Phya Tani

Wassana Nanuam, Lap luang phrang phak phitsadan [Secrets, Trickery, and Camouflage: The Improbable Phenomena]. Bangkok, Post Books, 2009. 303 pp. In Thai.

Soldiers, guns and coups have played a big role in Thailand’s politics for centuries. Historians think that the Front Palace incident in 1874 early in the reign of the fifth Bangkok king was actually a coup attempt backed by nobles and princes who stood to lose out if the young King Chulalongkorn proceeded with his reforms. Many coups, such as the one in September 2006, have succeeded, but there is no guarantee of success as several coup planners in the 1980s discovered. The country’s annals are littered with failed and aborted coups, and false alarms.

Seizing power by coup is a dangerous game. A coup that fails can result in disgrace or demotion, and even jail or death, so the plotters need to plan meticulously. The loyalties of key divisional commanders need to be secured. Inside knowledge of the itineraries of the head of government and his most loyal supporters is invaluable, and the reactions of the palaces need to be anticipated. The leader of the coup group also must assess whether or not he has ‘the right stuff’ to be prime minister. He also needs to identify rivals who might seriously challenge his leadership.

Timing is critical, and luck is a big factor. For advice on bringing off a coup successfully, military officers scrambling for rank and power consult astrologers. The incumbent monarch is the ninth Bangkok king, so the 9s in the date of the latest coup – the nineteenth day of the ninth month of B. E. 2549 – suggest an astrologer’s connivance on timing. The generals’ wives, who have time on their hands, may play a key role by searching out forecasts from lay and monastic astrologers on behalf of their husbands. The astrologers feed the egos and stoke the ambitions of their clients, always useful for retaining the confidence of men who aspire to high office. In the last two successful coups in 1991 and 2006, the astrologer who had advised the chief coup planner became the astrologer for the coup group once it had assumed power. In 1991 it was Kengkat Chongchaiphra, and in 2006 it was the Chiang Mai-based Warin Buawiratloet.

To prepare for national leadership certain steps can be taken to enhance prospects. The astrologer may recommend that his client increase his store of merit with appropriate rituals. Sixteen has been an auspicious number for army chiefs, so the spellings of names are twigged to make up the requisite sixteen characters, including superscript and subscript vowels and tone marks. Sometimes personal and family names are changed to ‘reverse’ bad karma or to designate a martial vocation. Did General Arthit Kamlang-ek’s parents really name him ‘The Sun Deity Preeminent Force’? Fire is cleansing, so soldiers changing their names burn some of their hair and nail clippings along with their old name to ritually dispose of their former selves.

The astrologers acquire confidential information that may be leaked to the media and thus contribute to an atmosphere of public apprehension and uncertainty. Rumours serve strategic ends by testing the reaction of key institutions and power blocs. For an important military player merely to be seen visiting an astrologer can stir rumours. During the turmoil of late 2008 when rumours circulated of a possible coup, General Anuphong Phaochinda, then head of the army, avoided visiting Warin, the astrologer of the 2006 coup group. Anuphong’s unwillingness to quell the violence instigated by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and his refusal to resign after fatalities caused by the use of tear gas in suppressing protests indicated not weakness or conspiracy with the PAD or one of the palaces, but the management of risk. Anuphong stood to lose a great deal if the coup went ahead and ultimately failed. He did not want to risk his career by acting and failing.

Senior military officers are graduates of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy founded on 5 August 1887 by King Chulalongkorn who is addressed as Royal Father or Grandfather of the school. Within the academy’s grounds is an image of Chulalongkorn before which the cadets daily swear to protect the king’s legacy and defend the throne and the nation with their life’s blood. Whenever graduates of the academy encounter an image of this monarch, such as the equestrian statues located throughout the country, they commune with the image, renew their vows of loyalty, and pray to the deceased king for his blessing and success in their ventures. Throughout their careers, military officers reach out for the sacred and mysterious powers of the academy’s patron saint.

Consider these numbers. August was the birth month of four prime ministers of Thailand who came from the army: Field Marshal Thanom Kitikhachorn (11th); General Sujinda Kraprayoon (6th); General Prem Tinsulanond (26th); and General Surayut Chulanon (28th). Other high-ranking generals who have played key roles in the nation’s politics recently and who were born in August include Sunthorn Khongsompong (1st), Mongkol Amphornphisit (10th), Chettha Thanajaro (23rd), and Arthit Kamlang-ek (31st). Banharn Silpa-archa, who was prime minister from 1995-1996 , was ‘officially’ born on 19 August (real birth date, 20 July), and Abhisit Vejjajiva, the present prime minister, was born on 3 August. Anan Panyarachun, who was a cooperative choice for prime minister when the army needed a quick fix to restore its tattered reputation after the disastrous May 1992 killings in the streets of Bangkok, was born on 9 August. Some astrology manuals stretch the August sign into late July, in which case Chuan Leekpai and Thaksin Shinawatra, born on 28 and 26 July respectively, join the group.

The statistic is striking. The tempting conclusion is that birth in August is auspicious for Thai army officers who thus have an advantage over competitors for promotion. Their celestial sign is linked to the August founding of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, and for this reason they receive favourable treatment in appointment to rank. Three civilian prime ministers – or five, if we include the late July births – may also have benefited from this convergence by reassuring key power blocs that the country would prosper during their stewardship.

