- Thailand’s recent annual military reshuffle was heavily influenced by military-academy class ties and other forms of factionalism.
- Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan appointed most of their favourites to senior posts in the Army.
- The crown appointed its own favourites to command the Air Force and Navy while ensuring that its trusted Army Commander remained in place.
- The reshuffle indicates that control over the Thai military is becoming increasingly bifurcated between these two powerful groups: the crown on one side and officers of the Army’s “Burapha Phayak” faction who seized power in the May 2014 coup on the other.
* Guest writer, Paul Chambers, is Lecturer and Special Advisor for International Affairs, Center of ASEAN Community Studies, Naresuan University, Thailand. In March-May 2021, he was Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
In 2021, the winds of both continuity and change in the distribution of power among Thai military personalities were once again evident in the annual 1 October armed forces reshuffles. There were 771 promotions, involving 21 female officers, and 563 promotions in rank, including 38 females. There were appointments involving 587 generals, while 314 colonels or colonel-equivalent officers were promoted to the rank of major general or its equivalent. It was thus another year of top-heavy promotions to flag rank for the Thai military.
CLASS TIES AND FACTIONS
As usual, the appointments and promotions reflect both performance and pre-cadet academy linkages, as well as factional ties and favouritism. The class ties in question are based not only on shared educational experiences in the academies of the Army, Navy, Air Force, police and beyond but also, and even more importantly, on ties forged in Thailand’s pre-cadet school, the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. Factional linkages involve shared group interests or objectives characterized, for example, by service in a given military unit. The most influential Army faction has traditionally been the Wongthewan or “Divine Progeny” faction, rooted in the King’s Guard unit. It is Thailand’s oldest military faction, lording over the Army from 1870 until 1978. The current king himself is a member of this faction. The second most powerful has been the Burapha Phayak or “Eastern Tigers”, representing the Second Infantry (and Cavalry) Division. This faction’s core of power has been in a sub-faction, grounded in the 21st Infantry Regiment, known as the Thahan Suea Ratchinee or Queen’s Tiger Guards. The Eastern Tigers were the dominant Thai Army faction from 2007 until 2016. They are the faction of Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda. Among its members, Prawit is especially powerful. Other Army factions include the Cavalry, Special Forces (Muak Daeng or Red Berets), and the 9th Infantry Division (Suea Dam or Black Panthers). In 2018, King Vajiralongkorn also created the Kho Daeng or Red Rim group, whose members attend special short-term military training under palace auspices. Only Red Rim officers can now ascend to Army or Supreme Command positions, and the group has become a means for the palace to influence the military.
THE MILITARY AND POLICE RESHUFFLE
In 2021, members of pre-cadet Class 20 are Thailand’s eldest active-duty officers. This factor makes that class quite important. That it is also the class of retired General Apirat Kongsompong, the senior-most official with his foot in the doors of both the palace and the Army only adds to that importance. Apirat, also a member of the Wongthewan faction, served as Army Commander in 2018-2020. Immediately after his retirement, the king named him Deputy Secretary of the Royal Household. Though Apirat works formally under Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukvimol, the Secretary of the Royal Household, the Air Force is a smaller security force than the Army. Its officers’ clout cannot compare to those in the latter service.
