Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha has narrowly escaped “political assassination” in the House of Representatives. This underscores the urgency of strengthen his political power base. Without doing so, the future of his premiership will remain at risk.
Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha recently narrowly survived a “political assassination attempt” by an influential faction of the largest government party. Although he emerged victorious, his premiership now looks vulnerable.
In what General Prayut considered an “ambush”, a group of government MPs, mostly from the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP) but including several MPs from micro-parties in the ruling coalition, prepared to join the opposition in voting against the prime minister at the conclusion of the recent no-confidence debate. Should this have happened, General Prayut would have been the first premier in 89 years of Thai parliamentary democracy ever to be voted out in a censure.
Unconvincingly, PPP leader Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan claimed he was unaware of the developing revolt, and could therefore not alert his “beloved younger brother” General Prayut to the plot.
The plan was rather straightforward. Plotters aimed to recruit 40-50 government MPs to join opposition MPs in voting against General Prayut in the no-confidence showdown in the House of Representatives on 4 September. General Prayut’s premiership would immediately have ended, and ministers in his cabinet would have had to leave office en masse.
The mastermind behind this revolt was Captain Thammanat Prompao, secretary-general of the PPP, the largest party in the 17-party ruling coalition. The 56-year-old former Army officer was Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture. When elected party secretary-general on 18 June, he pledged to transform the PPP into a strong “political institution”, and erase its image of being an “ad hoc party” set up just to serve one person or one group.
Captain Thammanat had previously described himself as the “main artery of the government”, and even claimed that, without him, the Prayut administration would collapse. He headed a powerful PPP faction known as the “Four Deputies”, which included Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat, Deputy Labour Minister Dr Narumon Pinyosinwat, and Deputy Transport Minister Athirat Rattanaset. Also included in the faction was Athirat’s father Virat, the ruling coalition’s chief whip and a deputy PPP leader.
All of these figures have close ties to party leader General Prawit, and their faction controlled about 40 MPs, including at least half of the 26 members of the PPP’s executive committee.
Captain Thammanat also has close links with government MPs from the ruling coalition’s 10 micro-parties, nine with just one MP each and the tenth with two. The plotters had approached these MPs to urge them to vote against General Prayut; some of them had agreed. When the four-day no-confidence debate against General Prayut and his five ministers started on 31 August, Captain Thammanat thought that he had enough votes to oust the premier. The only hint that a political upheaval might be coming was Captain Thammanat’s insistence that all PPP MPs could freely decide on how to vote at the end of the no-confidence debate.
Captain Thammanat’s objectives were simple but ambitious.
- After unseating General Prayut, the PPP would nominate General Prawit — the principal deputy prime minister, with responsibility for national security — for the premiership.
- In the new Prawit administration, Captain Thammanat would become interior minister, with control over provincial governors and the second largest budget allocation of any government agency. Controlling the Interior Ministry is crucial to fulfilling Captain Thammat’s mission of making the PPP the top party in Thailand’s next general election.
- Having enticed the PPP’s coalition partners to support a Prawit premiership, the new government would allocate more cabinet posts to each of those partners. General Prayut’s departure would free up several cabinet seats, including interior, defence, finance and energy.
This plot was the most serious challenge to General Prayut’s premiership in the seven years since he, as Army chief, led the coup that toppled the Phuea Thai-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on 22 May 2014.
It so alarmed General Prayut that he sought urgent clarification from his “big brother” General Prawit. The response from General Prawit must have been quite reassuring to the premier: There would be no change! General Prawit did not want to be prime minister.
More importantly, General Prayut also received even more important reassurance – word from the palace that the King continued to have confidence in his premiership. These assurances emboldened General Prayut to strike back vigorously. He made three points in an unusual long impromptu talk to the media at the parliament on 1 September: no plan to reshuffle his cabinet, no plan to dissolve the House and call for an early general election, and no truth to reports that he had lost the confidence of the King.
On the crucial third point, he added, “To claim that someone higher up wants to replace the prime minister is a serious offense. I was the only one who most recently had an audience [with the King] to report on government matters. No one else did that. Isn’t this clear?”