Another bulwark of the military establishment is the Ministry of Defence, the Kalahom, whose offices were constructed more than 120 years ago by General Surasakmontri (Joem Saeng Xuto, 1851-1931). The building is located near the city pillar across the road from the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the spiritual heart of the kingdom. Within the ministry are several shrines, including a timber post that has been weeping resin since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. A female tree spirit dwells in the post, which the soldiers dress with green cloth and where they make offerings and vows. The minister of defence and his deputy who occupy the Kalahom offices go about their work amidst these sacred sites with grave responsibilities weighing on them. If they should err or act dishonestly, their lives will be in danger.

Between the Kalahom building and the road are 42 cannons, a kind of open-air museum of Thai military prowess. Iconic maps on bronze plates allow passers-by to identify the name and location of each cannon on display. One of the more famous cannons, Phya Tani, has been a bone of contention with the people of Pattani who want it returned to their province (illustration). Because Phya Tani is an emblem of the national government’s sometimes precarious sovereignty in the south, this request is unlikely to be granted in the near future. All the cannons belong to the national patrimony and enjoy heritage listing, as a former minister of defence discovered when he proposed moving the cannons elsewhere and the Department of Fine Arts objected.

Until 2004, the 42 cannons pointed toward the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In June of that year General Chettha Thanajaro, then the minister of defence, ordered the cannons swung around to face in the opposite direction. The order was said to have originated from ‘on high’, possibly to counter the symbolic threat to the sacred precincts across the road. It was ominous that the big Phya Tani cannon pointed towards the palace and royal temple in light of the troubles in the south such as the theft of weapons there early in 2004 and the violent suppression of young Muslim activists in April who had occupied the Krue Sae mosque in Pattani. One rumour held that former Prime Minister Thaksin had given the order to reverse the cannons. Another rumour was that the deputy minister of defence, a protégé of General Prem, was responsible. In any case, once repositioned, the cannon muzzles now pointed directly at the Kalahom, not very auspicious for the defence personnel working there! So the cannons were repositioned yet again to point sideways as they are today, parallel to the road and away from the sacred precincts and the Kalahom.

In Thailand the past haunts the present in many ways. A remarkable number of bureaucrats, soldiers, politicians, and business people believe themselves to be reincarnations of historical persons. King Naresuan, who restored Siamese sovereignty by defeating the Burmese in the late sixteenth century, and the military personnel around him are particular favourites in the contemporary moment. King Taksin’s achievement of restoring Siamese sovereignty (ku chat) in the late eighteenth century has also made his reign popular in this respect. General Sonthi Bunyaratkalin was said to be a reincarnation of one of King Taksin’s stalwart soldiers. Thus Sonthi’s role in leading the 2006 coup was ordained by his past life, because he was redressing the harm done to the kingdom by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who had disposed of the country’s wealth by selling his family company, Shin Corporation, to foreign interests without paying tax. Thaksin needed to be removed from office in order to redeem the country.

Foreigners tend to think of astrology, numerology, necromancy, and reincarnation as exotic beliefs that liven up the Thai scene. Political observers tend to think of these matters as an entertaining sideshow designed to divert a credulous public from the real game being played in the barracks and the safe houses of the capital. Wassana Nanuam, who covers military affairs for the Bangkok Post, thinks otherwise. She believes that the struggles in Thailand since 2006 have been not just about political power, money, or the muzzle of the gun, but about the supernatural. In the course of her reporting, Wassana has interviewed many high-ranking generals and other national leaders as well as the astrologers who advise them. Her interpretation of the evidence is sufficiently canny for some big-shot soldiers – or bik thahan, as the journalists refer to the army’s heavy hitters – to be wary of contact with her lest she discover too much about the way they go about their business. Many of her conversations with the bik thahan must be off the record, but she has earned the respect of her military informants because of her discretion and even-handed treatment of sensitive matters.

From early in 2006 Thai leaders have been engaged in a ‘war of magic’ (saiyasat), and in the second half of the book, Wassana narrows the focus to the increasingly personal conflict between former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the PAD. Thaksin’s audacious use of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in April 2005 sent jitters through elite circles and the defence forces. The founding of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party on Bastille Day, commemorating the French revolution, augured an even grander design. As Thaksin’s star faded, Myanmar astrologers were made famous when a small Burmese woman with shortened limbs known as ET, reputedly the astrologer of Senior General Than Shwe, became popular with the Shinawatra family, especially Thaksin’s wife, Photjaman. These actions of Thaksin spooked the opposition, and Sonthi responded in kind, for example, in the wanton destruction of the Brahma shrine at government house when it was occupied by his supporters in late 2008.

Such is the trickery and camouflage reported in Wassana’s book. She has pieced together a jigsaw puzzle of rivalries and relationships, networks and alliances, and power blocs in the army and the political parties to make a compelling case for how the sciences of prognostication, divination and the dark arts of spells and curses motivate the behaviour of civilian and military leaders. For help in hedging risk, dealing with uncertainty, and nudging history in a favourable direction, civilians and soldiers alike consult custodians of this knowledge. As the Thai saying goes, ‘if you don’t believe in it, don’t disparage it’. Just to play it safe.

Reviewed by Craig J. Reynolds

Published originally on New Mandala, 6 November 2009

Revised 10 November 2009