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Thailand’s king puts key army units under palace authority

October 1, 2019 GMT

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has ordered some key army units to be put under his direct command in his latest move asserting the authority of the royal palace.

The king’s decree, effective Tuesday, puts two army units closely associated with royal security under the palace’s Royal Security Command, apparently moving them out of the army’s chain of command.

The emergency decree, dated Sept. 30, says the move aims “for efficiency, order, timeliness and the best security” for the royal circle. It was issued under an article of the constitution that says, “For the purpose of maintaining national or public safety or national economic security, or averting public calamity, the King may issue an Emergency Decree which shall have force as an Act,” but did not explain why it was urgently needed.

The 1st Infantry Regiment and the 11th Infantry Regiment are both deemed royal bodyguard units, and are part of the 1st Division of the First Army region, which has played the key role in staging or opposing Thailand’s many coup attempts.

The Royal Security Command reports to the king, and its deputy commander is his wife, Queen Suthida.

Vajiralongkorn came to the throne in 2016 after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades.

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Since then he has assumed greater personal ownership and direction of royal finances, estimated to exceed $40 billion, and had several plots of prime real estate in the capital, Bangkok, revert to the palace’s direct control. He has also asserted more power over the military and the governing body of Buddhist monks.

Vajiralongkorn has proved to be a more activist king than his father, who ruled as a constitutional monarch acting discreetly and at arm’s length from administrative affairs.

The palace and the military, the country’s two most powerful institutions, have had an uneasy alliance for decades.

A 1932 coup overthrew the absolute monarchy in Thailand — then called Siam — and until the late 1950s made the military the country’s most powerful force. By the early 1960s, military dictator Sarit Thanarat saw the benefit of promoting himself as the monarchy’s protector, and the royal family regained much prestige. A pro-democracy uprising in 1973 discredited military rule and put the monarchy in a position of commanding influence, thanks to the clean and hard-working reputation of King Bhumibol and loyalty of royalist army officers.

Bhumibol’s ill health in his later years shook up the balance, and the army flexed its muscle by staging coups in 2006 and 2014. Vajiralongkorn’s succession to the throne after his father’s death came during a period of military rule, but saw him move quickly and strongly to reestablish the primacy of the palace in the partnership.

“This is yet another intervention by the king that secures the army and budget to his person,” Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and veteran Thai studies scholar, said in an email. “His efforts to aggregate power and wealth appear to have been accepted by the current regime, which needs the king’s ongoing support, but does the king (and the regime) risk alienating factions within the military by these actions?”

Factionalism within Thailand’s highly politicized military has contributed in the past to many coup attempts.