New Thai Army chief's pledge: no coups. General sets different tone for country's powerful military

The new commander of the powerful Royal Thai Army says there will be no coup as long as he is Army chief of staff. Such a public assurance would not mean much in many countries, but for Thailand, a country that has seen at least 16 attempted coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it is a weighty statement.

``As long as I am here, a coup is not possible,'' said Gen. Chaovalit Yongchaiyuth, who has been active in Thai politics and was involved in past coups. He also promised to keep his subordinates from interfering in politics. He was appointed commander in chief Sept. 1, replacing outgoing Army chief Arthit Kamlang-ek, who was once viewed as a possible successor and challenger to Prime Minster Prem Tinsulanonda.

The Royal Thai Army has been a powerful political force in Thailand since 1932, when it took power away from the King. Since then, the Army has been involved in several coups, and a number of its leaders ultimately became prime minister. The present prime minister, Mr. Prem, is also a one-time Army chief.

Since his appointment, General Chaovalit's top priority has been to create a new image for the Army, which over the years has been plagued by factionalism and power plays. An abortive coup last September tarnished the Army's image in the eyes of the rising middle class and betrayed public trust in the powerful institution, analysts say.

Besides his no-coup assurance, the general wasted no time in trying to establish a new atmosphere of unity among Army officials. Each year, the Thai military undertakes a reshuffle of its officers that involves promotions and reassignments. This year's reshuffle, which takes effect today, was seen as a ``check and balance'' among various classes graduating from the elite military academy, Chulachomklao. The academy, which is modeled after the United States Army's West Point, produces many of Thailand's most influential figures in both military and political circles.

Analysts say that this year's shake-up favored graduating classes that are close to Chaovalit. They hold key positions both inside and outside Bangkok, with access to combat units -- the units that used to play a dominant role in staging coups.

Chaovalit was active in charting Thailand's successful counterinsurgency program against Thai communists, applying a political approach -- an effective amnesty program -- before using military suppression. He is also chief architect of Thailand's security policy toward the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

In addition, Chaovalit has done something that other Army leaders have neglected to do: improve the welfare of rank-and-file troops and their families. Bigger salaries and better housing facilities are in the works.

These incentives, Chaovalit says, are to begin as soon as possible, and they are aimed at boosting morale. His efforts to create a new image for the Army -- among both soldiers and civilians -- have caused many political observers to believe that he has ambitions to become the next prime minister. But he tried to quell such speculation by announcing that he entertains no such ambition. Chaovalit also told the public that he would keep his promise to retire from active duty in two years. The Army retirement age is 60. Chaovalit is only 54.

While the general has been overhauling the Army's reputation, Prem has been working on his own image. In the past, the prime minister has been largely portrayed as reticent and docile -- and has been known to shy away from the press. But since being chosen prime minister again by the newly elected coalition government in August, Prem has begun holding monthly press conferences. Press conferences have been a rarity during his six years in office.

Unlike in the past, when he read from prepared answers to questions submitted in advance, the Sept. 29 press meeting included impromptu answers to reporters' questions. But he ducked most questions, and let his five advisers answer for him.

In contrast, Chaovalit staged a two-hour press conference for the foreign press community early last month and answered all the questions confidently. He was the first Army chief to face the foreign press. Analysts say that if he can maintain the support of both military and civilian public, Chaovalit -- if he so chooses -- could well become an elected politician when he retires, which would pave the way for him to become prime minister.

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