Regime mov­ing chess pieces into place

Cab­i­net goes poach­ing for tal­ent as poll nears, write Aekarach Sat­tabu­ruth and Nat­taya Chetchotiros

Bangkok Post - - FRONT PAGE - Son­thaya: Po­lit­i­cal ad­viser It­thiphol: As­sis­tant to min­is­ter

The regime’s po­lit­i­cal in­ten­tions are be­com­ing clearer af­ter it ap­pointed two brothers from the Khun­pleum clan as of­fi­cials in what is seen an at­tempt to round up tal­ent to give it more op­tions in terms of field­ing prime min­is­te­rial can­di­dates in the gen­eral elec­tion ex­pected in Fe­bru­ary.

The cab­i­net yes­ter­day ap­pointed Son­thaya Khun­pleum, for­mer tourism and sports min­is­ter, as an ad­viser on po­lit­i­cal af­fairs to the prime min­is­ter and named his younger brother It­thiphol an as­sis­tant to the new tourism and sports min­is­ter.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers be­lieve the regime is plot­ting to snatch as many vet­eran politi­cians as pos­si­ble ahead of the poll.

The lat­est hires come amid re­ports that Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Somkid Ja­tus­rip­i­tak is form­ing a new party and would sup­port Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as premier should he bid to re­main in pol­i­tics.

The Khun­pleum fam­ily, led led by Som­chai Khun­pleum, also known as Kam­nan Poh, has con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence in the eastern prov­ince of Chon Buri.

Mr Son­thaya, 55, is the leader of the Palang Chon Party and the el­dest son of Kam­nan Poh, and Mr It­thiphol, 45, a for­mer Pat­taya mayor, is the fourth child of Mr Som­chai, who was freed from jail last Dec 14 af­ter he was deemed to have met spe­cial cri­te­ria for an early re­lease.

He was jailed for hir­ing a hit­man to kill a po­lit­i­cal ri­val.

Gen Prayut ad­mit­ted yes­ter­day he needs a well-con­nected po­lit­i­cal vet­eran to help him learn more about pol­i­tics as the coun­try heads to­ward the elec­tion.

“I want to hear what they have to say. I need to have these politi­cians around me for a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of things,” he said.

“But that doesn’t mean they are here for my own per­sonal in­ter­est. We’re head­ing there [elec­tions] and I need peo­ple who can ad­vise me,” he added. “I don’t know how pol­i­tics works, so I should learn.”

Ac­cord­ing to the prime min­is­ter, the ap­point­ments were pro­posed by the tourism min­is­ter and a deputy prime min­is­ter with his ap­proval be­fore the move was tabled for cab­i­net con­sid­er­a­tion.

Gen Prayut said he has no loathing for politi­cians and the ap­point­ments are based on suit­abil­ity.

How­ever, he said he has no idea if Mr Son­thaya would step down as the leader of the Pha­lang Chon Party and urged the pub­lic not to rush their judge­ments.

Asked if t his would re­flect t he face of a fu­ture gov­ern­ment, he said: “What gov­ern­ment?”

A source in the Pheu Thai Party said yes­ter­day the move is an in­di­ca­tion that Gen Prayut does not want to be an “out­sider” prime min­is­ter.

It sug­gests Gen Prayut wants to be on the prime min­is­ter nom­i­nee list and aims to win sup­port from politi­cians, ac­cord­ing to the source.

Mean­while, the Pheu Thai Party is said to be fight­ing back to keep its al­lies and its heavy­weights. Party big­wigs will play a round of golf to­day with Sa­som­sap fam­ily mem­bers, who have in­flu­ence in Nakhon Pathom.

There are about 20 of them in­clud­ing Som­chai Wong­sawat, Chousak Sirinil, and Chaikasem Ni­tisiri. The golf course of their choice is in Nakhon Pathom and is owned by the Sa­som­sap fam­ily.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers be­lieve it is more than a round of golf be­cause the regime is re­port­edly ready to hi­jack the fac­tion from the for­mer rul­ing party. More­over, mem­bers of the Sa­som­sap fam­ily have yet to con­firm their party mem­ber­ship sta­tus.

Act­ing Pheu Thai sec­re­tary-gen­eral Phumtham Wechay­achai yes­ter­day played down the gath­er­ing, say­ing it is lim­ited to just a game of golf and the party mem­bers usu­ally play twice a month. He said they have played on al­most ev­ery golf course in Bangkok.

“They have un­til the end of this month to con­firm their party mem­ber­ship sta­tus. We are adults and we make our own de­ci­sions,” he said. A party source, how­ever, ad­mit­ted the golf round is the party’s at­tempt to show a strong re­la­tion­ship be­tween the party and the fac­tion.

The de­par­ture of the Sa­som­sap fam­ily has had lit­tle or no im­pact on Pheu Thai as it com­mands about 10 seats and the party has re­place­ments, the source said.

The regime’s strat­egy is af­fect­ing the Demo­crat Party, which has parted ways with Sakoltee Phat­tiyakul.

The for­mer Bangkok MP quit last week to be­come a deputy gover­nor for Bangkok amid ru­mours he is be­ing eyed by Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Somkid Ja­tus­rip­i­tak to build up the lat­ter’s po­lit­i­cal base.

Demo­crat Party deputy leader Nipit In­tara­som­bat yes­ter­day de­scribed the strat­egy as “fish­ing in your neigh­bour’s pond”, say­ing it did not come as a sur­prise.

