Thursday, 20 January 2011

Top brass not amused by wrong-headed 'patriots'

via CAAI

Published: 20/01/2011 

Army leaders are upset about the attack from the Thai Patriots Network, which has accused the military of doing nothing to help the seven Thais arrested by Cambodian soldiers.

Although Democrat MP Panich Vikitsreth and five others have been granted bail by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the army top brass is grumbling about being branded "toothless" by the network. This ally of the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy has also strongly criticised the army for being too slow to coordinate with its counterpart on the other side of the eastern border.

The focus of the attack has been Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, simply because he is the "big brother" of all the generals. Some reporters fired shots at him in the press, saying he had turned a blind eye to this issue because he had vested interests at the frontier with Cambodia.

Some media and the Network even went as far as pointing the finger at the defence minister as the man who had given Cambodian soldiers the tip to arrest the group, which included PAD leader Veera Somkwamkid. They alleged that Gen Prawit was "involved" in the illegal oil trade, natural gas deals and contraband along the border in Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo. According to them, that area is "the gold mine of the Tigers of the East [Burapha Phayak]", referring to soldiers under the 2nd Infantry Division based in Prachin Buri which also controls the eastern border.

As Gen Prawit rose to power through the Prachin Buri barracks, it is hardly surprising that he should be very angry with Network leader Chaiwat Sinsuwong, who led a campaign attacking him in a bid to help his colleague, Mr Veera. Gen Prawit angrily criticised Mr Chaiwat during talks with close aides and those in the army's inner circle, according to army sources. One source said Gen Prawit was so "furious" that he'd ordered officers in the Judge Advocate General's Department to explore legal avenues against Mr Chaiwat and other attackers, including members of the press who'd joined the chorus of the Network in attacking him.

"I have no vested interests with anybody. I have never done any damage nor received any complaints in my life-long service in the army. These accusations severely damage my reputation," the defence minister said. And his underlined message has been: "I have no border interests with Cambodia."

Gen Prawit is not the only person annoyed with the Network and its allies in the press. Army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, another alma mater of the 2nd Infantry Division, has also sent the same message as Gen Prawit. "Our soldiers are brave. They are not chicken. They are ready to fight. But [Thailand and Cambodia] are neighbours and they should live peacefully. There is no need to quarrel. Just let negotiations settle the border dispute," he said.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who has close ties with military leaders, came out to defend the army, saying Gen Prawit and other leading officers had no business interests at the border. In fact, he added, they had helped the government coordinate with Phnom Penh in the bid to get the detained Thai back home.

Mr Suthep was not exaggerating. Gen Prawit did make several phone calls to Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh after that incident. The defence minister was not alone in trying to help the government. Supreme Commander Gen Songkitti Jaggabatara contacted his Cambodian counterpart, Gen Pol Saroeun and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Cambodian armed forces Gen Chea Dara, who is the right-hand man of Cambodian Premier Hun Sen. But the case is now up to Cambodia's judiciary process and to decisions by the Cambodian strongman.

At least the temporary release of the six Thais on bail has made the army leaders feel a little relieved. The six are not allowed to go leave Cambodia as the court has yet to hand down a verdict.

An army source said the talks between the top brass in Thailand and Cambodia should be given some credit as it had led to the granting of bail by the court. The bail was Gen Teah Banh's promise to the Thai army leaders that Phnom Penh would take a good care of the detained Thais, the source added.

Now only Mr Veera is still locked in Prey Sar prison and the Cambodian government has reason to keep him behind bars longer. "Cambodia is very suspicious about Mr Veera, given his past performance. That's why he faces another charge of threatening national security and espionage," the source said, relaying the gist of the message that was sent to Thai army leaders by Cambodia.

Now the army has to make sure that the case will not blow up into a conflict between the two armies. As part of the plans to foster military ties, Gen Songkitti will lead other senior army officers in a robe-giving and merit-making ceremony at a temple in the Cambodian capital on Jan 24. His delegation will include army Chief-of-Staff Gen Thanasak Patimapakorn, who is widely tipped to become Gen Songkitti's successor when the latter retires this year.

At the border in Kantharalak district of Si Sa Ket, Mr Suthep and Gen Prayuth have ordered soldiers there to keep the frontier calm. Second army chief Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakhon quickly turned that order into action by sending field commanders to meet frequently with their counterparts on the other side of the border and to join in sports recreation activities. Five rangers have been dispatched to talk to Cambodia troops at its base at Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara near the Preah Vihear temple.

"Talks come first [if we have problems]," Lt Gen Thawatchai said of the Thai position. "The only exception is if they [Cambodian soldiers] intentionally intrude on Thai soil and Thai sovereignty," he added.

In summary, the case of the detained Thais has not only caused problems for the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The army, too, has been dragged in and it seems the feud between the top brass and those who attacked them will not be smoothed over that easily.

Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post.

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