Straight-talking general on the rise

Thai General Saprang Kalayanamitr discusses the charges against deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra and bilateral ties between Thailand and Singapore

Straits Times
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

By Nirmal Ghosh

Bangkok --- Investigators have enough evidence to justify filing charges against former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said General Saprang Kalayanamitr.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times on Monday, the fast-rising, straight-talking general who was key to the success of the military coup that ousted Mr Thaksin said it would be up to the courts to decide on the merits of the charges.

He did not give details of the charges.

But while not bothering to hide his disapproval of the ousted premier, he pledged that he would be treated with fairness.

"We believe that the investigation will yield results which will show the Thai people Thaksin's crimes," he said.

On the sensitive subject of relations with Singapore, the general said the larger, historic bilateral relationship was not an issue.

Recent friction, he said, was not Singapore's fault, but Mr Thaksin's.

Gen Saprang told The Straits Times he was in favour of a negotiated solution to the Shin Corp issue.

It has been a key element of Thailand's political crisis since the deal last year in which Mr Thaksin's family sold their controlling stake in the corporation to Singapore's Temasek Holdings.

When the Thai army launched its coup d'etat against the government of Mr Thaksin on Sept 19 last year, Gen Saprang was a central figure.

At the time, he was commander of the Third Army stationed in northern Thailand.

Today, there is a constant buzz around the general, who is assistant army commander and assistant secretary-general of Thailand's powerful Council for National Security.

As chairman of the board of two major corporations -- Telephones of Thailand and Airports of Thailand -- and the most likely successor to the army chief, General Sonthi Boonyarataglin, when the latter retires in October, the 59-year-old general is one of the most powerful men in Thailand.

A firm royalist whose ancestors served King Rama I, his outspokenness has earned him the reputation of someone to be feared.

Earlier this month, in a thinly veiled reference to Mr Thaksin, he told a local daily: "The traitor is slated to be banished to live forever in the jungle because there is no place in society for a deceitful politician.

"Civil servants should know they are dispensing duties on His Majesty's behalf, so they are not supposed to allow themselves to become henchmen for rogue politicians.

"If rogue politicians return to power following the next general election, the three pillars of society -- the nation, the religion and the monarchy -- might crumble due to more attacks."

In person, Gen Saprang does not come across quite as forcefully as he appears on television.

A diminutive man with bright alert eyes, he grinned almost bashfully at the camera during the interview in his cluttered room at the Royal Thai Army's headquarters in central Bangkok.

But he was affable, overruling his aides' strict time limit and extending the conversation by 10 minutes.

Speaking in Thai, he did now and then break into English to better express himself.

But he lived up to his reputation for bluntness, slamming the police for favouring Mr Thaksin and castigating politicians for subverting democracy.

Aristocratic family background

General Saprang Kalayanamitr was born the youngest of nine children in Lampang in July 1948. He comes from a military aristocratic family with Hokkien roots, and which was closely associated with the ruling Chakri dynasty since the reign of King Rama I.

He belongs to the Class 7 batch of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and the 18th Class of the elite Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.

He went on to become a cavalry officer and rose rapidly through the ranks -- in 2005 he was promoted to Third Army region commander.

In the weeks prior to the Sept 19 coup d'etat, Gen Saprang openly criticised then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in remarks to soldiers under his command.

On the night of the coup, the general's troops secured Mr Thaksin's hometown, Chiang Mai.

The same night, he was appointed Assistant Secretary-General of the Council for National Security (CNS) -- a military panel that has the power to appoint or dismiss the prime minister and the Cabinet.

A week later, he was promoted to Assistant Army Commander.

In late December, the Cabinet approved funding for a 14,000-man special operations force under his command.

Later, he was also appointed by the CNS to chair the boards of Airports of Thailand and Telephones of Thailand (TOT), the state-owned telecommunications company.

His first move as chairman of TOT was to hand-pick and appoint three army colonels and economist Vuthiphong Priebjrivat -- a fierce critic of Mr Thaksin -- to the board of directors.

Saprang on threats and issues facing Thailand

On the security threats facing Thailand:

"Terrorism is our biggest worry. Beyond that, we are most concerned about drugs and transnational crime, the influx of illegal foreign workers, the environment and destruction of natural resources, and social disorder.

