BANGKOK (Reuters) - A grenade attack on the office of Thailand’s army chief this month is stoking fears of a worst-case scenario in Thailand’s political crisis — a possible fissure in the military along fault lines that have divided the country.
Analysts, diplomats and military sources say it is premature to talk of a split in Thailand’s powerful and politicised army but that festering ideological differences show signs of broadening in one of the most charged climates in decades.
A divide in an institution central to Thailand’s power structure would deepen uncertainty over the outlook for Thailand’s export-dependent $260 billion economy, Southeast Asia’s second-largest, and raise the prospect of instability in a country seen as a gateway to the region for foreign companies.
Large numbers of soldiers of lower ranks and some senior officers, analysts say, are sympathisers of Thailand’s rural, grassroots anti-government, red-shirted protest movement.
In contrast, many of the military’s top brass are at the other end of the political spectrum, allied with royalists, business elites and the urban middle classes, who wear yellow at protests and largely support the present government.
The red-yellow divide is growing increasingly intractable.
And Thailand’s markets remain vulnerable to a correction, after benefiting from waves of foreign money moving into the Asian emerging markets that rebounded first from the global crisis. The stock market is off its January highs but is still up around 85 percent from the lows it hit in November 2008.
“When there is chaos and the country is divided, people look to the military to be in control,” said a Bangkok-based security analyst, who asked not to be identified because discussions of the military are sensitive.
“But it’s the first time in a generation that we’ve seen military divisions like this. There’s definitely an ideological split. It’s unlikely there’s any danger just yet, but that all depends on where this crisis will go.”
The Jan. 15 attack on army chief Anupong Paochinda’s office — he was not there at the time — and the apparent attempt to cover it up, have eroded public confidence in the military, polls show. Although there were no injuries, the brazen attack was widely seen as a challenge to Anupong’s authority.
The authorities’ reluctance to arrest their prime suspect, a rogue major general openly allied with an anti-government movement, has raised questions about how the army perceives his influence among parts of the rank-and-file.
The infamous Khattiya Sawasdipol — a maverick, self-proclaimed warrior better known as “Seh Daeng” — is dismissed by his critics as a loud-mouthed attention-seeker. But he enjoys a cult-like following among some soldiers and has made bold public threats to Anupong, warning him of a “gang attack”.
Khattiya is also a close associate of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a twice-elected billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup and the assumed leader of the opposition Puea Thai party and the “red shirt” protest movement — both of which seek to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s military-backed government.
“This government has survived because of the military,” added the security expert. “Without its support, it would have tanked.”
The military played a pivotal role in brokering the ruling coalition government to keep Thaksin at bay. But the six-party alliance is looking vulnerable, facing internal divisions of its own and lacking enough popular support to win an election.
That raises questions over what the military and its backers would do if the government falls and if Thaksin’s allies, who they have fought hard to sideline, wrestle back power through an election win for his Puea Thai party.
Convicted of graft while in self-imposed exile, Thaksin is very much back in the picture, forming a provocative alliance with neighbouring Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, and rallying supporters from just over the border.
Thaksin’s opponents say he is disloyal to revered 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thaksin says his conviction was politically motivated and insists he supports the monarchy.
Adding to the combustible political mix is the question of succession of the ageing king, who has been hospitalised since Sept. 19, and whether an eventual change of monarch would lead to a change in the balance of power in the military, which has traditionally been closely aligned with the palace.
“The primary uncertainty is with the different factions in the military,” said Roberto Herrera-Lim, a risk analyst at Eurasia Group. “Particularly their loyalties, how they perceive Thai politics today and what they believe to be the military’s role both as an institution and in the current situation.”
After 18 successful or attempted coups in 77 years, the military seems incapable of keeping its nose out of Thai politics and another putsch is not unthinkable if the men in green are at risk of losing their behind-the-scenes political clout.
Military juntas are rarely a good thing for policy-making, as was seen in the months after the 2006 Thai coup, when investors discovered how maladroit the army-appointed government was.
While there was no big market fallout immediately after the putsch, the central bank’s decision 90 days later to adopt capital controls measures panicked investors and led to a near 15 percent plunge in the stock market.
Perhaps of bigger concern would be the potential backlash from a divided population whose political consciousness has grown since the last coup. Another intervention could trigger a far stronger reaction than four years ago, to what would be seen as yet another assault on popular democracy.
As a sign of heightened anxiety, the appearance of soldiers driving 22 armoured vehicles on Monday sparked rumours of another coup. The vehicles in fact were headed for maintenance and the military apologised on Tuesday for creating panic.
“Coup, what coup?” read a front-page headline in Wednesday’s Bangkok Post newspaper.
Thaksin has also learned from the coup that toppled him and has since recruited his own military muscle alongside allies inside the army, including disgruntled former pre-cadet school classmates, many of which were reassigned after his ouster.
In October, he convinced political heavyweight and influential former army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to become Puea Thai chairman. Chavalit then persuaded scores of retired soldiers to join the party in what is being seen as a move to create divisions in a normally rock-solid institution.
Thaksin’s critics say he is hoping “red shirt” protests next month will turn violent and trigger military intervention, aiding his return and recovery of $2.3 billion of assets expected to be seized by the Supreme Court on Feb. 26. He denies this.
Doubts remain about the government’s chances of survival and how satisfied the army’s top brass is with Abhisit in charge. The biggest fear is it will grow impatient with the protracted standoff and take matters into its own hands.
“There’s still a strong praetorian sense within the military,” added Eurasia’s Herrera-Lim, “that it could decide, on its own, to take control of the country should politics (remain) paralysed.”
Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Jason Szep