Following the premier’s remarks, Captain Thammanat’s revolt began to fizzle out. Santi was the first in the Four Deputies faction to defect. On 2 September, he was seen inside a reception room at the parliament where General Prayut received groups of MPs from the PPP, including several MPs from Santi’s group.
One opposition MP complained to the House Speaker during the censure debate that General Prayut was bribing each government MP with 5 million baht in cash to vote for him. But, when it was his turn to respond in the House, General Prayut denied bribing any MPs. He clarified that he merely received groups of government MPs, whom he had rarely met in the past, and that they just called on him to show support for his premiership.
UNFORGIVEABLE DAMAGE DONE
As it turned out, General Prayut and the five ministers facing censure all passed the no-confidence voting. But political damage from what Captain Thammanat attempted to do was serious and seemingly unforgiveable.
Outcome of the No-Confidence Vote on 4 September 2021
Even though only four government MPs voted against him, General Prayut received the second lowest number of votes, only 264; the lowest went to Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin, 263.
Worse still, the prime minister received the highest number of votes of no confidence, 208. Such a double embarrassment is the worst outcome of the three censure votes that he has faced, and Prayut quickly retaliated by seeing to the dismissal of Captain Thammanat and Dr Narumon from the cabinet before they could submit their resignations.
Captain Thammanat calmly accepted defeat and retreated to his hometown in the Northern province of Phayao. He did not stay on in Bangkok to support the proposed amendments to Thailand’s 2017 Constitution. The parliament passed those amendments on 10 September, despite rumours that General Prayut might mobilise his supporters in the Senate to block them in order to undercut the PPP as well as the opposition Phuea Thai Party.
Captain Thammanat has not resigned from the PPP. General Prawit has asked him to stay on to assist in strengthen the party. He attended the PPP’s leadership meeting on 15 September. Dr Narumon, who is the party’s treasurer, also attended. General Prawit called the meeting to introduce the PPP’s new chief strategist, General Wich Thephassadin, who is a retired former assistant Army chief; he was edged out for the top Army post by General Prayut in 2010.
For the time being, Captain Thammanat is keeping a low profile, and keeping his options open. He may set up his own party, or he could join the Phuea Thai Party. He has been a successful political “fixer” in spite of his checkered past, including imprisonment for four years in Australia on a heroin smuggling conviction in the 1990s.
VICTORIOUS BUT VULNERABLE
General Prayut’s political victory may be short-lived, and the attempted revolt has clearly exposed his vulnerability. While saved by the decisive assurance from the palace, he has also been relying quite precariously on General Prawit and the PPP, over which he has no control.
Although General Prayut continues to praise General Prawit in public, their decades-long personal ties can only have been seriously strained by recent events. Given the plot, it is hard to believe that General Prawit was unaware of Captain Thammanat’s scheming. In any case, he neither tried to stop Captain Thammanat nor alerted General Prayut.
Distrust may now have developed between these two retired generals and former Army chiefs. General Prayut – without consulting General Prawit – secretly recommended that the King command the dismissals of Captain Thammanat and Dr Narumon.
This can only have offended General Prawit, who tried to protect Captain Thammanat by making him apologise to General Prayut on 3 September. On the same day, General Prawit also instructed PPP MPs to vote for General Prayut. But despite all the PPP’s MPs voting for him on 4 September, General Prayut proved unwilling to forgive Captain Thammanat.
General Prayut can now assert his primacy instead of living in the shadow of General Prawit. But in distancing himself from the latter man, who held the post of defence minister for 12 years, the prime minister will pay the huge price of losing the support of General Prawit’s power base in the armed forces.
One indication that this is already happening is the delay in this year’s annual promotion and reshuffling of top military posts. The Defence Council, which General Prayut chairs in his capacity as defence minister, has been slow in preparing the final promotion lists. The lists were finally announced on 14 September. Bones of contention included nominees for the posts of Navy commander, Air Force commander, and permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Normally, the annual promotion and reshuffling are announced in early September, with the retirement of military personnel reaching 60 years old taking place at the end of September, and new appointees taking office on 1 October each year.
