BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s prime minister has proposed a reshuffling of top military leaders that strengthens the influence of royalists and risks intensifying a violent power struggle in one of Asia’s best-performing emerging markets.
According to a draft list pending royal endorsement, the top brass will be dominated by pro-establishment royalist generals opposed to the twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his powerful anti-government “red shirt” movement.
The military and Thailand’s monarchy are the country’s two most powerful institutions. The reshuffle looks set to strengthen the alliance, raising questions over whether the military and its royalist backers will play an even greater political role.
The top army chief post is expected to go to Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was central in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin and convulsed Thailand into four years of political turmoil marked by deadly street riots, mass protests and army crackdowns.
Although he said this week the army should play no political role, he is well known for his opposition to Thaksin, placing him in the same camp as a “yellow shirt” political movement who laid siege to Bangkok airport in 2008 in a protest that precipitated the removal of the last Thaksin-friendly government.
Political analysts say his appointment dims chances of reconciliation between the government and the red shirts following violence over April and May when at least 91 people were killed and nearly 2,000 wounded in clashes between red shirt protesters and troops in central Bangkok.
“Any chance of reconciliation now seems as elusive as ever,” said Jacob Ramsay, a Singapore-based analyst at Control Risks, a strategic consulting firm based in Britain.
It could also embolden Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, sending a strident message of zero-tolerance of the red shirts.
“We could see a wider use of emergency (security) measures and a little more force in dealing with protests. That could even play into the hands of the red shirts and they might also try to use this reshuffle to turn lower ranks against the leadership.”
Prayuth’s expected appointment comes at a delicate time for Thailand. Its economy is bouncing back, projected to grow as much as 8 percent this year. Thai stock prices, which fell nearly 5 percent in a $1.49 billion wave of foreign selling during the unrest from April 8 to May 19, are now outperforming regional peers.
“There will be tough rhetoric from him on the red shirts and it will make the situation appear more tense. He is also expected to be much more willing to act if the red shirts rise again,” said a retired general, who asked not to be identified.
The timing of the shakeup, which could keep Prayuth in the job until he is due to retire in 2014, is seen as crucial given the nearly year-long hospitalization of 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej and questions over the future of the royal institution when his reign comes to an end.
Prayuth has served in the Queen’s Guards and is believed to be popular with the monarchy and influential former generals now serving as royal advisers. Those leanings put him on a collision course with red shirts often accused by their opponents of plotting to overthrow the monarchy.
Current army chief Anupong Paochina, who is retiring, insists promotions in this year’s military reshuffle are merit-based but the top command posts all go to the “Eastern Tigers” army faction, close allies and former cadet school classmates of Prayuth.
Military figures seen as allies of Thaksin were overlooked, which could worsen friction in the armed forces. Army insiders say there is broad support for the red shirts among rank-and-file troops known as “water-mellon” soldiers -- green on the outside and red on the inside.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Jason Szep