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General news >> Thursday March 22, 2007
Sonthi loyalists put in key military positions

Thaksin's classmates sent to inactive posts


Council for National Security chairman Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin has made a mid-year military reshuffle that removes from key posts senior officers perceived as loyal to old powers and replaces them with trusted soldiers. A highly-placed source in the Defence Ministry said members of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School's Class 10, reputedly loyal to their classmate deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been moved to inactive posts.

Gen Pornchai Kranlert, once a candidate for the army's top job, becomes special adviser at the Defence Permanent Secretary's Office. Assistant air force chief ACM Sukampol Suwanthas, once in line for the top post, becomes a senior specialist in the service.

Vice Adm Sivichai Sirisalee, commander of the Marine Corps and linked to rumours of a second coup early this month, becomes navy adviser.

Second Army chief Lt-Gen Sujet Wattanasuk, long seen as inactive in tackling political undercurrents in the Northeast, has been shifted from the job as had been speculated.

School fires and anti-coup leaflets have proliferated in the Northeast, where security was his responsibility. Lt-Gen Sujet is promoted to full general, and joins Gen Pornchai as a special adviser at the Defence Permanent Secretary's Office.

Leading members of Class 9 have also been blocked from important posts, as they are seen as close to former deputy army chief Gen Vichit Yathip.

A rising star during Thailand's difficulties over the Cambodian war 20 years ago, Gen Vichit is a close aide of former prime minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, whose relationship with the CNS has soured.

Key allies of the CNS who were promoted include Maj-Gen Malai Kiewthieng, commander of the 1st Special Warfare Division, who is named assistant army chief of staff for operations.

But one promotion clearly shows Gen Sonthi will only put a person he trusts in a vital post.

That is the appointment of Maj-Gen Jittipong Suwaset, 1st Army deputy commander, as chief of Air Defence Command even though he has no related experience. Even though he is a Class 9 member, he maintains close relations with Gen Sonthi.

''Gen Sonthi is afraid of a second coup, so he sends his man to take charge at the Air Defence Command. He does not take a chance with Maj-Gen Pharit [Julkarangkha], who is second in line,'' a source said.

For some observers, the appointment of Maj-Gen Sunai Sampattawanich as chief of the Special Warfare Command showed the extent of Gen Sonthi's confidence in his position. Speculation was rife that this post would go to Maj-Gen Phuchong Rattanawan, who is very close to Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont even though he graduated in Class 10.

Maj-Gen Phuchong was named adviser at the Defence Permanent Secretary's Office, but promoted to lieutenant-general, apparently as a consolation. ''This is an indication that Gen Sonthi wants people he can fully trust to take command posts after his retirement,'' said the source.

The mid-year transfer also involves command posts at the provincial level especially in the North and the Northeast _ a move widely seen as an attempt to cripple the former ruling Thai Rak Thai party in the general election expected towards the end of this year.

This has reinforced growing speculation Gen Sonthi may tighten his grip on power. Gen Sonthi is due to retire from the army at the end of September, but will stay on as CNS chairman.

Gen Sonthi has sent his personal aide, Lt-Gen Sujit Sutthiprapa, to take charge at the Second Army. In the Third Army, Maj-Gen Weerawat Tansuhat, commander of the 32nd Army Circle in Chiang Rai, moves to the Defence Permanent Secretary's Office. He was Mr Thaksin's classmate at Chiang Mai's Montfort school.

The list involves 456 high-ranking military officers, the source said. It was prepared by Gen Sonthi and then forwarded to Defence Minister Gen Boonrawd Somtas and the prime minister. No revisions were made.

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