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Outlook >> Monday March 05, 2007
Little big SOLDIER


He calls himself a warrior, having fought in more than 200 battles in the course of his military career. His last brought the Thaksin regime down. And the battles for the little big soldier are far from over.

"I fear nothing," roars Gen Saprang Kalayanamitr, 59, deputy secretary-general of the Council for National Security. It is the same thundering voice and fearless talk that has earned this slightly-built man the nickname "lek prik khi nu" - tiny, yet hot as a chilli.

"People like me have nothing to be afraid of. I am clean. Those who are corrupt, however, must be afraid of me. And the bigger the player they are, the more I like to tackle them."

Among the eight leaders of the junta in the Council for National Security, Gen Saprang is second only to the coup leader, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, in being in the media limelight. And it is not only for his outspoken straight-talking that makes such good sound bites.

Among his tasks for the junta: Unearthing the wrongdoings of the previous regime, within the deadline of one year; leading the junta's special operation to monitor the movements of the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra; chairing the Airport of Thailand's board to investigate corruption at Suvarnabhumi Airport; and chairing the board of ToT, the state-owned telecommuncation company, to control the damage from the sale of Thaksin's Shin Corp, believed to put national security under threat.

His hawkish approach, plus his efforts to expose the massive corruption at Suvarnabhumi Airport, has made him many enemies along the way, however.

"But after so many wars in my life, I have nothing to be afraid of any more," he insists. "What I am doing now may be risky, but I am willing to do it for the sake of my country."

Pundits say Gen Saprang is entrusted with so much responsibility by the junta because of his crucial role in the coup from the start.

According to a highly-placed source who asked for anonymity, Gen Saprang had been considering the possibility of a coup for months before September 19. "He waited until the conditions were right to bring it up with Gen Sonthi. For he knew that without support from the army commander, the coup would never be successful."

The source also revealed that Gen Saprang had a good rapport with Sondhi Limthongkul, the media mogul who spearheaded the anti-Thaksin campaigns. This led to a rumour that the coup resulted from the military joining hands with Sondhi and the People's Alliance for Democracy.

When Thaksin was in power and the rest of the top brass preferred to keep silent, Gen Saprang, commander of the Third Army Region, made his disenchantment with Thaksin public.

A little-known career soldier until then, his outspokenness catapulted him into the spotlight.

Gen Saprang's criticism became fiery when Thaksin was accused of showing disrespect to the monarchy, and particularly when Thaksin attacked an "extra-constitutional figure" for trying to topple him.

Thaksin's "extra-constitutional figure" remark consequently prompted Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council, to remind the military of its primary allegiance to the monarchy, not politicians.

Given his usual silence on politics, Gen Prem's atypical outspokenness fuelled rumours of a coup. The September 19 coup finally shattered the belief that coups in Thailand were a thing of the past.

Although Gen Sonthi said the idea for the coup occurred only a day or two before it happened, Gen Saprang admits the idea had been around for seven or eight months.

There were also rumours at the time that Gen Saprang was mobilising troops from his regiment in preparation for the putsch.

"I was not that important in the scheme of things," he says dismissively. "I was just a small soldier, determined to show my patriotism."

He also defends the coup as a necessary move to protect the honour of state officials who, he said, suffered unprecedented humiliation under the Thaksin regime.

"Actually I used to caution Mr Thaksin that he must show respect for military commanders who are protecting national sovereignty. I asked him to avoid doing the wrong things."

The last straw, he says, were Thaksin's actions, which he perceived to be lese majeste. "The monarchy is a sacred institution for the Thai people. But Mr Thaksin's talk about the monarchy is often inappropriate. He's still doing it now through his interviews with the Western press."

Despite his respect for Gen Prem, Gen Saprang says he never worked under the veteran soldier, former prime minister and statesman. That was why, he says, he did not come out to mobilise military disenchantment following Gen Prem's talks at the military academies.

"I don't want to look as if I was a hired mercenary. I only act out of my pride as a soldier."

