Thai army chief: A hawkish general walking a fine line

Thais on Tuesday morning woke up to a familiar sight on their television: the army chief reading out an announcement.

Thailand's army has launched 18 coups d'etat since the country converted from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

This time, however, it was not a coup, but a unilateral declaration of martial law, nationwide.

The army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has persistently resisted being baited over whether he will seize power to break Thailand's grinding - and increasingly dangerous - six-month political impasse.

Martial law, he said, was a pre-emptive step to avoid further violence of the sort that has since December last year seen over 20 killed and several hundred injured as the conflict drags on.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha is just four months away from retirement. The blunt speaking 60-year-old, notorious for his short fuse when taking journalists' questions, has been in command since October 2010.

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.

His promotion to commander-in-chief was seen as fortifying the establishment against the "red shirt" movement which has been challenging the elites' traditional hold on power and resistance to election results that since 2001 have repeatedly delivered parties aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to power.

The billionaire Thaksin, abroad since 2008 dodging a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power, is seen as a closet Republican bent on using populist policies and an efficient election machinery, to win power and even challenge the traditional position of the monarchy at the apex of Thai society.

For almost 70 years, the King has been the unifying figurehead for Thais. But he is now 86 and frail, and Thais fear that without his unquestioned moral authority, the carefully cultured edifice of Thai unity could well crumble.

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. General Prayuth embodies the tradition.

But analysts have praised his conduct in the current crisis, in which he has refrained from interfering, remarking astutely that if the army seizes power it will face a more severe backlash than any time before, in a new Thailand in which the masses are far more politically aware, and both warring factions - royalists and Thaksinites - have armed elements among them.

But the general will be walking a fine line with his martial law decree. He has sidelined the government, but must still find a way out of the political deadlock which is accepted by all sides, or risk it spinning out of control.

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