BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s military is conducting a systematic reshuffle to blunt the power of officials seen as loyal to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in what seems to be an effort to dismantle his support base and ensure he can never return to power.
Governors in 13 provinces have been transferred, mostly from the country’s pro-Thaksin north and northeast, according to the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
The junta is also restructuring the police, long seen as a bastion of support for Thaksin and his sister, ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Thaksin was a police officer for 13 years before resigning to start his own business.
Thaksin himself was ousted from the premiership in a coup in 2006, and the constitution was re-written under a military-backed government in an effort to limit his political influence. But Thaksin’s sister came to power just a few years later, in 2011, after winning a general election.
This time the military seems intent on ensuring neither he nor his family can return.
“They will finish what they started in 2006. They will make it difficult for Thaksin loyalists to make a comeback,” said Kan Yuenyong, a political analyst at Siam Intelligence Unit.
The military has detained people from both sides of the political divide, but a disproportionate number are Thaksin’s red-shirt supporters. It has closed down radio stations of his supporters and frozen the bank accounts of some.
It has secured a $1.5 billion loan to make payments to rice farmers, seeking to reach out to Thaksin’s rural power base.
At least 17 top police have been transferred over the past week, according to NCPO documents seen by Reuters. The purge includes top officers of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Thailand’s equivalent of the U.S. FBI, including DSI chief Tarit Pengdith.
Tarit declined to be interviewed for this article.
Spokesmen for both the police and military denied to Reuters that a political purge was under way.
“These appointments are not political. They are based on appropriateness,” deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said.
But senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, paint a different picture.
“There is a systematic purge to ensure that those in key positions will cooperate with the military,” a senior Bangkok police official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
“That means removing those perceived to be Thaksin allies.”
The NCPO is planning a review aimed at depoliticising the police force and increasing the autonomy of provincial commands, according to several police officials.
The police force is under the command of the prime minister’s office. Critics accuse the ousted Yingluck of stacking the police with loyalists, including appointing Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Priewpan Damapong, as chief, following her 2011 election win.
He stepped down in 2012 and was replaced by Adul Saensingkaew who was sidelined after the coup through a transfer to a post at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Acting national police chief Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit said that the force would be restructured to “make it free from political intervention” but gave no concrete details as to how this would be done.
Restructuring the police force and ridding it of a “bribes for jobs” culture was a key demand of six months of street protests, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, that helped trigger Yingluck’s ouster.
Thaksin started his career as a police officer in 1973 before building a telecommunications empire and he built up the force during his time as prime minister.
The demonstrators vilified the police as Thaksin’s lackeys and the military appears to have acceded to the protesters’ wishes, moving swiftly after the May 22 coup in places such as the northern province of Chiang Mai, the home of the Shinawatra clan, where at least four senior officials were reshuffled.
Among the first to go was General Krit Krittileuu, the provincial police commander.
Lieutenant General Preecha Chan-ocha, a younger brother of military chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, ordered Krit to be transferred because of evidence he helped Thaksin’s son, Pantongtae Shinawatra, evade a military summons according to a signed letter seen by Reuters dated three days after the coup.
Chiang Mai’s governor, Wichien Puttiwinyu, was also among those removed.
“I am not aware what the previous governor did to be moved ... but it’s better to find a brand new person,” the new governor, Suriya Prasatbuntitya, told Reuters as uniformed provincial staff moved heavy wooden furniture into his new office.
“The fact that we are not siding with anyone means that I can coordinate with every side.”
Analysts say a reshuffle of top officials is a prelude to broader changes aimed at expelling Thaksin from political life - long a desired goal of Thailand’s royalist establishment of the Bangkok middle class, senior generals and old business families.
“The elite have designs to limit Thaksin’s influence, for example, by adding clauses in a new constitution to limit the number of elected senators, most of whom are Thaksin allies,” said Yuenyong.
Just how long the military council can keep Thaksin loyalists out remains to be seen. Senior police officials Reuters spoke to say the military’s reshuffle can always be reversed.
“If a Thaksin party wins the next election again then his guys will be waiting to take up key positions again,” said the senior Bangkok police official.
“In Thailand gratitude lasts a lifetime,” another police official told Reuters. “He is an older brother in the police force and always will be.”
Additional reporting by Aubrey Belford and Pairat Temphairojana in Chiang Mai; Editing by Rob Birsel and Raju Gopalakrishnan