Only a few Wongthewan members of pre-cadet Class 20 remain on active duty. These include Apirat’s man General Worakiat Ratanond, whom this year’s reshuffle moves from Army Chief of Staff to the post of Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense. He retires in 2022. Another active-duty member of pre-cadet Class 20 is incoming Navy Commander Admiral Somprasong Nilmasai, who also retires in 2022. Like his predecessor Admiral Chatchai Sriworakan, Somprasong is part of a Navy faction influenced by former Navy Commander Admiral Luechai Ruddit (2018-2020). Luechai’s personalistic clout emanates from his older brother General Kamnat Ruddit, a Wongthewan Army officer who has sat on the Privy Council since 2016. Ruddit’s influence has allowed the Navy to enhance its political clout within the military to a level greater than at any time since the early 1950s. Nevertheless, many in the Navy are furious at Somprasong’s appointment because he was seen as having obtained the command post externally; he moved from the position of Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense with the support of outgoing Permanent Secretary, Burapha Phayak faction member, Prawit loyalist, and fellow pre-cadet Class 20 member General Nat Intracharoen. Even Navy Commander Admiral Chatchai tried to fill the command post with an alternative officer: his chum Admiral Teerawat Kanchana, who is a member of pre-cadet Class 21 and currently serves as Navy Chief of Staff. However, Chatchai has instead been promoted to the post of Navy Deputy Commander. Yet another member of pre-cadet Class 20 is Police Commissioner Police General Suwat Jaengyodsuk. Suwat, who retires in 2022; he is close to fellow pre-cadet Class 20 and police academy Class 36 graduate, former Police Commissioner ret. Police General Chakthip Chaijinda. The latter is now a Bangkok gubernatorial candidate. Suwat, like Chakthip and Apirat, is closely connected to the palace; he was an aide to the current king and is a former commander of the Special Service Division, a unit renamed in 2019 as the Rachawallop Police Retainers, King’s Guard 904. Suwat also maintains a deep connection to the Navy since his younger brother Admiral Suwin Jaengyodsuk, a member of (pre-cadet Class 25), is the Chief of the Naval Staff and was promoted this year to become Commander in Chief of the Naval Fleet. Suwin could eventually become Navy Commander, as he is not due to retire until 2025.
Given Suwat’s impending 2022 mandatory retirement, the most significant police appointments in the 2021 reshuffle are the promotion of Police General Torsak Sukvimol from Commander of the Central Investigative Bureau to the post of Assistant Police Commissioner and the promotion of Jirapop Puridej from Deputy Commander to Commander in that same bureau. Jirapop is following in the footsteps of Torsak, and the two officers’ promotions are noteworthy because their families are very close to the palace. Torsak’s elder brother is Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukvimol (See above.), while Jirapop’s elder brother is Jakrapop Puridej. (See below.). Torsak, who retires in 2024, could succeed Suwat as Police Chief next year, while Jirapop will have a much longer career. As a member of pre-cadet Class 34, he retires only in 2036.
With the 2021 reshuffle, the five “tigers” of the security services (See Table 1.) are all highly trusted by the palace. Despite holding a relatively ceremonial post, the Commander of the Armed Forces continues to be General Chalermpol Srisawasdi, a member of pre-cadet Class 21, while the commander of the all-powerful Army remains General Narongphan Jitkaewthae, a member of pre-cadet Class 22. Both are Red Rim officers who have two more years before retirement in October 2023 — at most months after the next general election, if the current Prayut government finishes its four-year term. This is important because if, by chance, a new government comes to office, Prayut and Prawit will no longer have influence over the appointments of Chalermpol’s and Narongphan’s successors. The three remaining “tigers” also have close palace links. The Navy and Air Force Commanders are newly appointed, but they must retire next year. Newly appointed Air Force Commander Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya, an F-5 and F-16 pilot, is the son of an officer who was not only close to General Apirat’s father but also a favourite of Thailand’s then-crown prince and now king. Prapan Tupatamee served as Air Force Commander in 1983-1987.
Table 2 highlights appointments in the headquarters of the Armed Forces itself resulting from the 2021 reshuffle. General Chalermpol Srisawasdi has obtained cushy postings for his close pre-cadet classmates from Class 21, and for fellow members of the Army’s Burapha Phayak Cavalry faction. First, General Supachok Thawatchapirachai, a member of pre-cadet Class21), was promoted from the post of Deputy Director of the Office of Missions for Security Maintenance in the Army to become Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces. Second, General Naren Siripuban, also of pre-cadet Class 21, was promoted from the post of Commander of the Army Development Command to be another Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces. Third, General Nattapol Boon-ngam, a third pre-cadet 21 classmate and friend of General Chalermpol, was promoted from Special Advisor to the Office of the Defence Permanent Secretary to become Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff. Fourth, General Thanet Wongcha-um, pre-cadet Class 21 chum of General Chalermpol, and the outgoing Commander of the 2nd Army Region, was promoted to Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. Like General Chalermpol, Thanet is in the Cavalry faction of the Army.
