment. (The Thaksin-created war room that oversaw the 2010 red-shirt protests that devolved into violence, however, was more widely known to senior military officials.)
In early 2006, rumors were rife about an impending army coup. In response, Thaksin’s general officer classmates from the Armed Forces Prep School (Class 10) secretly proposed to create an off-the-books operations center to track coup group units and key participants. Thaksin apparently decided that the secret center should be co-located at the headquarters of the army’s Anti-Aircraft Artillery Division, situated in Bangkok’s Dusit district neighborhood, according to military sources.
The Class 10-led anti-coup operations center was tasked with tracking the movements and locations of all potential coup forces, thought then to be centered at the Royal Thai Army (RTA) Special Warfare Center at Lopburi, 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Bangkok.
Although never revealed to the media, this anti-coup operations center was very successful in tracking coup planners and was also largely responsible for eventual coup leader and then army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratklin’s cancellation of plans for the original coup, which had been plotted for the hours before the polls opened for the May 1, 2006, national parliamentary elections.
While Thaksin never publicly announced that he had uncovered the coup plot, he did let Sonthi know that he was aware of their actions and would arrest the coup group’s members if they continued. After the May 2006 elections were botched on legal technicalities, Sonthi went back to quietly planning another coup which included a much larger force, including Royal Guard units, to reinforce the Special Forces units he had originally recruited.
This second planned coup, launched on September 19, 2006, was successful mainly because one of Thaksin’s own Class 10 allies, Lieutenant General Anupong Paochinda, then the commanding officer in charge of the 1st Army Region which crucially oversees Bangkok’s security, double-crossed his classmates and became one of the coup group’s leaders. Thaksin’s supporters later accused Prem of orchestrating the coup from behind the scenes – charges the elder statesman has denied.
During the 2010 red-shirt protests, most of the demonstrators who arrived from the country’s north and northeastern regions, pro-Thaksin geographical strongholds, spent several days in a central area of Bangkok. That area, situated in northern Bangkok on the west side of the Vipavadee super highway and the main rail line running north, later became a main logistics hub for the movement.
The hub was close to Wat Don Muang, a large Buddhist temple which for years has catered to the spiritual needs of northeastern immigrants who moved to the capital during the economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s. It therefore made logistical sense that the war room be situated in this same area, which offered the red-shirt protesters a friendly, familiar support base of sympathetic residents as well as ready transportation connections, including the local Don Muang airport, to their home provinces.
Although the exact location of the 2010 war room was never revealed, senior military officials familiar with the situation say that a Don Muang area hotel which had fallen on hard financial times after the opening of the new Suvarnabhumi international airport east of the capital was used as a base.
With proper security, a mostly vacant hotel served such an operation well by providing both sleeping rooms for officials, hot meals, as well as easy communications – although in practice war room instructions to red-shirt operators were hand-delivered in order to counter government electronic eavesdropping capabilities, according to military sources familiar with the situation.
Given this existing red-shirt infrastructure, military officials believe the new Thaksin-ordered Ministry of Defense-led (MOD) war room will be situated in the same general area near Wat Don Muang. This is even more likely, they say, considering that the MOD has new facilities situated on the north side of Bangkok.
While the personal office of the minister of defense is still located in Bangkok’s old town, near the Grand Palace and Sanaam Luang, for the past 14 years (since 1997) most of the subordinate staff sections have been based at Muang Thong Thani in a single large 14-story office building.
This building, approximately 15 kilometers north of Don Muang airport adjacent to the super highway to Ayutthaya, was originally part of a development which went bankrupt in the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and was later purchased by the MOD.
In 2009, in a project initiated by then-minister of defense General Prawit Wongsuwan, two massive 20-story buildings were constructed to serve as living quarters for all assigned officers, non-commissioned officers and their families. While the Sanaam Luang and current Muang Thong Thani locations will still be retained as office spaces, the 2009 plan calls for most of the government-provided housing for the ministry to be consolidated at this new campus.
It is thus conceivable that one of these two new buildings will also have enough extra space to be utilized as another secret operating location for Thaksin’s new war room. The secret command center will reportedly be staffed in rotation by four teams, each 30 strong and consisting of a senior team leader, deputy team leader and senior operations officer, according to military officers familiar with the order. Four rotating teams will ensure that the war room operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to military sources familiar with the plan.
The same senior military sources say that three potential senior team leaders have already been recruited to join the war room, all of them Class 10 classmates of Thaksin and all veterans of the 2010 red-shirt secret command. They include General (retired) Phonchai Kranloet, Lieutenant General (retired) Manas Paorik, and Lieutenant General Prin Suwanathat, the cousin of new minister of defense Sukamphon. (None of the three officers could be reached for comment for this article.)
Additionally, an information technology (IT) support team comprised of a dozen IT experts will support the operation, a crucial component given the latest in high-tech communications equipment that is scheduled to be utilized. In contrast to the 2010 protests, current plans involve equipping frontline red-shirt column leaders with handheld, encrypted communications devices, allowing for more immediate, continuous and centralized control than in 2010.
This could be an indication that the war room is planning to direct even larger protests than the 2010 red-shirt demonstrations, which often dwindled in number yet were widely portrayed as an organic pro-democracy movement. Conversely, however, it makes the new war room at least potentially vulnerable to the army’s electronic intercept and jamming capabilities.
Notwithstanding these moves and maneuvers, it is not certain that Thailand will suffer a repeat of the chaos and violence witnessed in 2010. If opposition to constitutional amendments fails to coalesce into a countervailing mass movement, and if Thaksin can finesse rather than ram the promotion of enough of his military loyalists to make action against his sister’s government more difficult, his aims may yet be achieved peacefully.
One early indication of the future political course will come when the mid-year military reshuffle of senior military officers is announced in April. There are two such reshuffles each year, one in April, the other in October, with most important personnel moves taken in October. If Thaksin plans to remove Prayuth, as some believe Sukampon’s appointment indicates, the provocative move would most likely be made in October rather than April.
The degree to which Thaksin loyalists within the military are favored and current army leaders transferred, and the behind the scenes struggle that ensues over devising what is expected to be a hotly contested reshuffle list in April, may well indicate whether a political showdown is on the cards.
The planned formation of a new war room, however, suggests that Thaksin himself foresees the potential for new instability and his loyal forces are now taking pre-emptive action. Indeed, the issues at stake are so profound, essentially control over the political system for the foreseeable future and command of the armed forces ahead of a delicate royal succession, that compromise between competing pro- and anti-Thaksin camps may no longer be possible.
John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano spent several years in Thailand while on active duty with the US Army. Both were trained as Foreign Area Officers specializing in Southeast Asia and graduated from the Royal Thai Army’s Command and General Staff College. They are now retired and the views expressed here are their own.