Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha presiding over a mass pledge of allegiance to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a ceremony at Government House in Bangkok. Photo: AFP/ Thai Royal Bureau
Photo: AFP/ Thai Royal Bureau

When a bomb ripped through a Bangkok military hospital in late May, political observers immediately foresaw the potential for Thailand’s ruling military junta to leverage the blast to further delay elections scheduled for next year for reasons of national security.

The capture last week of a 62-year-old ex-civil servant suspect with alleged links to coup-ousted ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra’s “Red Shirt” pressure group underscored the notion that political instability and disenchantment are on the rise three years after the military suspended democracy and seized power in a May 2014 coup.

While Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has insisted his regime’s road map to democracy is still on course, any follow-up blast could give his junta ample justification to backtrack, particularly if a next target had royal significance at a time the nation continues to officially mourn last October’s passing of widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

A previous small bomb was detonated near the site of Bhumibol’s funeral preparations near the capital’s Grand Palace complex, an extraordinary hit considering the tight military security around the area. The hospital blast targeted a room named after defense minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, who had checked in to the medical facility for a heart procedure, but was moved to a private hospital prior to the explosion, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Thai forensic experts carry evidence as they leave the site of a bomb blast at the Phramongkutklao Hospital, in Bangkok. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

One government insider claims the apprehended suspect’s next planned target was Siriraj hospital, where Bhumibol spent his last years of ill-health and the now ailing Queen Sirikit is currently in residence. Outside of royal palaces, Siriraj hospital, established by Bhumibol’s Harvard-educated father, is one of the country’s most prominent royal locales.

Red Shirt leaders have said the captured suspect is not one of their rank and file and disavowed any responsibility for the attack. Diplomats and analysts say the Red Shirt group and its affiliated Peua Thai party, both openly opposed to military rule, would have little to gain from a bombing spree in the run up to 2018 polls most believe the party will handily win.

Polling conducted by the Internal Security and Operations Command (ISOC), a military unit under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, has shown repeatedly since the coup, as well as in recent months, that Peua Thai would win any free and fair vote, according to a source familiar with the confidential surveys.

Peua Thai stalwarts have vowed in private to challenge the military’s political power and overhaul its constitution if returned to power at the polls.

While Prayuth is constitutionally bound to hold the elections, which have been repeatedly pushed back since his takeover, the premier appears to be testing the political waters for yet another delay.

On June 9, Prayuth asked Thais during his weekly national TV address to send replies to four questions that all cast doubt on the desirability of holding the polls.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (right) and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, January 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

There are conflicting perceptions of the underlying popularity of Prayuth’s unelected strongman regime. His proponents interpreted last August’s resounding passage by referendum of a new charter that guarantees an overarching political role for the military in an appointed Senate as evidence of Prayuth’s and his junta’s grass-roots appeal.

His detractors note the vote was held under severe restrictions on free expression, including a ban on any vote “no” campaigns, they argue rigged the poll in favor of the military.

Restrictions on political speech, especially for the influential broadcast media, have made it nearly impossible to get an accurate read on popular sentiment since the coup.

The referendum also allowed for an unelected premier, which the military-appointed Senate’s presumed cohesive bloc will likely have strong sway over after the next poll. Until recently, analysts presumed Prayuth was the mostly likely candidate to become appointed premier over an elected “unity” government the military would check and control from above.

Perceptions of Prayuth’s political destiny, however, started to turn with last year’s royal succession and what some sense as a shift in intra-military dynamics that has eroded the domination of Prayuth’s and Prawit’s Queen’s Guard elite unit, and elevated the prospects of current army commander General Chalermchai Sitthisart, a Special Forces soldier with inscrutable loyalties and leanings.

A television screen shows new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun speaking after accepting an invitation from Thailand’s parliament to succeed his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

New King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun has strongly reaffirmed the monarchy’s power and influence over the military, seen in the recent absorption of First Region Army Command combat battalions into the monarch’s increasingly powerful personal 904 bodyguard unit and frequent one-on-one audiences with Prayuth and Chalermchai.

Vajiralongkorn is believed by diplomats to have cultivated particularly strong ties with Chalermchai and First Region army commander General Apirat Kongsompong, a King’s Guard soldier now tipped as a likely future army commander. Chalermchai, coincidently, is now widely seen as a possible alternative to Prayuth to become premier.

On February 1, in a little noticed move announced in the Government Gazette, Chalermchai was given the power as the junta’s secretary general to mobilize military troops, equipment and munitions. Since the 2014 coup, that authority had rested exclusively with Prayuth as the junta’s nominal head. It’s unclear from the oddly worded order if Prayuth still has that power.

Some analysts wonder if another big bomb attack, particularly one staged near a symbol of royal prestige, would be enough for Chalermchai and Apirat to consider staging a counter-coup in the name of stability. They note the top soldiers often flank premier Prayuth during his public appearances, including at a recent visit to a water-pumping station in Bangkok.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (left) sits near Army Chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart during a visit to a flooded area in the ancient tourist city of Ayutthaya in 2016. Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Those perceived tensions are likely to intensify in the lead up to October’s military reshuffle, an annual event where major promotions are decided. With Prayuth’s and Prawit’s Queen’s Guard faction on the back foot with last year’s surprise elevation of Chalermchai and Apirat’s rival cliques, how top positions are allocated and who ultimately decides them at this year’s rotation will be key to stability.

With rising factionalism in the armed forces, a still incomplete royal succession – with Bhumibol’s funeral in October and Vajiralongkorn’s formal coronation ceremony likely later in the year – and new worries about the state of 84-year-old Queen Sirikit’s health, Prayuth has multiple motivations to push back polls and reaffirm his iron-clad grip on power.

Royal family members, including Vajiralongkorn, recently came together when Queen Sirikit was urgently moved from Siriraj to another medical facility due to a health scare. Many anticipate Prayuth’s junta, led by troops who rose to prominence on their loyalty to Sirikit, would announce and impose another extended period of national mourning that puts politics in abeyance upon her eventual death.

In his questions to the Thai public, Prayuth asked if the people think new elections will install politicians who promote “good governance,” if “bad” politicians should be allowed political comebacks, and if there is conflict on the streets again, who should solve it and by what means?

It’s crystal clear where Prayuth, now firmly entrenched in power as a guardian of stability, comes down on each of those democratic musings.

While Prayuth’s once near-absolute grip has certainly started to slip with new challenges from within the military and a more assertive monarchy, it’s not clear the solider-cum-premier is ready to yield power any time soon to the same politicians and anti-junta activists he believes caused the various problems his military government has aimed and claimed to solve.

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