Chalermpol did make some bargains. Admiral Songwit Boon-intorn, a member of pre-cadet Class 22 and a chum of Army Commander General Narongphan Jitkaewthae was promoted from the post of Assistant Navy Commander to become yet another Armed Forces Deputy Commander.
These five well-connected senior recruits join Air Chief Marshal Sutipan Thaitong, still another pre-cadet school classmate of General Chalermpol who is already serving as an Armed Forces Deputy Commander, to round out the five senior-most officers in the Armed Forces headquarters. Meanwhile, General Suwit Ketsiri, Commander of the International Counter-Terrorism Operations Center, was promoted to become the director of the Royal Coordination Center for Competence and Security. Suwit, a member of pre-cadet Class 23, is a Burapha Phayak cavalryman close to Armed Forces Commander General Chalermpol. He retires in 2025, and Chalermpol is rumored to be pushing to promote Suwit as his successor as Supreme Commander.
Thailand’s 2021 reshuffle suggests that the Wongthewan and Red Rim factions of the Army remain powerful, not least because of General Narongphan’s continuing posting as Army Commander. Nevertheless, the year has seen push-back from the Prawit’s and Prayut’s Burapha Phayak. Two members of that faction have moved into top Army posts. (See Table 3). These officers are incoming Army Chief of Staff General Santipong Tampiya and General Jaroenchai Hintao. The latter officer is a member of pre-cadet Class 23 who moves from the strategic post of Commander of the First Army Region to become Assistant Army Commander. But the former officer is, like incoming Army Deputy Commander and Wongthewan faction member General Apinan Khampeo, a member of pre-cadet Class 22. Santipong and Apinan are Class 22 chums of Army Commander Narongphan, and both will retire in 2022. Apinan is especially important because the Deputy Army Commander exercises effective control over Thailand’s Center for the COVID-19 Situation Administration. General Bhumipat Jansawang, a member of pre-cadet Class 24 who previously served as Special Forces Commander and is a member of the Muak Daeng faction, will become an Assistant Army Commander. General Bhumipat is a protégé of former Army Commanders and current Privy Councilors General Surayud Chulanond and General Chalermchai Sitisard. He is due to retire in 2023. Barring unexpected promotions in 2022, General Jaroenchai is on track to succeed General Narongphan as Army Commander upon the latter’s retirement in 2023; he himself is due to retire the following year). This is relevant because it would mean that Burapha Phayak once again hold the post of Army Commander for the first time since 2016. This development would effectively tilt power in the Army power back toward Prawit and Prayut.
