Old soldiers never die; they raise 'career' thoroughbreds
The message was unmistakable. It was delivered in a very subtle, but unusually forceful, way. Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been put on notice: he does not "own" the military.
He could try to command it, but he would have to handle soldiers with care. If Thaksin didn't know that before, he will need to now.
Of course, Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda would never admit publicly that his statement to that effect last Friday was directed at Thaksin in particular. Thaksin, however, can ignore it at his own peril.
It has never been General Prem's style to resort to stirring rhetoric. But this time, it's as close as one could expect the former premier and ex-military officer to come to galvanising the present generation of military men into avoiding falling prey to political power-playing.
Soldiers belong to the country and His Majesty the King, not the government, the Privy Council chairman declared in a lecture delivered to about 950 cadets at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA). And, after quoting General Douglas MacArthur's famous line - "Old soldiers never die; they only fade away" - General Prem, an ex-cavalry officer, went on to offer a vivid analogy: "In horseracing, horse owners hire jockeys to ride the horses. The jockeys do not own the horses. They just ride them. A government is like a jockey. It supervises soldiers but the real owners are the country and the King. The government supervises and employs us in compliance with the policy declared to parliament ... What I mean is that we are the country's soldiers. Governments come and go."
Was this a case of an embittered old horse telling the up-and-coming stable of thoroughbreds not to be afraid to turn recalcitrant if undue political pressure is imposed upon them or their ranks?
Less than two weeks earlier, Thaksin used a similar forum - a gathering of senior bureaucrats from around the country - to "galvanise" his own "stable of horses", telling them to resist any attempts to interfere in their work. The caretaker premier's reference to an "extra-constitutional charismatic figure" who was trying to supersede his executive power was of course still fresh in the minds of the cadets as Prem told them he considered them his "flesh and blood".
Thaksin could have wriggled out of the controversy by publicly denying his statement was not a challenge to the Privy Council chairman or any institution higher up. To the contrary, he has been stoking the fire by deliberately dodging reporters' questions on the issue. Without a denial - which would have been seen as a passable "face-saving" gesture - Thaksin has simply confirmed the worst suspicions that he was challenging Prem to a political showdown.
The fact that Thaksin's spokesman went on record to say that the "extra-constitutional charismatic figure" that the acting premier had in mind was a "commoner" only served to make things worse. Now, those faithful to Prem - and they constitute a reasonably large number in the military establishment - have decided that Thaksin has increasingly become a real menace, not only to intellectuals, the middle-class, professionals and academics, but also to career soldiers.
It was probably just a coincidence but Thaksin was obviously flustered by a reporter's question on the very same day about rumours that he was contemplating giving General Sonthi Boonyaratglin a "kick upstairs", in favour of a former classmate of his, in the annual military reshuffle scheduled for October. He did not deny the speculation either. But he did complain the following day in his weekly radio programme that he had been caught off-guard by the question because he had not even thought about the issue. "Not having thought about it …" does not necessarily mean not intending to think about it when the time comes, or so his critics quickly concluded.
It could have been what insiders call a "pre-emptive rumour", but it is no secret that the current Army chief, who assumed the post only last year, has the "professional position" that he is a career soldier serving His Majesty and would not tolerate any undue political pressure from the prime minister.
In other words, he is no Thaksin "yes man" and would resist any attempt to use the military to serve Thaksin's own political ends.
Prem's succinct reminder to cadets last week that soldiers belong to the King and not the government was no ordinary academic exhortation. Having prefaced his statement with the disclaimer that his "comments aren't meant to stir up bad feelings towards the government", the Privy Council president proceeded to, for the first time, put clear distance between himself and Thaksin.
The split, for all practical purposes, now appears irreversible.
Asked by reporters after he had delivered the speech - in which he likened soldiers to horses and governments to jockeys - whether the current jockey was good, Prem simply said: "You in the press can decide for yourselves."
When an old, experienced horse holds back comments on his jockey, you know there is something to watch out for in the race ahead.
As they say in horseracing, "it's a lot like nuts and bolts - if the rider's nuts, the horse bolts".
And that, I'm afraid, is what is happening in the current stormy political landscape. The jockey has simply gone nuts.