When the Pheu Thai Party rose to power in 2011, some expected it might take "revenge" on the army for its role in the crackdowns on red-shirt demonstrators in the previous year.
Prime Minister and Defence Minister Yingluck Shinawatra walkswith military top brass to meet Privy Council president PremTinsulanonda at his residence on his birthday in August. Despite the military’s role in the bloody crackdowns in 2010, the Pheu Thai-led government has struck a cordial relationship with the military. PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL
But nothing of the sort happened. There were no removals of those in key military positions, in particular, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the then deputy army commander who had worked side by side with then army chief Anupong Paochinda.
Instead, Gen Prayuth subsequently replaced his boss as head of the army, has remained in the top position for three years and will stay on until his retirement next September.
Some observers believe that deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the real decision-maker in this government, has no intention of interfering with the army as he appears to have learnt some lessons after having had a tough time dealing with the military.
Instead, Thaksin realises he has to have a good relationship with the top brass in the hope of keeping the generals away from the ammart.
That reasoning seems to have paid off. Gen Prayuth has visibly kept a distance from the Democrats, while working closely with and earning trust from the government, in particular Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
"I am not afraid of being booted. But we have learnt our lesson that if we are close to any side, the other side will be against us. So, it's best for the army to remain neutral," the army chief once said in an interview.
Observers noted that another reason for the army boss to stay on good terms with the government and Ms Yingluck is that he hopes the administration will not get tough on the army for its handling of the red shirts.
However, now that the red-shirt cases are in court, the judicial process has to continue.
Analysts have noted that it seems there has been quite a lot of progress in the judicial process involving red-shirt cases given court rulings which have blamed army officers for some of the demonstrators' deaths.
This is regarded by some analysts as a source of "pressure" on the army, as a key actor in the red-shirt suppression, to accept the controversial amnesty bill.
Deep down inside, the army officers involved in the crackdown are afraid they will eventually face punishment.
Even though the army may explain that their role in suppressing the demonstrators was to maintain law and order, some have criticised their heavy-handed approach.
As the court cases continue, Gen Prayuth has been worried that his subordinates will think that he has not tried hard enough to protect them.
In reality, the army chief has ensured legal assistance is provided for each officer who has appeared in court in the red-shirt cases.
Gen Prayuth, at the same time, has lashed out at the Department of Special Investigation for its seemingly unbridled enthusiasm in pursuing the red-shirt cases while overlooking the case of Gen Romklao Thuwatham who was brutally killed, allegedly by the "men in black", during the crackdown at Kok Wua Intersection on April 10, 2010.
But this does not necessarily mean politics and the red-shirt saga have no impact on the army, especially where the most recent military reshuffle is concerned. In fact, army sources insist the red-shirt leaders have a blacklist containing the names of officers involved in the crackdowns. This is why Gen Prayuth could not promote Walit Rojanaphakdi to the position of 1st Army Region commander.
"The government has signalled it was not comfortable with Lt Gen Walit being promoted to such a key position," an army source said, citing the officer's role in suppressing protesters in the Din Daeng and Kok Wua areas.
Gen Prayuth had to name Thirachai Nakwanich, deputy chief of staff, as 1st Army commander instead, while Lt Gen Walit had to settle for the position of 1st Army Corps commander.
This is not normal as Lt Gen Thirachai, who graduated from Class 14 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (Afaps) and is more senior than Paiboon Khumchaya, was made assistant army chief. Gen Paiboon is a Class 15 graduate of Afaps. Lt Gen Thirachai, who is said to have close ties with retired army chief Prawit Wongsuwan, is qualified to climb to the rank of general and become one of the "top five army tigers" though he has never led a combat unit.
Except for the case of Lt Gen Walit, it seems the army chief has had a free hand in the reshuffle, in particular, the rejig of 304 colonels including the promotions of some officers who had a role in the suppression of the red shirts in 2010.
Among them, Kanchai Prachuap-aree, deputy commander of the 31st Infantry Regiment based in Lop Buri, has been made a commander. Col Kanchai, who was then named Oros, led the unit when it dispersed red-shirt protesters.
This is also the case for two other officers, Col Santipong Thampiya, then commanding officer of the 21st Infantry Regiment, Queen's Guard, and Col Thammanoon Withee, of the 12th Infantry Regiment, who have been made deputy commanders of the 2nd Division, Royal Guard.
"Please don't make any link between their promotions and their role in the crackdown," Gen Prayuth said. "It's not the case. These officers simply did their duty in maintaining peace and order. They did not receive an order to kill anyone. They are also sad. It's a loss for everyone, including the officers," he said.
As for Lt Gen Walit, Gen Prayuth pledged the officer will be made commander of the 1st Army in the next reshuffle before he leaves the army top job.
All of this is to ensure that he can protect his subordinates and that the military reshuffle is free from colour-coded politics.
Wassana Nanuam is a senior news reporter covering military affairs for the Bangkok Post.
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