07 July 2014

 

 

A complex portrait is emerging of the 60-year-old, mercurial, thin-skinned, sarcastic Army Chief Gen.Prayuth Chan-ocha, who surprised his non-NATO treaty alliance colleagues in the Pentagon by announcing a coup on May 22.

Gen. Prayuth also startled his fellow countrymen by declaring his powerful junta will use military courts against civilians who defy his edicts, but they will not be "tortured or abused."

His need for total control caused an embarrassed U.S. to cancel some military assistance, and suddenly yank a group of Navy and Marine Corps troops from Thailand where they were training the Thai Navy.

"He is strong, not moody.  Strong," said a supportive, middle-aged executive hoping her country will function better without the ousted government's elected politicians and their alleged corruption.

"All sides need to join hands in this effort, otherwise Thailand will become a failed state," Gen. Prayuth said.

His coup came after a bizarre, quasi-Shakespearean betrayal behind closed doors.

Gen. Prayuth summoned Thailand's government leaders and main opponents into a room, held them under armed guards and intimidated them with closed-circuit TV surveillance during two days of fruitless talks.

The gathered politicians initially posed with goofy grins in seemingly ridiculous selfy photographs, before they were tricked and seized by armed sentries.

During their second day of talks on May 22, they failed to agree about whether or not immediate elections should be allowed, or if appointed technocrats should rule instead.

Partial transcripts of what then happened in Bangkok's Army Club room on May 22 have appeared in local newspapers which are now under harsh, post-coup censorship.

The quotes have not been denied by the junta, and are apparently accurate, as told to the media by politicians who were in the room participating in the talks.

Minutes before announcing his coup, according to the transcripts, Gen. Prayuth took two of the combative, opposing politicians -- Red Shirt chairman Jatuporn Prompan and anti-election protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban -- into another room for a private chat.

Opposition Democrat Party politician Nipit Intarasombat then nervously asked to use an army sentry's mobile phone, because all the politicians' phones were taken away before entering the room.

The soldier refused because it wasn't allowed, and said Gen. Prayuth would see them on the closed-circuit cameras monitoring the room.

Ten minutes later, a soldier discreetly brought Mr. Nipit into another room, lent him his phone, and said the CCTV could not see them there.

When Gen. Prayuth and the two other men returned, the worried group asked what they had discussed.

"We talked about how the restrooms are not in order," Gen. Prayuth said.

He then asked the elected government officials if they would now resign.

"We won't resign," replied then-Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri.

Gen. Prayuth loudly responded:  "You all stay here.  Do not move.  I am sorry, I have to seize the ruling power."

Mr. Nipit asked a colleague, "Do you think he is serious or joking?"

Soldiers forcibly escorted all the politicians out of the room in different directions.

"I told you so," anti-government Democrat Party politician Abhisit Vejjajiva primly told his rival in the elected government, as they were all led away.

"So what?" a distraught Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt replied.  "What is the point of telling us so now?"

When Gen. Prayuth publicly announced his coup, he pulled "the hidden lever that opened the floor and dumped every one of the duped politicos into the prison pit below, and slammed the door shut on them," Bangkok Post editor Alan Dawson, an American, wrote in a comical rendition three days later.

Today, Gen. Prayuth controls one of Southeast Asia's most important and wealthy nations and its 68 million people, 95 percent of them who are Buddhist.

"Some may question my abilities and knowledge, but with determination and good intentions, I can do anything."

His statements to the media in recent months reveals stark contradictions, perhaps intentionally phrased to confuse everyone while he maneuvered to the top.

"I admit a coup would not be legal," Gen. Prayuth said on Feb. 28

"An army takeover would only make things worse than they already are," he said on April 22.

"A coup is not the solution," the general mused aloud two days before taking control.

Hours after his putsch, he appeared uniquely open-minded: "I am ready to take responsibility, no matter whether it is right or wrong."

Gen. Prayuth however is especially sensitive about published words and photographs, TV and radio broadcasts, and Internet's social media.

Journalists must not ask him the wrong question at the wrong time -- or else.

"Prayuth asked me to tell you...when you ask questions that will be made public, please think about the questions carefully, as it is not time to answer those questions yet," Army Secretary Maj. Gen. Polphat Wannaphak informed two senior Thai reporters on Tuesday (May 27).

The two journalists had been at a brief, tense news conference on Monday (May 26) and asked Gen. Prayuth about the possibility of future elections, and if he was going to appoint himself prime minister.

"If the media does not abide by our restrictions, we will not hesitate to summon the media to create an understanding," Gen. Prayuth ominously warned journalists on Monday (May 26) at the Army Club.

"If you do not want me to do that, then please exercise self-control. We will begin our media monitoring today.

"Whoever posts information that creates conflict, we will take action."

He told "anti-coup protesters" that "I will have to take legal action" if they do not stop.

"This legal action will be very strict and swift, and be taken in the military court.  It will affect your family," he said.

"Please do not resist the army."

Anyone caught doing anything wrong will be taken to a military base.

"As for the people who have been summoned and detained, none have been tortured or abused.

"We are actually taking great care of them.  But it may not be as luxurious as home, because the place is the soldiers' residence," Gen. Prayuth said.

The army said on Wednesday (May 28) more than 250 people had been summoned, including more than 70 now in custody and about 50 who did not show up.  The other 125 or so had been interrogated and released.

Many of their names were published on lists, including politicians, activists, academics and others.

With his furrowed brow and slicked black hair, Gen. Prayuth often appears stuck with problems he does not want, which is the image he tries to project as a reluctant but necessary savior.

Gen. Prayuth participated in Thailand's previous coup, when the military overthrew elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

He rarely gives interviews.

In 1969, when he was 15, Chaiyapruek magazine's "Good Grades" column described him as a star student who "sometimes appears serious and more mature than his age."

The eldest son of an army lieutenant and his wife, Prayuth told the columnist he wanted to be an army officer.

He was bookish, obediently doing his homework and enjoying math, English, science and watching documentaries.

The magazine said, "Prayuth is a lucky boy."