Thai army 'needs martial law to shield itself'

The military is expected to have increased political roles in this new year although there is a unity problem among top commanders in the Army, according to sources familiar with the armed forces.

Observers say martial law - imposed shortly before the coup in May - is likely to be retained for a long time, to help ensure that the military will have the power to deal with unexpected problems when they arise.

"There are uncertainties in the Army. The decision-making is done from many sources of power in the Army. So it is inevitable for martial law to be retained. The military needs some tool to deal with problems that may happen in the future," said one source, a high-ranking officer in the armed forces.

Wanwichit Boonprong, an expert in security affairs from Rangsit University, said the military would continue to consolidate its power this year, and martial law would serve as its "fangs and claws".

He said arrangements had been made after the coup to increase the military's power. These included the junta's orders to expand the martial court's authority to try cases involving lese majeste and war-grade weapons, as well as the upgrade of military districts into military circles to allow increased roles in civilian affairs.

Wanwichit, who lectures at Rangsit University's College of Public Administration and Political Science, said he expected many military commanders, as well as senior bureaucrats, to become senators as a new constitution is likely to require that members of the upper house are appointed, instead of elected.

He said a situation like this is similar to the one ahead of the Black May incident in 1992, when the military dominated politics and served as mediator between the elite and a new power clique.

"The military should be able to control the [political arena] in 2015. They will continue to get cooperation from many sectors," the academic said.

For him, a key weakness in the junta is the fact that all the problems will push towards General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as head of the government and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

"The problem is that the focus is too much on the prime minister, particularly the issues that affect security. The prime minister's mood changes quite easily and this makes it easy for him to be the target of criticism," Wanwichit said. "Without relegation of power to other people, particularly over security matters, there will be negative consequences on the government and the Army."

The academic added that Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr, who also serves as deputy defence minister in Prayut's government, needed to be given more responsibility on security matters.

The military source, who requested anonymity, said the current Army might seem to be united but in fact potential conflict is brewing under the surface. This is because the Army is now controlled by three different and powerful figures.

The first person is Prayut, who was the previous Army chief and now serves as prime minister and leader of the NCPO. The second is General Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister and defence minister who commands Prayut's respect as his former boss and senior at the military academy. The third figure is Udomdej, the current Army chief.

Unlike his predecessors, Udomdej also serves in the government as deputy defence minister, and therefore is obliged to follow orders from the prime minister and the defence minister, who are his former boss in the Army and his ex-senior in the military school respectively.

The sources warned that conflict could stem from a contest to become the next Army chief between two leading candidates - Prayut's brother General Preecha Chan-o-cha and General Teerachai Nakwanich - who are both assistant Army commanders-in-chief. Teerachai is Udomdej's former classmate from the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School.

Preecha is from Class 15 while Teerachai is from Class 14.

The Army source said the Army chief would feel uneasy having to choose between his former classmate and the brother of his boss to become his successor.

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