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Asia

General Prayuth: Thailand's new strongman

The king of Thailand recently recognized coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the head of the military council currently ruling the Southeast Asian nation. The endorsement gives the general almost unlimited power.

On Monday, May 26, King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha head of Thailand's new government. Prayuth now presides over the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC), the junta which has been running the country since the military took over the reins of power in the May 22 coup.

The 60-year-old general has had a long career in the military. But perhaps even more important is the fact that, as a high-ranking officer, he has participated in every major political event in the country since 2006, making him one of the key figures in Thailand's long-standing political crisis.

Born in 1954, Prayuth was raised in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. He later attended the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy - considered "the West Point Academy" of Thailand, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. Prayuth then spent much of his career serving with the 21st Infantry Regiment, the Queen's Guard.

A royalist?

This latter aspect perhaps explains best why many observes argue General Prayuth's political sympathies are generally more closely aligned with and sympathetic to the conservative elites who support the monarchy and Democrat Party and have been hostile to the Pheu Thai party and the Shinawatra family.

Unlike most armies in the world, the Thai military's most important duty is not to defend the nation's territory, but to protect the monarchy. The Thai king is nominally the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The events that unfolded in 2012 are a good example of Prayuth's loyalty to the monarchy. As intellectuals pushed for a revision of the country's lesè majesté laws - which deal with offenses against the sovereign - Prayuth warned them of harsh consequences and urged them to leave the country.

Career

How fast a soldier can rise through the military ranks in Thailand often depends on a system of social networks within the armed forces, and top Thai politicians such as Thaksin Shinawatra have always had strong connections with them.

Thaksin's power reached its peak between 2001 and 2005. The charismatic billionaire had managed to establish a strong support base among the poor population of the country. But in time, many royalists began viewing his growing popularity as a threat to the monarchy, including Prayuth, a Thai expert told DW on condition of anonymity.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra make a point as he addresses the crowd during a major rally near the Thai Grand Palace, Friday, Feb. 4, 2005, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thaksin was ousted in a Military coup in 2006

Prayuth's dislike of the prime minister intensified when Thaksin began promoting his fellow graduates from the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) in the army. Upon graduation in 1973 Thaksin had joined the Royal Thai Police, while Prayuth decided to start a career in the military. According to Thai newspaper "The Nation," Prayuth felt that the PM's personnel policy had eclipsed the careers of those graduated from two classes below, including his own.

Prayuth's chance came in 2006 when the military removed Thaksin from power in a coup. He was then serving as deputy commander of the army region that covered the Bangkok capital region and supported coup leader Anupong Paochinda, who was a former classmate of Thaksin's. As a result, Prayuth rose quickly through army ranks.

The 2010 riots

The crisis in Thailand escalated in May 2010 when Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters took to the streets of Bangkok to protest against the "yellow" military-backed government. The military cracked down on demonstrators, killing at least 87 people and injuring over 1,300. Prayuth allegedly advocated a hardline stance against the Red Shirt protesters. In September 2010 Prayuth was appointed army chief.

The military held back in the early months of the 2013/2014 riots. An anonymous expert from Thailand told DW that Prayuth had earned "a lot of respect in the beginning for having styled himself and the armed forces in a mediating role, urging the political contestants to reach a compromise settlement." The military had several reasons to think twice before getting involved in the conflict.

The coup in 2006 had shown that the army was not able solve the country's political crisis. Moreover, Thaksin's followers were better organized, meaning that a coup increased the risk of a civil war. However, Prayuth had refused to take a firm stance on whether the military would intervene or not. "The door is neither closed nor shut," said Prayuth in December 2013.

Who is in charge?

Armed Thai soldiers take their positions inside an encampment of pro-government red shirt supporters in Nakhon Pathom province on the outskirts of Bangkok May 22, 2014.

The Thai Military took over the government on May 22

On Tuesday, May 20, Prayuth finally made his decision. After months of riots that left 28 people dead, and with no end of the political turmoil in sight, the military declared martial law.

The rivaling parties were immediately called upon by Prayuth to initiate talks. But after these failed, the military took over the government. A Thai expert told DW on condition of anonymity that the recent coup represented a victory for both Bangkok's elite and the hardliners within the royal establishment.

With the king's endorsement Prayuth is now firmly in charge and is set to take steps to consolidate his authority by removing all vestiges of earlier elected institutions, including the caretaker government and the Senate. The waiver of the constitution and declaration of martial law leave no doubt about who is in charge now.