Mon, Sep 03, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Thai generals battling among themselves for top junta post

AFP , BANGKOK

An intense power struggle has broken out among the top ranks of Thailand's military over who should succeed the nation's junta leader, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, when he retires at the end of this month.

The new army chief will lead the junta as the nation heads into general elections on Dec. 23, which are supposed to restore democracy after the ouster of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Whoever fills the job will have an enormous impact on whether the kingdom sticks to its rocky road back toward democracy or risks suffering through another coup in the future, analysts say.

Senior Thai army officials are routinely pushed into retirement once they turn 60, as Sonthi did last year.

Sonthi's acceptance of retirement is seen by many analysts as a prelude to his launching a political career that could lead to him seeking the prime minister's job himself.

Normally the next most senior commander would become army chief, and the decision would be confirmed by mid-August, before the annual military reshuffle is formally announced on Oct. 1.

But there's nothing routine about this decision, in which the military, the army-backed government and the palace are locked in an intense closed-door debate over which of three top generals should succeed Sonthi.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, as well as the top royal adviser, General Prem Tinsulanonda, are both former army chiefs themselves. No civilian leader has a say in the decision.

The debate has been so fierce that the stock market was last month rattled by rumors of a new coup, and the defense minister had to publicly deny any rift among the top brass.

Theoretically, the next man in line for the job is General Saprang Kalananamitra, 59, an outspoken critic of Thaksin and a military hardliner who had publicly warned that he would stage another coup if a new political crisis breaks out after the elections.

"If General Sonthi and General Prem insist on Saprang, it means they insist on a hardline to keep Thaksin out. He's a very clear choice for the more right-wing approach," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University.

Sonthi's personal choice appears to be his protege and confidante, General Montree Sungkasap, 58, the army chief of staff.

The criticism against him is that he had no direct role in the coup against Thaksin and he is not a current member of the junta.

The compromise candidate could be General Anupong Paojinda, 57, who is currently assistant army chief.

He was a key player in the coup, mobilizing forces during the takeover.

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