A new commander-in-chief is taking the helm of Thailand’s powerful army — a staunch royalist who is expected to pursue a hardline stance against the “Red Shirt” anti-government protest movement.
General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, 56, takes charge tomorrow at a crucial juncture following the deadliest political unrest in decades and in light of uncertainty over what royal succession will eventually mean for the kingdom.
Thai society remains deeply divided following the Red Shirt protests, which triggered a series of confrontations between demonstrators and armed troops in April and May, leaving 91 people dead, mostly civilians.
Prayut is seen as a strong opponent of the red-clad movement and its hero, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive ousted leader accused by the Thai authorities of bankrolling the protests and inciting unrest from overseas.
Prayut is reported to have -overseen the deadly military assault on the Red Shirts’ fortified encampment in the retail heart of Bangkok in May.
“I think with this man taking charge, the prospect of the Red Shirts coming back will be even more difficult because we know he’s taking a hardline approach,” Thailand expert Pavin Chachavalpongpun said.
“It also reflects how desperately the traditional elite want to hold on to power by putting their own people in key positions in the -military,” said Pavin, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Prayut, who is being promoted from second-in-command, has long been seen as the top contender to replace retiring chief General Anupong Paojinda.
So it was no surprise when he was named for the top job by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who himself came to power with the support of the army in a 2008 parliamentary vote.
Prayut is seen as a close ally of Anupong. Both are former commanders of the 21st Infantry Regiment, whose special role is to provide protection for the queen.
Both were also central to the 2006 coup that ousted tycoon-turned-prime minister Thaksin, who is hailed by the Red Shirts for his policies for the masses, but seen by the establishment as corrupt, autocratic and a threat to the revered monarchy.
During the April-May crisis, Anupong appeared reluctant to use force to disperse the red-shirted demonstrators, calling for a political solution in a country that has seen 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932.
In contrast, “Prayut would more likely deal quickly and proactively in quelling pro-Thaksin anti-government demonstrators,” said Thailand analyst Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow at Heidelberg University.
“He may be more prone to publicly vocalize military displeasure with civilian governments — and threaten coups as Thai generals did 20 years ago,” Chambers said.
The appointment of the general, who could stay in the post until 2014, is expected to shore up the establishment’s grip on power at a time of considerable uncertainty for the kingdom.
“With the rise of Prayut, we will witness the continuing clout of the Queen’s Guard over the army and the armed forces,” Chambers said.