Also, if political life in the country suffers from instability, then society will get weaker. If society is weak, the country as a whole will suffer great damage."

On the conflict in the south:

"Our main policy for the south is to increase troop strength so we can control the entire area."

On his reputation as a hardliner:

"I am not a politician or a diplomat; I do not like to use the usual diplomatic and political jargon. I speak the truth, with sincerity, to inform society about our problems."

On why he has been put in charge of Airports of Thailand and Telephones of Thailand (TOT):

"It is very simple: The Prime Minister trusts me to be able to clean up the corruption and to reorganise the staff so that they will work efficiently. Politicians have interfered with these two organisations for their own political benefits."

On his vision for TOT:

"I was appointed officially last Friday, and then had the first meeting in order to inform the TOT administration of my intentions -- that I would like to change the TOT into a profit-making and efficient organisation."

On friction with Singapore over the Shin-Temasek deal:

"I think this can be resolved. Thailand and Singapore have a long diplomatic relationship. Misunderstandings between the two countries have come about because of Thaksin's business. The problem can be resolved fairly.

The armed forces of Thailand and Singapore have had close relations for a long time.

This business conflict can be resolved and won't blow up because the cause of the problem is not Singapore, but Thaksin.

There is concern over balancing national security and the IT business. It is the job of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to find agreement through negotiation."

On why lese majeste charges against Mr Thaksin Shinawatra have not been pursued:

"The police corrupted the evidence and made the report which was submitted to the attorney-general so weak that they could not file a lawsuit against Lieutenant-Colonel Thaksin. It was clear the police wanted to help Thaksin.

Since the coup, the police and the attorney-general have confessed to the Council for National Security (CNS) that the police made a weak report in order to help Thaksin so that he would not be charged with lese majeste."

On what would happen if Mr Thaksin were to return to Thailand after the elections:

"First of all, we will not treat him unfairly.

The CNS has set up an investigative committee to look into the evidence in order to be fair to Thaksin and to the people who expect something to be done about corruption and strong-arm politics.

We believe that the investigation will yield results which will show the Thai people Thaksin's crimes.

During Thaksin's time, the justice system failed to work fairly, and civil servants served his corrupt schemes. The independent institutions supported Thaksin's business, so if the military had not come in, the country would have been damaged even more.

At this point, we have enough evidence to file a lawsuit against Thaksin in court. The punishment will be up to the court."

On his comment that the CNS was being "too nice" about proceeding against Mr Thaksin:

"Too nice? I see you must have read everything I said in the papers (laughs).

Yes, I said the CNS had been so nice in the past. The investigations were too slow, but now the situation is better and stronger."

On allegations that the army's phone calls were being tapped:

"Regarding the issue of phone taps, we have informed the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology to enforce the law to prevent phone tapping.

There has been no (investigative) committee as such, but we have expressed our concern to the cellphone company, which received a concession from the government.

The company knows my boss' telephone number.

During the last government, Thaksin used security officials and tools for his personal political benefit. Instead of checking on criminals, he spied on the military.

This is a concern for national security. If the telecommunication business is in private hands, it won't be safe for the country.

We have to have a law on telecommunications in order to secure national security. We believe that in every country, state security comes first; that is not a dictatorial thing."

On whether Thailand is ready for a true democracy: "This is the best question. I will try to explain. In reality, in the past, political parties did not try to generate an understanding of democracy among Thai people, to make people aware of their rights and the role of political participation.

Politicians used the parties to collect votes. So this is a democracy that stems from a flawed election system; if you have money, you can make sure you will be elected. To be candid, this is called vote buying.

The army will be supervising (elections) in the near future. We will not be the judge; what we will do is to monitor (the democratic process)."

On the absence of arrests over arson incidents in the north and north-east blamed on Mr Thaksin's supporters:

"The police are neglecting their job, hoping for Thaksin to return instead of doing their duty.

This is the problem of Thailand's democracy. That is why the problem in the south is dragging on. The civil servants lack awareness of their duty. We need more time to solve this problem."

On the Shin-Temasek deal:

"Thailand and Singapore have a long diplomatic relationship. Misunderstandings between the two countries have come about because of Thaksin's business. The problem can be resolved fairly. The armed forces of Thailand and Singapore have had close relations for a long time. This business conflict can be resolved and won't blow up because the cause of the problem is not Singapore, but Thaksin."