BANGKOK: The Thai general who took power in a coup is a staunch royalist with a penchant for wading ruthlessly into the country’s political turmoil—and justifying his actions as a defense of the nation and its revered monarchy.
Stern, pugnacious and known for bluntly stating his opinions, the 60-year-old army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha was due to retire this September from an office he has held since 2010.
But as he imposed martial law across the kingdom on Tuesday, he hinted at his intention to occupy center stage for as long as the nation’s political crisis persisted.
The warning took on substance just two days later after talks between the nation’s bitter political rivals ended in Prayut declaring a dramatic coup—with all of the parties whisked away to an unknown location in military trucks.
“I was concerned with the situation, and could not let it continue without a solution,” Prayut said Thursday shortly before the coup.
“What I am doing in my security capacity—if I upset anyone, I apologize but it is necessary.”
Prayut, who announced the coup in a televised statement, cited political violence, which has seen 28 people killed and hundreds more wounded over nearly seven months of protest.
He had said he would not allow Thailand to become another “Ukraine or Egypt.”
Thailand’s army has staged 19 successful or attempted coups since 1932 and as army chief Prayut wields enormous political power within the country.
The general is seen as a staunch opponent of Thaksin Shinawatra and a scourge of the “Red Shirt” supporters of the self-exiled former telecoms magnate, who was ousted as prime minister by a military coup in 2006 that triggered years of political chaos.
Experts say Prayut will be lauded as a savior by royalists and Thaksin’s establishment enemies.
“From day one, he said ‘I’m not an ordinary army chief but an army chief who has a lot to say about politics,’” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University.
Pavin noted that while Prayut is “intelligent,” he also is more “hardcore” than some of his predecessors.
After taking power, Prayut insisted that the coup was his “responsibility” alone despite speculation of the involvement of other behind-the-scenes players.
Traditionally, coups in Thailand are made with the approval of the royal palace, experts say, although it is unclear if that is the case in the current overthrow.
Born on March 21, 1954, in northeastern Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province—the “Red Shirt” heartland, ironically—Prayut rose from military college to become commander of the Queen’s Guards in 1980.
He is seen as close and intensely loyal to Queen Sirikit, who has gradually receded from the public eye in recent years following illness.
Prayut is often described as the architect of a May 2010 army crackdown on a months-long “Red Shirt” rally in Bangkok. The crackdown left scores dead.
“He would have no qualms about shooting down Red Shirts” again, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
Critics pour scorn on his claims of neutrality, citing the 2010 clampdown and his call during election campaigning the following year for voters to elect “good people”—which was widely interpreted as urging Thais not to vote for Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck as premier.
Prayut also supported the coup to depose Thaksin in 2006, according to a US diplomatic note released by the Wikileaks website, an act which saw Thailand tumble into an eight-year political quagmire from which it is yet to emerge.
The golf lover and father of twin daughters was promoted in 2006 to head the kingdom’s First Army—overseeing the center of the country including Bangkok, before becoming the Army’s deputy chief in 2009 and then overall head in October the following year.
His younger brother Preecha is also a senior military officer and heads the Third Army in the north of the country, a stronghold of supporters of Thaksin.