The Thai Army’s First Region is crucial for its role in protecting the capital. Its officers have traditionally been tasked to guard Bangkok and Central Thailand. At the same time, it is important to choose officers to serve in that command who are loyal to the palace, and to Thailand’s revolving governments, to prevent coups by these supposed guardians. The incoming First Army Region Commander is General Jaroenchai’s pre-cadet classmate and fellow Burapha Phayak faction friend General Suksan Nongbualuang. In his new post, General Suksan will work with Police Commissioner Suwat to lead in implementing security measures taken to check demonstrators in Bangkok. He has followed in the footsteps of Jaroenchai, becoming First Army Region Cohort Commander last year, the Number 2 position in a Thai Army region, and, as he is due to return only in 2025, General Suksan could also succeed Jaroenchai at the very top of the Thai military if Jaroenchai served as Army Commander during 2023-2024. The incoming Cohort Commander General Tarapong Malakam, of pre-cadet Class 24, moves up from being a Deputy Commander of the First Army Region. He is also a Burapha Phayak faction member and were he to follow in the promotion footsteps of Jaroenchai and Suksan to become Army Commander, he could keep that post in the faction’s hands. General Tarapong is due to return in 2026. Another Deputy Army Commander, General Kantapot Setarasamee, hails from the Burapha Phayak Cavalry. He is in line to eventually succeed General Suwit Ketsiri, General Chalermpol’s probable successor, as Armed Forces Commander. The same is true for Kantapot’s successor as 2nd Cavalry Division Commander, General Udom Gaewmaha. The common thread among all four of these is that they have held General Udom’s current posting. The only Wongthewan officer holding a top post in the First Army Region is incoming General Pana Klaewblaudtuk, an incoming First Army Deputy Commander. But, as a member of pre-cadet Class 26, he is still rather junior. General Pana was previously the commander of the 11th Infantry Regiment, tasked with handling the US-supplied Stryker armoured vehicles. The third First Army Deputy Commander, General Takat Laudsiri, is not from a currently significant faction.
The 2021 reshuffle has also seen another chapter in the continuing saga of royal favourite General Songwit Noonpakdee, a Wongthewan officer and member of pre-cadet Class 24. Once a Commander of the 1st Infantry Division and a Deputy Commander of the First Army Region, he seemed destined because of his training, experience, royal favour and famous surname as the son of former Army Commander General Issarapong Noonpakdee to sail toward the post of Army Commander. But in 2020 Songwit was promoted to be a mere Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army. In the 2021 reshuffle, he has been demoted to a regular command staff officer post in the Army; his new position is Head, Army Corps Office of Chief of Staff Supervision. Songwit’s setback may be in keeping with the tradition in the Thai military that officers who obtain their educations abroad do not become service commanders; he is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in the United States rather than of Thailand’s Chulachomklao Military Academy. Nevertheless, his family’s close connections with the palace may in the end offset common practice. Songwit retires in 2025. If the king and the Wongthewan faction apply enough pressure, he could find himself moving up next year. He might also have a chance to become Armed Forces Commander after Chalermpol’s retirement.
Table 5 lists a number of other recent appointments of significance. The cabinet promoted General Supot Malaneeyom, a member of pre-cadet Class 22), from his post as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces to become the Secretary-General of the National Security Council. Supot is from the Cavalry faction and is a confidant of General Chalermpol. He is also close to Army Commander General Narongphan Jitkaewthae, his fellow member of pre-cadet Class 22. Supot retires in 2023. Meanwhile, General Nattawut Nakanakorn becomes the new Special Forces Commander. Like his predecessor, General Bhumipat Jansawong, he belongs to pre-cadet Class 24, but he is due to retire only in 2025. Further, and like Bhumipat, Nattawut is close to Privy Councilors General Surayud and General Chalermchai. If he follows in Bhumipat’s footsteps in being promoted to Assistant Army Commander or Army Chief of Staff in 2022, Nattawut could challenge General Jaroenchai Hintao in the race to succeed General Narongphan as Army Commander in 2023. Though the commanders of the Second, Third and Fourth Army Regions are extremely powerful figures in the provincial settings for which they are responsible, they only rarely ascend to become Army or Armed Forces commanders. The current officers in those posts will be no exception. Incoming Second Army Region Commander General Sawarat Saengpol is a member of the Surasak Montree Taskforce faction. Third Army Chief General Apichet Suasa-ad is close to former Army Commander General Apirat Kongsompong. And Fourth Army Region Commander General Kriangkrai Srirak, a Wongthewan faction member, has reportedly made Bangkok proud in leading counter-insurgency efforts in Thailand’s Deep South counterinsurgency; he may have a bright future. General Amrit Boonsuya, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, has a good chance of eventually ascending to become Army chief since his current posting puts him at the centre of the Burapha Phayak faction’s power base.