The eas­i­est way to build up a party is to snatch politi­cians from other par­ties, he said.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Nipit, he ex­pects the regime to in­ten­sify its strat­egy as elec­tions draw near and par­ties will have to be pre­pared.

I need to have these politi­cians around me for a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of things.

GEN PRAYUT CHAN-O-CHA PRIME MIN­IS­TER

The po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is ex­pected to heat up af­ter sev­eral key play­ers clar­i­fied their po­si­tions over Thai New Year. As of last week, as many as 98 groups had ap­plied for new party reg­is­tra­tions, 15 of which were en­dorsed.

That aside, at­ten­tion now goes to two in­di­vid­u­als who could shed some light on the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal prospects.

They are for­mer street protest leader Suthep Thaug­suban and Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Somkid Ja­tus­rip­i­tak.

Mr Suthep re­cently an­nounced he would be re­turn­ing to pol­i­tics and pledged sup­port for a party that claims it will pri­ori­tise serv­ing the peo­ple’s needs.

He did not dis­close any fur­ther de­tails or the name of the party.

How­ever, crit­ics have spec­u­lated it could be the Muan Maha Pracha­chon for Re­form Party, which is be­ing reg­is­tered by his younger brother Thani.

Mr Suthep is the head of the Muan Maha Pracha­chon Foun­da­tion, which evolved from the Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Re­form Com­mit­tee (PDRC).

Mean­while, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Somkid an­nounced that he would sup­port Gen Prayut to carry on as prime min­is­ter af­ter the gen­eral elec­tion ex­pected next Fe­bru­ary.

His an­nounce­ment has given more weight to ru­mours that he is form­ing a po­lit­i­cal party to back Gen Prayut.

Mr Somkid has nei­ther ad­mit­ted nor de­nied the spec­u­la­tion. He has just dropped a hint that a new party is be­ing formed to sup­port Gen Prayut.

He told re­porters to seek out In­dus­try Min­is­ter Ut­tama Sa­vanayana and Com­merce Min­is­ter Son­ti­rat Son­ti­ji­ra­wong for de­tails.

The re­marks co­in­cided with me­dia spec­u­la­tion af­ter a po­lit­i­cal group ap­plied to reg­is­ter the Pracharath Party with the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion (EC), with Mr Ut­tama spec­u­lated to serve as its head and Mr Son­ti­rat as sec­re­tary-gen­eral.

In­ter­est­ingly, the moves of Mr Suthep and Mr Somkid emerged while Gen Prayut made it more clear about his in­ter­est in pol­i­tics.

Gen Prayut made com­ments last week in­di­cat­ing he may be con­sid­er­ing the best way to re­sume premier­ship af­ter the elec­tion.

When asked if he would ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion by any party to serve as its prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date on the par­ties’ lists, he said: “I’m not sure yet whether I would say yes. What if they don’t choose me [to be prime min­is­ter]? So I would only ac­cept if [mem­bers of par­lia­ment] agreed to choose me so that I can pur­sue change.”

The Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Or­der (NCPO) has come up with a new strat­egy to clear the po­lit­i­cal path for Gen Prayut to carry on in of­fice as a party’s list can­di­date rather than an “out­sider prime min­is­ter”.

The change likely came af­ter the regime as­sessed that try­ing to keep Gen Prayut in power as “out­sider” premier — mean­ing some­one who is not on the par­ties’ lists of can­di­dates but who is later voted in by par­lia­ment — would be no mean feat.

Gen Prayut was pop­u­lar dur­ing his first two years in of­fice and this could make the regime imag­ine he might try to fol­low in the foot­steps of Gen Prem Tin­su­lanonda, who was once in­vited by an elec­tion-win­ning party to take the po­si­tion of prime min­is­ter.

But the sit­u­a­tion has since changed sub­stan­tially, with Gen Prayut’s pop­u­lar­ity drop­ping while re­sis­tance to the junta is es­ca­lat­ing along with pro-elec­tion move­ments.

Most im­por­tantly, the two largest po­lit­i­cal par­ties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, have firmly an­nounced they would not sup­port an “out­sider prime min­is­ter”, which could di­min­ish his chances.

But if Gen Prayut were to ap­pear on the list of any party from the out­set, the sit­u­a­tion could be quite dif­fer­ent. He would not be branded an “out­sider” any­more, but one of the reg­u­lar play­ers in the po­lit­i­cal game.

With this ap­proach, re­sis­tance could be eased and par­ties may be more com­fort­able sup­port­ing him.

I agree that Gen Prayut should take this ap­proach in­stead of ex­ploit­ing an un­demo­cratic pro­vi­sion in the char­ter to main­tain power. Still, it is not enough as Gen Prayut would be far more than just a player; he would also be a ruler.

In re­cent months, Gen Prayut has em­barked on pro­vin­cial trips to pro­mote his poli­cies.

More­over, his gov­ern­ment will in­ject over 100 bil­lion baht into grass-root com­mu­ni­ties in the sec­ond half of this year through the Thai Niyom Yangyuen pro­gramme.

If Gen Prayut wants to be a player, he must let oth­ers play, too.

WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL

Pup­pet mas­ter Prime Min­is­ter Prayut Chan-ocha talks to the pup­peteers of Hun Luang (grand pup­pet the­atre) at Gov­ern­ment House af­ter be­ing briefed about the Cul­ture Min­istry’s plan to host an event to mark the 236th an­niver­sary of the start of the...

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