New army leader is understood to have been handpicked by the King and comes from a modest, non-elite background. General Narongphan Jitkaewtae is known for his reserved nature and loyalty to the army and monarchy. He will serve a three-year term from Thursday, October 1st.
Thailand will have a new army chief on Thursday who will take the helm at a time of increasing political tensions within the kingdom and a growing lack of faith in politics. A survey conducted by a leading Thai media firm, in mid-September, found 58% of the public thought an imminent coup d’etat was likely in Thailand.
On Thursday, October 1st, the Thai army will have a new Commander in Chief. General Narongphan Jitkaewtae on Tuesday joined outgoing army leader General Apirat Kongsompong at a troop parade in Bangkok where the commanders paid their respects to King Chulalongkorn or Rama V at the Royal Thai Army Museum.
The choice of the new army leader, known to be quiet but loyal, is noteworthy in that he was not, reportedly, the first choice of the government and Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
Handpicked by the monarch for the role
It is being reported that the new army leader was handpicked by the Thai monarch for his loyalty to the palace. The appointment underscores the strong control that King Maha Vajiralongkorn or Rama X has over military matters since assuming the throne in 2016.
The military plays a crucial role in maintaining stability in Thailand which has led to the country’s chronic history of coup d’etats. These are usually precipitated by a dysfunctional political situation or impasse which has led to local unrest.
Fears of an army coup driven by radical student-led protests spooked the Thai public in September
In mid-September, a survey among the Thai public undertaken by leading media group Matchicon suggested that 58% of people believed that a coup may occur at this time as a result of increasing tension driven by student-led protests.
The outgoing army leader, General Apirat, had, since last year, been highly critical of student leaders fermenting unrest in the kingdom.
Recently at an army event, he addressed a cadet and said: ‘Covid can be cured, but hating the nation is a disease that has no remedy.’
However, the outgoing army chief, at the beginning of September, also attempted to soothe concerns when he assured the public that another army coup was something that would not happen.
‘Don’t worry. it will never happen again,’ he replied when asked by reporters.
General Apirat has already been promoted by the monarch and will assume a new role as deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Royal Household.
The new army leader, General Narongphan, has been appointed to the role for a three-year term.
New army chief pledges to maintain the unity of the country and the monarchy as army leader
At Tuesday’s ceremony, the incoming army chief pledged his support for General Apirat’s policies and to work towards the unity of the country and the monarchy.
The current government, although elected last year under the 2017 constitution, is still led by General Prayut Chan ocha, a former army chief who led the 2014 coup.
The leader of the main ruling political party, Palang Pracharat, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, is also a former army boss as is General Anupong Paochinda, the powerful Minister of the Interior since the coup in 2014.
The three former army leaders are known in Thailand as the band of brothers. They are decidedly the most influential force in the government even since last year’s election and the advent of a democratically elected administration.
Military in Thailand seen as guardians of the country’s conservative tradition as well as being a fighting force for the defence of the kingdom
The new army leader will lead a powerful organisation at the heart of Thailand’s society which sees its role as not just a military force but as a guardian of the country’s conservative tradition at the centre of which is the Thai monarchy.
Last year, General Apirat gave a defining speech in Bangkok in which he attacked leftwing politics and doctrines within Thailand’s universities which he described as ‘communistic’.
His view is not exceptional among Thailand’s officer class according to Kan Yuenyong who is Executive Director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a research and public policy organisation. Speaking to Nikkei Asia some weeks ago he said this: ‘The army still has a Cold War structure and so is its mindset.’
New army chief is well-liked
In the meantime, according to army sources, the new leader is well-liked and respected by the rank and file. He is distinguished by his lack of an elite background.
‘He has a commoner’s background and was not the son of an elite military family like Apirat,’ said one source, an officer within Thailand’s military intelligence.
Already on his desk is reform of the army following the massacre of 30 people by a rogue soldier in Nakhon Ratchasima in February that stunned the nation.
The army is cracking down on soldiers who have access to multiple high calibre weapons as part of its reform including more stringent security at military installations.
Mid-October protest and General Strike call may herald a testing time for the country ahead
However, a more immediate and defining test for General Narongphan may come in mid-October if what students have now promised as a protracted protest and General Strike, gets out of hand and gains traction.
A decision by Thailand’s lawmakers to sideline charter reform last week has raised the stakes.
This saw the SET impacted on Tuesday by investor concerns. It has also seen economic commentators expressing reservations that continued bouts of political unrest, driven by protest disturbances on the ground, may be the last thing that Thailand needs right now.
A NIDA or National Institute of Development Administration poll on Sunday showed that the majority of the Thai public has lost faith in politics with the Prime Minister, General Prayut, only managing to muster a paltry 18.5% approval rating.