THE “THREE Ps” IN DISARRAY
Generals Prayut, Prawit and Anupong (whose nickname is “Pok”) are known as the “Three Ps” of the Eastern Tigers faction of the Thai Army. The influence of this faction has been eroding since the rise of General Apirat Kongsompong to lead the Army in October 2018. General Apirat headed a new “Red Rim” faction closely linked with the palace, and he was succeeded as Army chief in October 2020 by another prominent member of this “Red Rim” faction, General Narongpan Jitkaewtae. After leaving the Army, General Apirat was appointed both a deputy to the chamberlain of the Royal Household and deputy director of the Crown Property Bureau.
In a recent public opinion survey, slightly less than 40 per cent of those interviewed believe that the “Three Ps” would be able to set up a new government after the next general election. This suggests that the political influence of the “Three Ps” is no longer as overwhelming as it had been for most of the period since the 2014 coup.
Another weakness that General Prayut has is the fact that he has no party of his own. This left him exposed in the no confidence debate and vote. Only 34 more votes against him would have ousted him from the premiership, with the minimum majority of 242 votes in the 482-member House. With General Prayut on shaky ground, there is every possibility that others in the troubled ruling coalition will attempt to overthrow him in yet another censure in the House next year.
Another weakness that General Prayut has is the fact that he has no party of his own. This left him exposed in the no confidence debate and vote.
WHAT CAN GENERAL PRAYUT DO?
To ensure his political survival, General Prayut’s first option is to adjust his leadership style and try to stay on until the end of his four-year term in March 2023. By then, the COVID-19 pandemic may have ended and the Thai economy has begun to recover. He would have by then also set a record of serving nine years in the premiership. Mission accomplished. Prayut can then proudly step down and leave national politics for good.
Meanwhile, General Prayut has promised to make time to listen to MPs. Undoubtedly, many government MPs will request him to reshuffle the cabinet sooner rather than later, and to re-allocate ministerial posts more equitably. In the current cabinet, PPP leader General Prawit does not head any significant ministry, whereas the Bhumjaithai Party’s leader is Minister of Public Health, and the Democrats’ leader is Minister of Commerce. Further, the PPP’s group of 14 Southern MPs is demanding a cabinet post. Also waiting anxiously for their turn are the Thai Local Power Party, which has five MPs, and the seven micro-parties that firmly supported General Prayut in the censure vote.
General Prayut’s second option is to become a full-fledged politician by setting up a party of his own, assuming that General Prawit stays put and tries to strengthen the PPP. General Prayut can team up with his other “elder brother”, Interior Minister General Anupong, who was often seen alongside him during the crisis week in early September.
Both General Anupong and General Prayut share a common disdain for notionally unscrupulous politicians, and General Anupong in particular has avoided associating with MPs, for fear of being asked for favours. Captain Thammanat wanted for this reason to wrestle from General Anupong the interior minister’s post, one that brings immense patronage and largesse for handing out to MPs.
Under this second option, General Prayut can avoid directly offending General Prawit, for whom he has professed deep respect as his “first boss” and “mentor”. The question is whether he can acquire “ammunition” for his party’s candidates to use in the next general election. And who will play the role of “fixer” and “monkey keeper” for him, now that Captain Thammanat, who used to play those roles in the PPP, is gone?
The third option will arise if General Prawit, who is now 76 and in poor health, calls it quits. General Prayut can then simply take over the PPP and, when ready, dissolve the House and lead the party into an early general election in 2022.
One exclusive advantage that General Prayut has over all other politicians is the existing strong support for him in the Senate. If he vies for the premiership again after the next general election, he can count on votes from most of the 250 senators, empowered under the Constitution to join MPs in selecting the prime minister until the end of their five-year term in May 2024.
The days of the political domination of the “Three Ps” in Thai politics are now clearly numbered. General Prayut will now need to move fast and decisively to show better results, since the public feeling is that his promise of “returning happiness to Thailand” is long overdue.
Before he passed away in May 2019, General Prem warned General Prayut that his “reserves are depleting”. General Prayut’s falling out with his “big brother” General Prawit will be a damaging blow to his premiership.
For this reason, General Prayut will need to strengthen his political power base, by either heading a party of his own or taking over the PPP. Without such a move, his premiership will continue to weaken, and he may not be able to survive the next censure vote in the House.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/127 published on 28 September 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.