Thailand’s 1st Infantry Division, the core of the Wongthewan faction’s power base, is ostensibly under the command of the 1st Army Region. However, in October 2019, its 1st and 11th regiments were placed directly under palace control. The 1st division was basically hollowed out to help create the new Royal Security Command (RSC) established in 2017 as a regal mechanism. The amalgamation of these regiments under the personal control of the king occurred while other units stationed outside of Bangkok were not placed under direct palace control; the remaining regiment of the 1st Infantry Division regiment, the 31st Regiment, is stationed in Lopburi. Then, on 28 August 2021, General Songpol Sadsaongern, a member of pre-cadet Class 27, was promoted from being the commander of the 1st Division, First Army Region, to become the Head of General Operations, Office of the Deputy Commander, Royal Security Command. General Songpol and other RSC officials work under RSC Deputy Commander General (and Air Chief Marshal) Jakrapop Puridej, a member of pre-cadet Class 28 who retires in 2029). General Songpol’s replacement as 1st Division Commander is Colonel Worayot Luangsuwan, a member of pre-cadet Class 28. That officer was previously the Deputy Commander of the 1st Division. General Songpol’s appointment tells us that the monarch is taking regular Army officers to create a parallel and palace-controlled command structure.
The results of Thailand’s 2021 military reshuffle suggest that supremacy over the country’s armed forces will in future become increasingly bifurcated between the crown on the one hand and Generals Prawit and Prayut, on the other, even though the monarch formally holds sway over his kingdom. The palace is likely eventually to assume direct control over all forces belonging to the 1st Infantry Division and perhaps even other units. The Prawit-influenced 2nd Infantry Division, the Burapha Phayak Infantry and Cavalry, is likely to remain the influential centre from which powerful Army and Armed Forces leaders emerge. However, the position of Army Commander will increasingly become a point of conflict between the two power centres. Until October 2023, the Wongthewan faction will continue to hold that post, thanks to the tenure of General Narongphan. If Prayut is still prime minister at that point, he and Prawit will probably see their military appointment powers enhanced with a continuation of Burapha Phayak’s promotion line. If Prayuth is no long prime minister, more direct monarchical power may extend across Thailand’s armed forces.
ISEAS Perspective 2021/129, 30 September 2021
 The abundance of generals is especially noteworthy in that the rank of brigadier general no longer exists in Thailand. There are instead two grades of full colonel.
 “โปรดเกล้าฯแต่งตั้งทหาร 771 ราย ‘พล.ร.อ.สมประสงค์’ ผบ.ทร.-‘พล.อ.อ.นภาเดช’ ผบ.ทอ.” [His Highness appoints 771 soldiers, from Navy Commander Admiral Somprasong to Air Force Commander to Air Force Commander Air Chief Marshal Napadej], Isra News Agency, 14 September 2021 (https://www.isranews.org/article/isranews-news/102473-isranew-newss.html).
 Paul Chambers, “‘Red Rim Soldiers’: The Changing Leadership of Thailand’s Military in 2020”, New Mandala, 21 September 2020 (https://www.newmandala.org/the-changing-leadership-of-thailands-military-in-2020/).
 “ไขรหัสลับ ‘บิ๊กอุ้ย’ ฝ่าคลื่นลม ดัน ‘บิ๊กโต้ง’ ผงาด ผบ.ทร.” [Decoding “Big Oui’s” Attempts to Push through the Wind “Big Tong” to become Navy Commander], Thai Rat, 26 August 2021 (https://www.thairath.co.th/news/politic/2177030)
 Wassana Nanuam, “และแล้ว Snowy ก็โปรยปราย ณ ทุ่งดอนเมือง” “[And Then Snow Scattered at Don Mueang Field],” Lop Luang Lang Channel, 30 August 2021 (https://www.llpch.news/2021/08/30/74323/).
