Top: Gen. Airbull Suttiwan during the official handover ceremony on Sept. 30, 2020.
BANGKOK — Just this time last year, Airbull Suttiwan was an air force officer working in a relatively junior position as an “expert.” He did not command any force. He was certainly not part of the “Five Tigers” – a clique of elite pilots eligible to take the top job in the air force.
But on Oct. 1, Airbull succeeded Manaat Wongwat as the new commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Air Force, to the surprise of seniors in the force and outsiders alike. The 59-year-old was said to be handpicked by Manaat himself, who denied any “external influence” in the curious decision that reportedly left the air force seething with anger.
“There’s no order, don’t buy the rumors,” Maanat told reporters during the official handover ceremony held last Wednesday. “There’s no politics involved. I considered it myself.”
His explanation did little to satisfy the skeptics. Per tradition, air force chiefs are usually picked from the small pool of deputies and assistants to the incumbent commanders, a group known as the Five Tigers.
Although the tradition isn’t always followed – and Airbull wasn’t the first person to be promoted to the top position without belonging to the Five Tigers – his career record in the air force is still a matter of much discussion.
Unlike previous air force chiefs, Airbull was never assigned to a combat squadron – a job that’s supposed to provide the candidates with an understanding of air supremacy and how to defend Thailand’s air space. Airbull spent most of his time as a pilot with the C-130 transport aircraft. By comparison, Manaat was a F-5 fighter pilot.
In an apparent attempt to discourage questions from the public, Gen. Manaat insisted that his successor excelled in his evaluation, which was based on “six characteristics, 10 quotients” criteria reportedly invented by the air force founder, Prince Chakrabongse.
Full details of the examination isn’t open to the public, but it is said to evaluate qualities of a “good commander” such as the loyalty to the monarch, moral standards, emotional quotient, and creativity. Maanat said Airbull achieved the top score, surpassing other commanding officers in the list of candidates.
Air force spokesman Pongsak Semachai refused to comment about his new commander or the selection process itself.
“I can’t talk about that. It’s beyond my position” Gen. Pongsak said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t know about the scoring system. I believe you can look it up on the internet.”
A military beat reporter who asked not to be named said the unexpected appointment of Airbull as the new air force marshal has sparked an internal rift between the senior officers.
There’s even a rumor that some officers phoned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who serves as the defense minister, and begged him to intervene in the reshuffle, without success. Another rumor discussed a topic beyond what Khaosod English can publish.
“Everyone knows why Airbull is selected, but they can’t just talk about it,” the reporter said. “You can try asking the officers around, but no one wouldn’t dare to talk about it.”
The reporter added, “He’s certainly the dark horse in the race and some officers felt disappointed by the decision.”
Gen. Airbull was born in 1961 to an air force officer’s family. His unusual name came from the English codename of a Cold War-era joint training between members of the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO.
“I never want to change my name because it was given by my father,” Airbull said in an interview with Bangkok Post reporter Wassana Nanuam. “He thought it’s a good and unique name.”
He is a graduate of Class 21 of the Armed Forces Academy Preparatory School, the same class as the current supreme commander Gen. Chalermpol Srisawasdi. After graduating from the Royal Thai Air Force Academy, he began his career as a pilot for the C-130 transport aircraft.
Airbull rose up the ranks throughout the following years, serving as an air force attache to different countries, but perhaps the most significant of all was his post to Germany, where previous air force chiefs such as Maanat and Chaiyapruk Didyasarin had served.
In his first appearance to the media since assuming the position, Airbull pledged his allegiance to the monarchy and said that he will not be involved in politics.
“The military has always stayed out of politics,” he said.
He continued, “Under the constitution, the air force has the duty to defend the kingdom and help citizens when in need. I will continue developing the force according to our 20-year strategy.”
“I will follow our vision to become the region’s top air force and utilize technology to expand our capabilities.”