After the death of King Bhumibol, Thailand’s armed forces could continue to wield overwhelming political clout under the rationale of protecting a newly-ascendant sovereign, writes Paul Chambers.

In these uncertain days of fluidity in the aftermath of the reign of King Rama IX, the military is the strongest institution on Thailand’s political stage.

Since the 2014 coup, the military has dominated politics, forcing civilian politicians to the sidelines. Continuing divisions among Thais regarding ex-Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra as well as the May 2014 putsch, combined with greater unity in the military (compared with civilians), has only served to buttress military clout. Meanwhile the passing of His Majesty has further helped to ensure that the military remains the centralising stabiliser. In these circumstances, the military can claim an excuse for entrenching itself atop the country’s political stage.

But what exactly does Rama IX’s passing mean for the military? What role might security forces play in the succession?  What influence will the military have over Rama IX’s successor? Is there now a risk of military factional conflict?

Since before 1932, the military has been a leading figure on Thailand’s political stage. From 1978, when General Prem Tinsulanond became Army Chief, and subsequently served as Prime Minister in 1980-88, it has taken a decidedly junior role to monarchy. The 2014 coup was only the latest in a long line of putsches and other extra-constitutional actions designed to perpetuate the influence of monarchy over the country.  Since that coup, Generals Prayuth Chan-ocha and Prawit Wongsuwan have dominated Thai politics through their roles as leading junta members.

The army faction from which they hail is the Second Division, First Army Region “Eastern Tigers,” within which is the arch-royalist “Queen’s Tiger Soldiers (21st Regiment),” in which Prayuth served. Their double faction has dominated the Royal Thai Army since 2007. Traditionally, however, the leading army faction has been the “Divine Progeny” based around the King’s Guard and centered at Bangkok. It remains quite influential. A final dominant faction is Special Forces, the clique of ex-Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanond and 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratklin. Prem, who was appointed to the King’s Privy Council in 1988, favors this faction.

A crucial objective of Prayuth and Prawit is to asymmetrically balance these three leading factions to ensure that their own clique continues to dominate the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta. Since their ascension in 2007, the Eastern Tigers/Queen’s Tiger Soldiers (ETQT) strategy for maintaining control over Thailand’s top five senior army positions has tended to involve keeping the Army Chief post for itself, placing a junior ETQT general in another top-five position (where he is groomed to succeed the Army Chief), giving a third top-five appointment to the “Divine Progeny” faction, and allocating the other two posts to personal loyalists.

But in 2015, General Chalermchai Sittisart, a member of the Prem-linked Special Forces faction attained a junior position in the Top Five. Then, intriguingly, in 2016, he was appointed Army Commander. As his retirement is two years away, Chalermchai could potentially remain in his post until 2018, covering a time of political fluidity which includes the interregnum and probable up-coming elections.

His promotion has upset the applecart of continuing ETQT control over the army chief position. It also brings the Special Forces faction back to the fore of the army for the first time since 2007. It also reflects Prem’s own re-ascendant power—and indeed Prem was appointed regent following the death of Rama IX.  Ultimately, Chalermchai satisfies those arch-royalists who want assurances that the aristocratic order under Rama IX will not be disturbed either by the junta itself or by new Thai leaders.

The 1 October 2016 army reshuffle brought to the top five army positions not only Chalermchai as chief but other senior generals to fill the remaining four posts. Prayuth and Prawit each succeeded in appointing two of their own loyalists to the four positions, achieving a balance in their mutual control over the army. Meanwhile, since his appointment, Chalermchai has allowed ETQT officers to continue to rise to higher-level Thai army positions, conforming to the wishes of Prayuth and Prawit.

But Prayuth is today perhaps in a more favorable position than Prawit. If Chalermchai had not become Army Chief, a Prawit loyalist from the “Eastern Tigers,” General Pisit Sithisarn, was supposed to have been promoted to the post. At the same time, the probable successor to Chalermchai (if ETQT has their way) is the current Assistant Army Chief, the pro-Prayuth ETQT General Theppong Tippayajan. Moreover, there is a good chance in future that Prayuth will accept a nomination to become a non-elected Prime Minister, ensuring that he remains the head of government for years to come, allowing the possibility that he could try to personalise his power over the armed forces.

With the armed forces continuing to take a central position on Thailand’s political stage for the next several years, it will become increasingly difficult to keep potential military fissures at bay. Senior-most army promotions have, since 2007, been reserved for ETQT faction members. Officers outside of this double-clique are demanding more consideration for the interests of other factions as well as making professional experience and performance count in determining promotions.

In 2016, with Chalermchai now Army Chief and the key First Army (Bangkok) Commander post now held by “Divine Progeny” member General Apirat Kongsompong, there could be pressures—leading to serious fissures—for ETQT to stop dominating the army.

In its nine years of army dominance, ETQT has enjoyed freedom of action in arranging military reshuffles and over internal affairs in military organisation with the palace leaving it to then-Privy Council Chair Prem and the army commanders to handle armed forces matters. The passing of Rama IX could mean either that the palace attempts to become more interventionist over the military or instead continues to acquiesce to military and junta decisions.

Meanwhile, the role which security forces are currently playing in the succession sheds light on a principal reason, in hindsight, why the 2014 putsch occurred: to safeguard the transition from one monarch to the next. Such a responsibility—happening at a time of junta control—could well help the NCPO persist in power or enhance the armed forces’ prerogatives enshrined into law as a “monarchised” military deriving legitimacy as palace guardian.

For the future, the armed forces could continue to wield overwhelming political clout under the rationale of protecting the newly-ascendant sovereign.  Thailand’s 20th constitution appears to be readying the country for a guided democracy in which the military will play a prominent role. As its clout intensifies, a growing question for Thailand today is how to achieve any form of demilitarisation.

In these uncertain days of fluidity, for the armed forces, the passing of His Majesty Rama IX means that they can use their role as guardian of the kingdom at a time of interregnum to rationalise the perpetuation of junta rule, gain more legal powers, and/or establish an even more central role for the military behind a future pseudo-democracy.

Paul Chambers is a Lecturer at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Chiang Mai University, Thailand.