 Wassana Nanuam, “‘บิ๊กแก้ว จัดทัพไทย เพื่อน ตท.21 พรึ่บ! 2 ทหารม้า ‘เสธ.โจ้’ นั่ง เสธ.ทหาร ‘บิ๊กแขก’ รอง ผบ.สูงสุด” [“Big Kaew” quickly organizes the Thai armed forces with pre-cadet 21 class friends, two cavalrymen, “Se.Jo” sits as Chief of Staff, “Big Khaek” as Deputy Commander in Chief], Lop Luang Lang Channel, 14 September 2021 (https://www.llpch.news/2021/09/14/74516/).
 Note that General Supachok helped lead the 2018 rescue of a boys soccer team trapped in a cave in Chiang Rai Province.
 “โผทหาร คลอด 771 นาย ‘บิ๊กหน่อย-บิ๊กเฒ่า-บิ๊กป้อง’ นั่งปลัด กห. ผบ.ทร. ผบ.ทอ.” [771 Officers Endorsed: “Big Noi-Big Thaow-Big Pawng” sitting as Permanent Minister of Defense, Navy Commander, Air Force Commander], Thai Post, 14 September 2021 (https://www.thaipost.net/main/detail/116724).
 “‘บิ๊กบี้’ เขย่าโผ ทบ. ปรับแนวรบ 4 เสือ สายตรงคอแดง ผงาดคุมทัพภาค 1” [“Big Bee” shakes up the military officers: The Royal Thai Army Adjusts Four Tigers’ front, the Red Rims increasingly take control of Army Region 1], Thai Rat, 2 September 2021 (https://www.thairath.co.th/news/politic/2182936).
 Pana was succeeded as 11th Regiment Commander by General Thawatchai Tangphittakul, an Apirat “son”, who is also a Wongthewan faction member and Stryker specialist. General Thawatchai retires in 2029 and could eventually become Army Commander.
 “ศึกคอแดง ภาค 2 เดิมพัน ‘ทรงวิทย์’ อำลา ‘ทรงพล’ ตท. 27 ระส่ำ ฉลามเฒ่า ฮึด! คืนถิ่น กับตำนานเพื่อนรัก ณ ทุ่งดอนเมือง” [Red Rims Clash, part 2, Bet on “Songwit”, bid farewell to “Songpol”, Pre-Cadet Class 27, angry old shark fierce! Return territory with the legend of a best friend at Don Mueang Airfield report] Matichon Update (Today Line Me), 30 August 2021 ( https://today.line.me/th/v2/article/DnNJ85).
 “จับตาหมาก ‘หมวกแดง’ บนกระดาน ทบ. เบรกศึก ‘คอแดง-คอเขียว’ ดาวเด่นรบพิเศษเข้าไลน์ ไร้ปาฏิหาริย์ ‘บิ๊กอ๊อบ’ กับแผง ตท. 21 แห่งทัพไทย” [Keep an eye out for the “Red Rims” in the Royal Thai Army board, breaking the battle between “Red Rims-Green Rims”, a special star enters the line-up. Without a miracle, “Big Ob” will have problems before the army pre-cadet Class 21 panel], Matichon Weekly, 13 September 2021 (https://www.matichonweekly.com/column/article_462979).
 The Surasak Montree Taskforce, an Army unit representing the Internal Security Operations Command, commands police and other security forces in the provinces of Thailand’s Northeast. It works particularly in the areas of border security and narcotics suppression. Its officers usually move up to Second Army Region command positions.
 “ราชกิจจาฯ เผยแพร่ประกาศแต่งตั้ง ‘ข้าราชการในพระองค์’” [Royal Gazette Publishes an Announcement of the Appointment of “Royal Official”], Krungthep Thurakit, 27 August 2021 (https://www.bangkokbiznews.com/news/detail/957095).
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