His whistle-tooting crowds of supporters are dwindling. His threats against Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra veer from the bold to the bizarre. However, behind Thailand’s fiery anti-government protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, are two powerful retired generals with palace connections, a deep rivalry with the Shinawatra family and an ability to influence Thailand’s coup-prone armed forces.
The forces behind Suthep are led by former defense minister general Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief general Anupong Paochinda, towering figures in Thailand’s military establishment, said two military sources with direct knowledge of the matter and a third with connections to Thai generals.
A glimpse into Suthep’s connections sheds light on how he could prevail in a seemingly unlikely bid to oust a leader who won a 2011 election by a landslide and impose rule by an unelected “People’s Council” of appointed “good people,” even as his street rallies start to flag.
Although retired, Anupong, 64, and Prawit, 67, still wield influence in a powerful and highly politicized military that has played a pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 81 years.
It is unclear how far that influence goes, or how decisive they could be. However, both have close ties to army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. And all three have a history of enmity with Yingluck’s billionaire brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who they helped oust in a 2006 coup.
The military sources said that if Suthep’s protests lead to violence, the two could help sway the military to intervene or even to seize power on the pretext of national security, allowing Suthep to go ahead with his People’s Council, though analysts say such a scenario appears unlikely in the immediate term.
Anupong and Prayuth served with the Queen’s Guard, an elite unit with greater autonomy from the rest of the military, with its allegiance foremost to the monarchy rather than the direct chain of command, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
While most Thais still express steadfast loyalty to 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, his throne is seen as entwined with the political forces that removed Thaksin, especially ultra-nationalists who in the past have worn the king’s color of yellow at protests and now back Suthep.
As his reign gradually draws to a close, long-simmering business, political and military rivalries are rising to the surface, forcing Thailand to choose sides between supporters of the Bangkok establishment or those seeking to upend the “status quo” — a constituency associated with Thaksin.
Prawit and Anupong had expressed readiness to intervene if there was a security crisis, such as a crackdown by police on protesters or clashes between pro and anti-government demonstrators, and if Suthep’s plan for an interim government was constitutional, said the source with military connections.
Army leaders say they are neutral in the crisis. However, Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of the armed forces, will meet on Saturday with Suthep and his allies, who have openly courted violence on Bangkok’s streets in hopes of inducing a military coup or judicial intervention to bring down Yingluck.