BANGKOK – The army faction closest to Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn is reinforcing its power within the influential military establishment at a time when the country is embarking on a transition to its first elected government since the 2014 coup.
The man who led the coup, former general and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, inaugurated on Tuesday a new executive with members of the cabinet – many of whom formed part of the military junta that ruled the Southeast Asian nation over the past five years – swearing their oaths of office.
The coup-leader’s government has acquired a democratic veneer after the March 24 elections, although the vote was not exempt from controversy since Prayut was chosen as leader with the help of a senate that – in accordance with a constitution drafted by the army – was handpicked by the military junta he himself headed.
“If you look at the military and its role in Thai politics, you can see they will continue to have significant influence in the future,” political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich told EFE.
“The March election has only helped the military strengthen its stranglehold on Thai politics.”
The armed forces’ political role is no novelty: since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the military has had a strong relationship with the king and has carried out 13 coup d’etats, as well as another nine failed coup attempts.
However, the Thai army is divided between several factions: over the past few years, the King’s Guard has been accumulating power. This branch has close ties to King Vajiralongkorn, who acceded to the throne following the death of his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
In addition, the army’s commander-in-chief since 2018, Apirat Kongsompong, belongs to the King’s Guard, which is also known by the unofficial name “Wongthewan” or “Royal Progeny.”
On the other hand, Prayut belongs to the “Eastern Tigers” faction, mainly made up of members of the Queen’s Guard.
This faction has dominated Thai politics over the past decade, spearheading the 2006 and 2014 coups that overthrew the democratically-elected prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, respectively.
In the opinion of Paul Chambers, an academic expert on the Thai military, one of the consequences of this shift in the balance of power within the army is that Prayut’s “tenure as prime minister is now weaker.”
However, Titipol said he does not believe that the rise of the new faction will affect Prayut’s power. He said that if Prayut increases the defense budget, like he did in 2014, the army will be satisfied.
Many analysts view the recent rise of the King’s Guard faction as aided by King Vajiralongkorn, who used to serve in the unit and has adopted a more interventionist attitude than his father, demanding changes to the 2016 constitution and taking control over the Royal Household’s finances in 2017, which before then had been under the purview of the finance ministry.
These changes are occurring in a country with one of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, which precludes any public debate about the king’s decisions. However, the number of prosecutions under that law have significantly decreased since King Vajiralongkorn took over the throne.
“Though King Bhumibol’s endorsement of military actions was necessary for any military actions or behavior, King Vajiralongkorn has sought to establish a much more direct and controlling relationship to the point that some units of the army are directly under the royal palace’s authority,” Chambers said.
In any case, the differences between the two army factions are hardly ideological and both sides share very similar goals.
“Whichever faction – whether it’s Prayut’s people or Apirat’s – holds power, it’s not good for the future of Thai democracy anyway,” Titipol said.
“The military should withdraw from politics. Any faction will keep the power of the military intact and wield it to promote what they call ‘Thainess’ in order to reject the ideas of democracy and human rights.”