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The realm's defender in chief

Picking the right person for the defence portfolio can be a tough call as the choice can be crucial to the country's security and a government's fate, according to observers.

It wasn’t unexpected then that there was a lot of speculation as to who the likely defence minister would be during the few weeks prior to the cabinet appointees being finalised.

The defence minister post is typically taken by the party which leads government formation, in this case Pheu Thai. In this latest cabinet appointment, it was one of those times when it was the rule, not the exception.

In previous administrations, defence ministers were usually former senior military men, preferably one closely aligned with the prime minister or a powerful figure in the government.

A top military man being entrusted with the defence portfolio became almost a tradition. It was also largely a legacy of the militaristic dominance of Thai politics in days gone by.

However, Pheu Thai is billed as a trailblazer when it comes to picking a defence minister. The Yingluck Shinawatra administration, led by Pheu Thai, broke with tradition when Yingluck made the unprecedented move to concurrently hold the premiership and be the country’s first female defence minister.

A fugitive who fled overseas to escape a court conviction in connection with the graft-riddled handling of her administration’s rice-pledging scheme, Yingluck was the fourth civilian to oversee the Defence Ministry, following three former premiers before her — Chuan Leekpai who became defence minister in September 1997, Samak Sundaravej in February 2008 and Somchai Wongsawat in September 2008.

Yingluck was her government’s third defence minister after Gen Yuthasak Sasiprapha and ACM Sukampol Suwannathat.

Except for Mr Chuan, the Democrat Party patriarch, Samak and Mr Somchai retained ties to what is now the Pheu Thai Party.

Samak was succeeded as prime minister by Mr Somchai, and both men headed administrations led by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which was eventually ordered dissolved by the Constitutional Court for electoral fraud before being reborn as Pheu Thai.

Back in government, Pheu Thai had many wondering and betting on who its choice of defence minister would be and whether it would pick a civilian over a military figure.

It was strongly speculated it would either be Sutin Klungsang, Gen Vit Thephasdin Na Ayutthaya or Gen Natthapon Nakpanich.

Mr Sutin is a Pheu Thai deputy leader, while Gen Vit is a former chief strategist of the Palang Pracharath Party led by former deputy premier Gen Prawit Wongsuwon.

Gen Natthapon formerly served as secretary-general of the National Security Council and maintains close links with former prime minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Having been thought of having a shot at the top defence post and with their links to the previous government, both Gen Vit and Gen Natthapon represented power inherited from the Prayut government.

For weeks, rumours and speculation swirled about the list of likely cabinet appointees and intense interest from political watchers was focused on Mr Sutin after his name was put in the frame.

However, for a brief period, Mr Sutin was seen as a possible education minister.

But, he re-emerged as a strong defence minister candidate after a large swathe of Pheu Thai supporters opposed a former army general — who cosied up to the previous, ‘pro-dictator’ government whose military leaders they blame for fatalities in the 2010 crackdown on red-shirt protesters in Bangkok — being picked as defence minister.

A defence minister has a critical part to play, which contributes to the survival of a government, according to Jatuporn Prompan, a former red-shirt leader and co-leader of Kana Lomruam Prachachon (Melting Pot Group).

He said on a political talk programme that the military defence minister during the Yingluck administration had sounded alarm bells about the lurking danger to the administration from Gen Prayut despite his perceived closeness to Yingluck.

Gen Prayut, who was army chief at the time, later declared martial law at the height of the mass protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which was rallying against the Pheu Thai-led administration. Gen Prayut, citing the need to end a political and constitutional impasse, toppled the government in a coup d’etat in May 2014.

The observers said that shortly after Mr Sutin, whose surname means “armoury” in Thai, became defence minister, he visited some of his predecessors whom he respected, starting with ACM Sukampol before paying a courtesy call on Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who was also a former prime minister.

Admitting he was shopping for advice, Mr Sutin has found some extremely tough issues already piling up on his desk, which require urgent decisions. He was pressed, for example, to settle the problem with Germany’s refusal to supply an engine for the submarine commissioned by the navy to be built by China.

Make way for the young guns

The time has come for a new generation to lead a Pheu Thai Party that lost its edge in the May 14 general election and cost it a House majority, according to political observers.

Elected to lead Pheu Thai in October 2021, Dr Cholnan Srikaew stepped down in late August over the party’s decision to break from the eight-party alliance led by the Move Forward Party (MFP) and try to form a coalition government with parties linked to the 2014 coup.

He made a promise during the election campaign that he would quit if Pheu Thai joined hands with the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the previous ruling party. He announced his resignation when coalition formation was finalised with him staying on as an MP.

According to observers, Dr Cholnan’s resignation gives Pheu Thai an opportunity to bring a younger group to the fore to help the party stay politically competitive amid the MFP’s rising popularity and influence across the country.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 37, the youngest daughter of jailed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is expected to take on the leadership role when the ruling party holds a special assembly later this month to elect a new leader to replace Dr Cholnan.

Paetongtarn: Time for her to lead

Ms Paetongtarn was a central figure in the last election and is said to be a strong favourite to lead Pheu Thai. At the party’s 16th anniversary celebrations at its headquarters on Sept 19, she told reporters that while the executive board had yet to decide who would be the new leader, she would try her hardest if she was selected.

Ms Paetongtarn, who was one of Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidates, holds no executive post in the party. Her position as head of the Pheu Thai Family gave her a significant role to play in the lead-up to the election and protected her political career from being cut short in case Pheu Thai ran into legal trouble.

It is widely believed that the only thing keeping Ms Paetongtarn from leading the party is that Pheu Thai faces a number of threats, which may lead to its dissolution. If Pheu Thai is disbanded, Ms Paetongtarn will receive a ban from politics, which could kill her political career.

Looking back in history, such fears are not unfounded, according to observers.

The Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved in 2007, and its 111 executives banned from politics for five years. Not long after, its reincarnation, the People’s Power Party (PPP) was disbanded, also over electoral fraud, and all 109 of its executive members were also stripped of their political rights for five years.

Now that Pheu Thai, which rose from the ashes of the PPP, has returned as the ruling party, several analysts say it should no longer fear being disbanded during the next four years of its term.

According to Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University, Pheu Thai is deemed the only political outfit that can prevent the MFP widening its support base across the country.

This is needed by the conservative camp, regardless of how the Pheu Thai-led government performs, he said.

He is convinced that Pheu Thai has “immunity” against a party dissolution and the coalition government may be on its way to completing its four-year term. However, whether or not the ruling party can maintain or shore up its popularity is another story, he noted.

The analyst believes that Pheu Thai favours Ms Paetongtarn taking the reins and that she will accept the party leadership, although the post is not as significant as it is in other parties.

In his view, no matter who becomes party leader, they must have the blessing of Thaksin, who commands wide respect among the party’s rank and file.

It would be no surprise if the post is eventually given to Ms Paetongtarn, the person he trusts the most.

“Pheu Thai isn’t a political institution where members have a say over who should lead them. The party comes across as being closely tied to Thaksin and as party leader Ms Paetongtarn will connect the party with its de facto leader,” he said.

Ms Paetongtarn holds no cabinet post in the Pheu Thai-led government, but she was selected as the vice chairwoman of the national soft power strategy committee, chaired by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

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