Thailand: Amid coup buzz, Thai army chief heads to Pentagon

BANGKOK, Thailand — When Thai political crises heat up, it begins: a nationwide game of hushed speculation revolving around one question. Will the military stage yet another coup?

For now, the man with the answers is on the opposite side of the world.

Gen. Anupong Paojinda, head of the Royal Thai Army, is visiting the Pentagon from Feb. 5-12. The Thai general’s trip, U.S. diplomats said, was scheduled months ago at the request of U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey.

But the general is absent at an uneasy time in Thailand, where coup buzz is currently on high. By visiting U.S. top brass, his trip has also inadvertently yanked America into Thailand’s latest political drama.

Anupong is reviled by a Thai anti-establishment faction — known as the “red shirts” — that was galvanized by Thailand’s most recent coup. That 2006 putsch ousted then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a folk hero among the urban poor, a new-money business class and millions of Thais in northeastern farming country.

Ever since this faction announced a late February “final battle” to topple the ruling government — coupled with threats to surround barracks and government offices — the Thai media has openly speculated that a military coup may be nigh. A number of Thailand’s past 18 coups were preceded by street unrest that turned chaotic, convincing generals to roll tanks and restore order.

Anupong’s detractors are now asking the Obama administration to confront the general’s role in Thailand’s 2006 coup. As commander of an army division overseeing Bangkok, the general ordered tanks into the capital’s streets. The coup was not universally condemned; some middle-class Thais, fed up with Thaksin’s alleged corruption, greeted soldiers with roses and ribbons.

In their letter to Obama, the red shirts insisted Anupong’s role as a “coup co-conspirator” should disqualify the general from Pentagon visits. The trip, they claim, “does not sit well with millions of Thais who view it as a step backward” for democracy.

“It’s a bit of an embarrassment for the U.S.,” said red shirt spokesman Sean Boonpracong. “If this coup happens, it will be under Anupong’s watch.”

The U.S. embassy said Anupong’s trip is a routine check-in with the Pentagon, which counts Thailand as one of its oldest and strongest Asian military allies. There was no immediate diplomatic response to the red shirts’ letter.

“We accepted the letter,” said Cynthia Brown, spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. “We support democratic principles and freedom of speech, so we routinely talk to all sorts of individuals and organizations.”

This red shirt “stunt” is unlikely to harm the U.S.-Thai military alliance, said Federico Ferrara, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore and author of "Thailand Unhinged: Unraveling the Myth of a Thai-Style Democracy."

“Other than a few perfunctory statements about ‘preserving’ or ‘swiftly re-establishing’ democracy,” Ferrara said, “the U.S. has never imposed any kind of consequence on conservative coups launched in Thailand since the 1950s.”

Attempting to put the Thai army chief on the wrong side of American-style principles, he said, is actually part of a larger red shirt campaign to fracture the military.

In advance of a potential coup, Thailand’s opposition is aggressively courting the army’s rank-and-file. Red shirt leaders have asked soldiers to respond to coup orders by putting down their rifles, donning red scarves and joining protesters in the streets.

Several mid-tier generals and their subordinates are openly contemptuous of army leaders who mounted the coup three years ago.

The most intense rhetoric has come from Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, a self-described “warrior” who mocks top brass generals as golfers and maintains his own personal militia. He was recently charged with possessing “war weapons” and linked to a late-night M-79 grenade explosion near Anupong’s quarters at army headquarters. (Khattiya has denied involvement.)

The red shirts, Ferrara said, are nurturing this internal military schism “in hopes of either involving parts of the military in their revolutionary struggle or at least undermining the military’s ability to repress it.”

In the lead up to Anupong’s departure, his immediate subordinates have staged pro-Anupong pep rallies to build morale and remind politically subversive soldiers to behave during their leader’s trip to Washington.

Anupong himself has sworn that no coup will take place during his U.S. trip. This promise may be tested on Feb. 26, when judges decide whether to seize $2.3 billion of Thaksin’s assets and red shirts ratchet up the “final battle” by encircling the court house and staging raucous street protests.