Sonthi stuns by shifting PM's allies
Army chief sidelines officers close to premier; rifts likely to widen further in armed forces
Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin caught many by surprise after it was made public that he has just issued an order to transfer a number of middle-ranking officers who are close to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's military school classmates.
Out of the 129 transfers, more than half of the mid-ranking officers had been working under the command of generals who had graduated from the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School's Class 10, which Thaksin has close ties to.
These men were deemed to be essential to the Army's chain of command as they directly command troops and battalions on the ground, mostly attached to units based in Bangkok.
Sonthi's order was issued on Monday and posted on the Army's website yesterday. It is unusual for the Army to issue transfers at any time of the year other than December.
The move came amid ongoing tension in the military as General Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the Privy Council, has been seen wearing a combat uniform over the past week. Prem has called on soldiers to support the monarchy and the country.
Sonthi's decision came amid reports that Thaksin was planning to kick him upstairs to the ceremonial post of Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief and replace him with General Pornchai Kranlert, the assistant Army chief and a key member of the Class 10 circle.
Sonthi left for the deep South yesterday on a trip aimed at strengthening the Army's relations with Muslim leaders. More than 1,300 people have been killed in the region due to insurgent violence since January 2004.
According to a source, Sonthi had discussed the transfers with Lt-General Anuphong Paojinda, the commander of the First Army Area. Although Anuphong is a Class 10 member, he is not considered to be linked politically to the Thaksin camp. He said the Army chief does not want officers with political links to be in key positions.
But Major General Prin Suwanathat, the commander of the First Infantry Division (Royal Guards) in Bangkok and a key Class 10 member, was kept in the dark by Sonthi. In fact, a number of Prin's soldiers under his command were transferred.
Prin found himself in the political spotlight last year after he handed a letter to Sonthi Limthonkul, a leading member of the anti-Thaksin movement, urging the media tycoon to refrain from making reference to the monarchy when attacking Thaksin.
Other key mid-ranking officers transferred under the Monday order include Lt-Colonel Khosit Shinwalan, commander of the Fourth Cavalry Battalion, an armoury unit based in Bangkok. He was transferred to a unit in Saraburi province. Khosit has family links to a Class 10 member.
Lt-Colonel Wejachak Khan-ubol, commander of the First Infantry Battalion, was transferred to a unit in Lop Buri, while Lt-Colonel Anuparp Sirimonthon, commander of the Third Infantry Battalion, was transferred to the South. Both battalions are under the Fist Infantry Division (Royal Guards), under Prin's command.
A group of Class 10 members, led by General Pornchai, had lunch together at the Royal Army Auditorium on Tuesday amid growing anxiety over the political situation. Afterwards, rumours of a military coup swirled around all evening and continued all day yesterday.