Thailand coup: Irascible general close to country's royals

Thailand coup: Irascible general close to country's royals

BANGKOK - Just months before his retirement, Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha yesterday took control of the country eight years after the previous military coup.

This was two days after he denied that the martial law he had announced on Tuesday amounted to a coup, and said he had acted to restore order and investor confidence.

The 60-year old soldier is close to the palace, the heart of Thailand's establishment.

He also belongs to a powerful clique that includes former defence officials and retired officers who despise exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a key player in the Thai political crisis, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

The irascible general, known for his testy exchanges with the media, had said since he became army chief in October 2010 that he would be extremely reluctant to follow suit, the report said.

Army officers had said General Prayuth is loath to see a repeat of a September 2006 coup that he helped execute as a deputy regional commander, which plunged the country into years of turmoil and, in the end, failed to end Thaksin's influence.

Gen Prayuth has been driven by a desire to restore the army's image after clashes with pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010, when he was deputy army chief, in which more than 90 people were killed, Reuters said.

He established a cordial relationship with former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, after her election in 2011.

Aides say he struggled for days with the decision to impose martial law on Tuesday, with lots of late-night meetings.

Gen Prayuth is part of the army's elite "Burapha Phayak" or "eastern tigers" clique; he is seen as close to Queen Sirikit, and is also a friend of the police chief, General Adul Saengsingkaew.

For the Burapha Phayak, the battle with the pro-Thaksin "red shirts" became personal in April 2010, when a rising young colonel from their clique, Romklao Tuwatham, was killed by unknown, but clearly well-trained, militants in a clash as the army tried to disperse the red shirts.

Also, Gen Prayuth has twin daughters; in one incident, a red shirt activist posted their pictures on the Internet. They were subsequently taken down, but the underlying message is clear: There is an intensely personal element to the conflict.

It has long been an axiom of Thai politics that no government can stay in power without the tacit consent of the army.

Furthermore, an army officer's oath of loyalty is to the King. Gen Prayuth embodies the tradition.

This article was first published on May 23, 2014.
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