Thailand picks general from less dominant faction to be army chief

BANGKOK • Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej yesterday endorsed a new army chief as part of an annual reshuffle - but surprised some experts with an appointment from outside the faction that has dominated the army for several years.

The military has always been powerful in Thailand, and a 2014 coup established it as the country's pre-eminent institution - arguably more so than the monarchy, which faces uncertain times as the health of the revered 88-year-old king fades.

The implications of the new appointment were not immediately clear, but it could signal a willingness to compromise with other factions in the army and prevent any discord.

General Chalermchai Sitthisart, who is now assistant army chief, was appointed head of the army, while Gen Pisit Sitthisart, the army chief of staff and a top contender for the post, was made deputy army chief.

Gen Chalermchai's appointment as army chief marks a departure from the Burapha Phayak royalist military faction - known as the Eastern Tigers - which propelled junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha to power.

Gen Chalermchai does not belong to the Eastern Tigers faction, which has dominated the army for more than a decade and includes Gen Prayut and his allies.

As army chief, Gen Prayut launched a coup in May 2014 that overthrew the civilian government led by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra - a move that he said was aimed at ending years of political turmoil in the South-east Asian nation.

"Burapha Phayak has dominated the army for the past 10 years. Many people thought Gen Pisit would get it," said assistant professor Wanwichit Boonprong, who teaches political science at Rangsit University.

"But Chalermchai became a major first, before Pisit - so in a way, it follows the natural order," he added.

Approval of the appointments by the king was a formality.

The appointments will take effect from Oct 1.

Since helping to overthrow an absolute monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam in 1932, the military has staged 19 coups, 12 of them successful. It has also provided 12 of the country's 29 prime ministers in that time.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand picks general from less dominant faction to be army chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe