Standing inside one of Bangkok’s many military bases is a giant poster of Royal Thai Army Commander-in-Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha in full dress uniform, along with a list of attributes. “Intelligent,” reads the poster. “Knowledgeable. Modern. Visionary.”
As Bangkok braced for a “shut down” by anti-government protesters yesterday, and rumors multiply that yet another military coup is imminent, another adjective for Prayuth springs to mind: opaque.
Paralyzing Bangkok is the latest bid in a two-month attempt by protesters to topple Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother, Thaksin, was overthrown in the most recent military coup in 2006.
Yingluck called a snap election for Feb. 2, but this failed to mollify protesters, who want her government to resign in favor of an unelected people’s council to oversee political reform.
Many Thais believe the military will soon step in again to break the political deadlock, especially if this week’s citywide protests turn violent.
However, Prayuth, 59, has remained noncommittal, brushing aside rumors of a military coup while deftly side-stepping an outright denial.
It was not always so. Famous for irascible exchanges with the media, Prayuth once suggested coups were obsolete and slammed rumor-mongers for damaging the country.
As Thailand’s latest round of protests gathered pace, however, his public statements have fueled rather than scotched the rumors.
“I cannot confirm whether there will or will not be a coup,” he said on Tuesday last week.
Two weeks earlier, Prayuth likened the unrest between pro and anti-government protesters to an intersection where he had the power to “turn the lights red” to stop traffic from left and right colliding.
“The odds of an all-out military coup remain lower for now, but will increase as instability drags on,” said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group. “Prayuth and the military will most likely intervene only if the police lose control of an eroding security situation.”
Thousands of protesters have taken to Bangkok’s streets since November, accusing the Shinawatra family of corruption and nepotism.
The protests, which have drawn 200,000 people at their peak, have been mostly peaceful.
Four people, including two police officers, died of gunshot wounds and scores were injured after protesters clashed with police outside a stadium on Dec. 26 while candidates registered for the election.
In broad terms, the current crisis pits the Thai elite, including military generals and royalists, and the educated middle-classes against supporters of twice-elected former prime minister Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.
However, with Yingluck clinging on to power and protesters refusing to back down, analysts say protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, can only win with Prayuth’s backing.
That has sparked fears that protagonists might instigate an attack on protesters during this week’s rallies in hopes of provoking army intervention, but senior officers told Reuters the military is reluctant to see a repeat of the September 2006 coup, which Prayuth helped executive as a deputy regional commander and plunged the country into years of turmoil.