Army chiefs are influential in most countries, but in Thailand the head of the military enjoys exceptional, if not excessive, power.
That power – and with it responsibility for the Bangkok elite’s simmering war against the upcountry Red Shirt movement – is about to pass to General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army’s current deputy commander. Pending the King’s rubber stamp, Prayuth will take the baton on 1 October when the serving chief retires, the defence ministry confirmed this week.
For the Red Shirts, the mainly rural supporters of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the advent of Prayuth is a reason to be fearful. The army crackdown against Red Shirt demonstrators in Bangkok three months ago might have seemed brutal enough at the time, but conservative sections of the ruling elite think that the anti-government protesters got off lightly. They want any future uprisings to be crushed with much more vim.
Enter Prayuth Chan-ocha: a man with a reputation for loving King and Country every bit as much as he loathes Thaksin and his red-shirted sympathisers.
“The Red Shirts should be worried,” says Sanit Nakajitti, a Bangkok-based security consultant. “Prayuth is more hard-headed [than his predecessor] and more willing to pursue them.” Thai military appointments are usually little more than a politically driven “cutting of the cake”, Sanit says, “but for the first time in 10 years the new commander has been appointed only for military reasons”. It seems that in Prayuth Thailand’s rulers saw a man who would not pull his punches in tackling any insurrection.
Since the May crackdown, the Red Shirts have been licking their wounds, and an ongoing state of emergency across much of the country, coupled with disorganisation in the Red ranks following the rout, has so far kept a lid on Thailand’s provincial malcontent.
But among many Thais resentment over what happened in May continues to fester, Sanit warns. “Because of Prayuth the Red Shirts might have to go underground,” he says. “But they are fighting for the principle of democracy – they will keep demonstrating.”
Certainly, the Red Shirts still want to see the back of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the unelected public face, as many see him, of Thailand’s royalist-military elite. Yet Abhisit’s recommendation of the hard-line Prayuth, and his agreement to increase the country’s defence budget – even though a decrease had long been planned – should keep him in the army’s favour.
For now, backpackers will continue to idle on Khao San Road as though nothing had ever happened. But the figure of Prayuth casts a long shadow over the months ahead. An election is due by the end of 2011 but there’s no way the army will let it happen, Sanit explains, because the pro-Red Shirt, pro-Thaksin parties would undoubtedly win. So another crisis looms, and the new, no-nonsense army chief is unlikely to be subtle in his bid to resolve it.