Thailand coup leader a strong defender of monarchy

GRANT PECK
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — The general who led the military takeover of Thailand is known as an ardent defender of the monarchy, an adversary of the former prime minister at the center of the nation’s political crisis, and a prickly personality prone to snap at unwanted questions.

In orchestrating the coup Thursday, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was exercising what is almost a traditional prerogative of Thai army commanders: The country has endured 12 successful coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

He spent most of his career in the 21st Infantry Regiment, known as the Queen’s Guard, and has shown particular loyalty to Queen Sirikit, consort of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He played a key role in the 2006 coup that toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but became commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army after Thaksin’s sister Yingluck rose to power.

A court threw Yingluck out of office this month, and the coup dislodged what was left of her administration. The military on Friday summoned Yingluck and her temporary replacement, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, and has detained Cabinet ministers, as well as protest leaders on both sides of the unrest that has wracked the nation for more than six months.

Prayuth said the takeover is intended “to keep peace and order and solve the country’s problems,” though he also has shown disdain for the government he supplanted.

Asked before the coup if he had informed the government about earlier declaration of martial law this week, Prayuth said: “Where is the government now? . I don’t know . Let them do their work. They should work, if they can work.

“But I don’t bother the government. Now, the civil servants and the military are working for the country. I don’t care about the others,” he said.

The general’s patience has at times worn thin under reporters’ questioning. When one asked if he would enact a curfew, Prayuth asked, “Do you want me to?” When the reporter suggested it might be a good idea, Prayuth said, “Then I’m going to impose it on the media first. Curfew the press first.”

He eventually ordered a 10 p.m. curfew — for everyone.

Born in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, Prayuth, 60, followed a conventional path to the top ranks, attending Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.

Thaksin was toppled by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of abuse of power, corruption and disrespect for King Bhumibol. At the time, Prayuth was deputy commander of the army region covering the capital.

It is widely thought the 2006 coup was launched to make sure Thaksin would not have a say in royal succession issues, as the king, now 86, was ailing at the time. Many believe the same issue triggered the latest takeover.

Prayuth was promoted to army chief in October 2010, five months after Thailand saw one of the deadliest political conflict in decades, when troops moved in to disperse an anti-government protest in Bangkok’s central business district.

At the time Thaksin’s opponents were in control and his supporters, the so-called Red Shirts, were protesting. Two months of confrontations left at least 91 people dead and more than 1,500 hurt. Prayuth was reported to have taken a hard line in advocating force be used.

Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid serving prison time for a conflict-of-interest conviction, remained influential in Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which won elections in 2011. Before they were held, Prayuth delivered what was considered to be a slap at the party when he said offenses against the royal institution had been increasing and voters should chose “good people” who “know what is right and wrong.”

Seeking to appease the military, Yingluck’s government approved army promotion lists without interference — a sensitive matter that helped derail Thaksin — and gave the green light to its budget requests. Yingluck also downplayed her party’s links to the Red Shirts, weakening the grassroots movement.

It is widely believed that other deals were made behind the scenes. A matter of concern to both sides was the prospect that Thaksin could be allowed to return to Thailand without serving prison time.

When Yingluck’s government proposed a law that would have granted Thaksin amnesty late last year, it set in train the events that led to the latest coup. Top figures in the opposition Democrat Party resigned their House seats to lead a protest movement that occupied key areas of Bangkok for months, demanding that the government step down.

Yingluck called early elections, but the protesters insisted they not be held before an appointed government carried out reforms. They occupied government offices, clashed with police and disrupted the polls, leading to a political deadlock. Court rulings, and the behavior of the military, have been seen as favoring the protesters.

As the conflict escalated, Prayuth conspicuously refused to rule out a coup. “That door is neither open nor closed,” he said in December.

Kevin Hewison, a Thai studies expert who heads the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University, said in an email interview that Prayuth’s actions during anti-government demonstrations were “biased towards the anti-government side, protecting and promoting them under the guise of the military being ‘neutral.'”

The royal family is a particularly sensitive issue for Prayuth. In 2012, Thai academics hit his sore spot when they proposed amending the country’s lese majeste law, which calls for up to 15 years in prison for remarks offending the monarchy.

Those who supported such an amendment, he was reported saying, should “go and live abroad.” He warned the academics behind the proposal that “If you guys play hardball, I’ll have no choice but to do so, too.” Addressing them indirectly, he pointedly asked, “Were you born in Thailand?”

Prayuth has not revealed how or when he expects Thailand to emerge from military rule. He had been set to retire in September, but the Bangkok Post on Saturday reported that the general and the rest of the governing military council were expected to remain in power until new elections are held.

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Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.

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