The Kalayanamitr family is military family. Not only were his father and grandfather soldiers, but also most of his relatives. That is why Gen Saprang believes he was born and bred to be a soldier. All three of his sons are following in his footsteps. One is in the army while the other two are in the air force. Top of their classes, they have all won scholarships to study overseas.

"I let them decide for themselves if they want to be military men or not. But our country is facing serious problems. And they will grow more serious in the future. It's only the military who can solve these problems, whom the people can rely on. They might see me as an example so they all decided to be military men," he says proudly.

He dismisses criticisms that his harsh criticism during the previous regime helped politicise the military. "It so happened that our country was facing a serious crisis, and everyone must help out."

He also insists that there were groups of people who tried to challenge the monarchy. "I couldn't stand it. I am a soldier, born to protect the Crown. They could only do so [challenge the monarchy] over my dead body."

Defending the September 19 coup, he describes Thai politics as not only sub-standard, but also extremely divisive. "This led to unprecedented national disunity. That was why I wanted to take them to task. They are my enemies."

Born in the northern province of Lampang, to an old aristocratic family, Gen Saprang was in Class 7 of the Armed Forces Acadamies Preparatory School, class 18 of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy and Class 43 of the National Defence College. He also has a master's degree in state administration from the National Institute of Development Administration.

After having worked most of his life on the frontline, in 1991 he was appointed regiment commander of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and regimental commander of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy the following year. He became commander of the 3rd Army region in 2005.

"Some people call me aggressive, very aggressive. But I'm not. The aggressive people lack morality. And I am not the kind who likes to bulldoze enemies. I consider myself a man of compassion, a man who dares face the truth. I am decisive and dare to do what I think is right, even when it backfires."

He says he was hand-picked by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont to clean up the corruption at Suvarnabhumi. "Those who have been affected started rumours that I had suddenly become rich. That was funny. The truth is no one dares buy me off, knowing the kind of person I am. The more they attack me, the more I will dig for the truth. When I am challenged, I fight to the end.

"All I can say is that the corruption at Suvarnabhumi is gigantic. They did it without shame ... no corruption in the past can match this one."

It is an open secret that Gen Saprang is at odds with former police chief Pol Gen Kowit Wattana for being unable to catch the culprits in a seemingly endless string of school arsons, the New Year's Eve bombings and particularly the police's slowness in proceeding with lese majeste charges against Thaksin. So much so that he chastised the police and other bureaucrats as "deadwood" in "neutral gear".

The fact that Pol Gen Kowit is now out of the picture helps reaffirm Gen Saprang's stature in the junta.

When Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh criticised the junta, it was Gen Saprang who came out publicly to attack Gen Chavalit while other military leaders kept quiet.

"I am straight-forward and loud. My words are not pleasant to the ears, like those of Prime Minister Surayud or Gen Sonthi. And I am too old to change," he says.

"I admit that some puyais [senior people] have cautioned me to keep silent, to stop talking. But I cannot. You cannot stay quiet in the face of wrong. Especially the people who take the neutral gear, the opportunists, the bosses who pass the buck to their subordinates. I condemn all these people."

Despite his fiery spirit, the workload has apparently taken its toll. His 161cm frame emanates fatigue, and his weight dropped from 55 to 52kg from overwork and lack of sleep.

He admits he sometimes has to stay up nearly all night when there are rumours about Thaksin slipping back into the country.

During the day he is confronted with piles of papers that need his signature, while the phone constantly rings.

But he has no complaints, he says. "When we accept a responsibility, we have to do the best we can."

Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin will retire this September and all eyes are on Gen Saprang as the main contender for next army chief, although he has only a year left before his retirement. His supporters say he fits the need for a strong military leader who can thwart Thaksin's efforts to return to power.

He dismisses such speculation, however. "Believe or not, I am interested at all if I will be the next army chief or not. I believe what I am doing now is more significant than what some army chiefs did in the past. What I am doing is for the good of the country. And I am proud of that."

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