Thailand's Latest Cabinet Reshuffle: 3 Initial Observations

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 1, 2013 Cabinet reshuffles are a regular occurrence in politics and more often than not happen when the government is in need of a last-ditch turnaround. In Thailand, these kind of shake-ups come even more often than usual as various factions in the ruling party and also the coalition partners have to be kept happy to suppress any potential grumblings.

On Sunday, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed the changes to what is now the fifth Cabinet of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at nearly the halfway point of her tenure ever since she took over office in 2011. Currently, the government is under alot of fire:

Critics said the reshuffle was necessary because the popularity of the government and the ruling Pheu Thai party has plunged due to recent developments, including enormous losses from the rice-pledging scheme, a delay in an $11 billion water management megaproject and an unpredicted loss for the first time in 37 years of a parliamentary seat in a key Bangkok constituency.

"Thai government announces new Cabinet reshuffle", Associated Press, June 30, 2013

With the new line-up in place, here are three initial observations on the latest Cabinet reshuffle and what the implications are:

1. Yingluck's call of double duty as PM and defense minister

One of the most eye-catching changes involves the prime minister herself, as Yingluck Shinawatra will now act as defense minister as well. This has been a subject of speculation in past reshuffles, most recently last year (it obviously didn't happen).

The motives for her to take up the defense portfolio are the same and obvious: an attempt to counter-balance Thailand's powerful military. While the government and the armed forces have an uneasy relationship, the ties have been so far fairly stable since both camps are mostly keeping out of each other's affairs.

However, when it comes to the annual reshuffle of military officers the armed forces always had the upper hand, not least because of the Defence Ministry Administration Act, which was installed after the military coup of 2006 and allowed for a so-called Defence Committee to oversee the reshuffles. This panel consists of the defense minister, the deputy defense minister, the permanent secretary for defense, the supreme commander and the three armed forces chiefs - army, air force and navy.

This committee has always been dominated by military representatives, but the latest reshuffle moves to shift the balance of power. Crucially, the vacancy of the deputy defense minister is now filled by General Yuthasak Sasiprapha, the defense minister of Yingluck's first Cabinet until early 2012. With that spot filled, a new permanent secretary of defense endorsed last year and Yingluck herself now the new defense minister, politicians now have much greater representation on the committee and would 'only' need to win over a weak link among the military side in order to have the upper hand.

Whether or not this will actually play out has yet to be seen, as well as how the army will react to this strategic move.

2. Chalerm's 'bitter demotion' from deputy PM to labor minister

The highest-profile casualty of this reshuffle has to be the transfer of Chalerm Yubamrung from deputy prime minister overseeing national security matters to labor minister. Chalerm was charged with dealing with the ongoing deadly insurgency in the southern provinces. His attempts at dealing with the problem seemed half-hearted, considering he set up a command center in the capital Bangkok of all places and has personally visited the troubled region only once.

In his place is now former Justice Minister Pracha Promnok. True to form, Chalerm himself wasn't shy about voicing his displeasure:

[Last Friday] Mr Chalerm accused Pol Col Thawee [secretary-general of Southern the Border Provinces Administration Centre] of stabbing him in the back by reporting to Thaksin and Ms Yingluck about his involvement in illegal casinos - an accusation which he denies vehemently. (...)

"I curse everybody who made malicious accusations against me, that they face disaster for the next seven generations. (...) I am not afraid to be axed [from the cabinet] and I am willing to become an ordinary MP." (...)

He even turned his vehemence on Prime Minister Yingluck, saying that for the past two years she had remained aloof of all pressing problems, resulting in the political situation reaching a critical point.

"Chalerm unleashes his fury at cabinet snub", Bangkok Post, July 1, 2013

Even for a veteran politician known for his hotheaded outspokenness (also against his own ranks), this verbal 'friendly' fire was unprecedented. The Thai media was quick to highlight his "bitterness", considering his attempts to single-handedly work on a return for former deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

3. Chaturon Chaiseng's return to the fold: revenge of the Thaksin veterans?

Chaturon Chaisang is a minister from the Thaksin administration and one of the 111 politicians banned after their Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved in 2007. With the ban expiring last year, many of them are slowly coming back to the political fray, some of them also to the Cabinet: the aforementioned Chalerm, Thaksin's former PM Office Minister and spin doctor Suranand Vejjajiva came in last year to do the same for Yingluck; former Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana could be one for the upcoming parliamentary fights over constitutional amendments as the new deputy PM; and Chaturon takes over as education minister. However, this is further ammo for the fiercest anti-government critics who will accuse PM Yingluck yet again of being solely her brother's puppet.

Other observations

In the light of the recent revelation of the true fallout of the government's populist and disastrous rice-pledging scheme and the poor handling of the Commerce Ministry, the axing of its minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was almost expected, while sparing his deputy and prolific red shirt leader Nattawut Saikua, who has recently raised some eyebrows for a promotional music video that was quickly removed again. And despite his antics last month, Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi has apparently kept his job as well.