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Are cracks emerging in Thailand's military?

Thai soldier in Bangkok on 10 April 2010
Dozens of Thai soldiers were hurt in Saturday's clashes in Bangkok

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Bangkok

When a prime minister needs to hold a special TV broadcast to assure watchers that his government is united and in control, it is often the opposite message that is conveyed.

Far from celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year, Thailand's top generals and politicians are locked in dissension - trying to explain the failure and high cost of Saturday's crackdown on the red-shirted opposition, and trying to work out what should happen next.

The relatively dove-like commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Gen Anupong Paojinda, seemed in no doubt.

"The best solution of this is to dissolve the House. I don't want to intervene in politics but I guess the end will be a House dissolution.

"Political problems must be solved by political means. House dissolution is a solution but that must be done after a clear time-frame is set."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, by contrast, insisted his government, the army, the police and his coalition partners were united and doing "good co-operative work".

He said his government was investigating the causes of the killings on Saturday night - the latest toll is 21 dead and almost 900 people injured.

He also put forward the idea that among the peaceful demonstrations was a hard core of "terrorists" who had to be distinguished from the "innocents".

'Badly planned'

That idea - of a mysterious "third hand" - usually accuses a wayward major general of provoking violence through unexplained grenade tossings or shootings.

Protesters and troops battle in Bangkok on 10 April 2010
Reports suggest the military did not expect the red-shirts to be armed

Certainly various military figures - and soldiers interviewed as they recovered in hospital - say they were unprepared for an armed force among the protesters.

The military analyst, Wassana Nanuam, writing in the Bangkok Post, quoted unnamed colonels as saying the crackdown had been badly planned, badly timed and put tired soldiers at the mercy of protesters.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said he had issued orders for soldiers to be equipped only with shields, batons and tear gas.

"They were unarmed, so some of them were killed," he said.

This conflicts with reports from a BBC correspondent on the scene who saw soldiers carrying and shooting high velocity guns.

Behind the propaganda war lies the larger issue of the military's distress about where it now finds itself.

"There are some divisions in the armed forces," said Prof Surachart Bumrungsuk, a military and politics expert at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"Some units don't want to be involved in such a crackdown, others wanted it to be more assertive.

General Anupong (file image from September 2008)
Gen Anupong has said he favours a political solution to the crisis

"It is no secret that General Prayuth Chan-ocha would have liked a harder crackdown," he said.

Gen Prayuth is the deputy armed forces commander and supposedly in line to take the top army job after Gen Anupong's retirement in September.

That transition could be derailed if a military-friendly government is no longer in place to oversee it.

"Gen Anupong has kept a relatively low profile since the 2006 coup and steered clear of the crackdown by his subordinates against the pro-reds governments in 2008," notes Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Centre on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

Saturday night made it clear that there are elements within the military providing the opposition with tactical information
Anthony Davis,
Janes Defence Weekly

"In April 2009 during the reds' uprising, he was nominally in charge but Gen Prayuth appeared effectively in command of dispersing the red protesters.

"Gen Anupong's conciliatory words this time are thus unsurprising. He understandably wants a soft landing after his mandatory retirement on 30 September," he said.

By contrast, Gen Prayuth and the "tiger soldiers", otherwise known as the "eastern tigers" - the 2nd, 12th and the 21st infantry divisions - are seen as more hardline.

"Dissension in the army stems from resentment against these privileged soldiers whose career mobility is more promising. It would be unsurprising if other army units would oppose Gen Prayuth's hard-line approach," believes Prof Thitinan.

There is also a new concern within the military, not of division at the top but of a divorce between the top brass and the ordinary soldiers.

"The fear on Friday was that they might lose control of the rank and file. That was new, and very, very frightening [and contributed to] the stupid, chaotic blood-letting on Saturday," says political analyst Chris Baker.

Limited options

Where this leaves Mr Abhisit remains the question as Thailand heads into Songkran, normally a week of water-throwing street parties.

Many analysts believe he is running out of options.

"If he persists in his smug defiance, more violence and mayhem can be expected," said Prof Thitinan.

"His best bet is to set up an expeditious election timetable and bow out, perhaps followed by a sojourn abroad for rehabilitation."

Certainly the deep divisions in Thai society - the military included - are not going away.

"Saturday night made it clear that there are elements within the military providing the opposition with tactical information and that on the other side of the divide there are elements with good military training and equipment," says Anthony Davis, an analyst with Janes Defence Weekly.



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