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The General Who Became Thailand's Prime Minister and the Ascendancy of the Eastern Tigers

Prayuth Chan-ocha has retired as head of the Thai army, leaving him free to focus on the job of prime minister and the elevation of a shadowy military clique.

by VICE News
Oct 3 2014, 8:50am

At a rather modest military parade earlier this week, Thailand's General Prayuth Chan-ocha marked his retirement as commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army.

Completing his transition to civilian life, Prayuth is now free to focus on his two remaining day jobs: leader of the ruling junta, and being the country's prime minister.

In his place, Prayuth has chosen General Udomdej Sitabutr, a widely anticipated appointment but one that has also led to a renewed focus on a somewhat shadowy group known only as the Eastern Tigers.

A staunchly pro-royalist army clique, the group reportedly formed as a response to the growing popularity and power of Thaksin Shinawatra back in 2006.

Soldiers at General Prayuth's retirement parade. Images via VICE News

Now, with Prayuth as the public face, the Eastern Tigers have been elevated to such lofty heights that they now not only lead the military but the government as well. This appears to be a reality likely to last for the foreseeable future, as the junta looks to carry out two years of "national reforms."

Following past coups, new military rulers have tended to put civilians in power to temper reaction at home and abroad. It's rarely worked out in the long run, however, and this time it appears they are ensuring that power is consolidated within their ranks. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University was quoted as saying in The Edge Review: "The Eastern Tigers are resurgent at the expense of the traditional lines of command."

The Tigers were reportedly behind much of the anti government street protests earlier in the year (which helped create the necessary conditions for the coup), with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban claiming that he and Prayuth had been in talks "since 2010". Prayuth denied the claims, but photographs shared on Instagram, from a private party held shortly afterwards, showed protest leaders posing with Eastern Tigers military shirts; a none too subtle nod to their relationship.

The military remains in strict control of the country

Army cliques are nothing new in Thailand, but the danger is that with such a concentration of power at the top, both former allies and certainly opponents are being pushed further aside making any notion of national reconciliation harder to imagine.

Napisa Waitoolkiat, from the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs (ISEAA) in Chiang Mai, told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that "the key here is factionalism and antagonism…If the power is just concentrated on one key faction like the Eastern Tigers, what about the rest? If you have this promotion line based upon this category, you automatically make a lot of people angry".

Such sentiments echo warnings as far back as 2010 when in an article for The Nation, local commentator Avudh Panananda warned that "should the Eastern Tigers get their way on succession plans, a military dynasty may emerge because an incumbent leader could pass his torch to a long line of designated successors."

Paul Chambers, director of research at ISEAA, told VICE News that inside the army the Eastern Tigers "are the dominant clique which has thus far managed to keep the military cohesive. Outside the army, its leading members have connections to arch royalist elements, business people and political parties."

Chambers confirmed to VICE News that "their domination of the military since 2006 has assisted Prayuth enormously", suggesting that the general only ascended because the Eastern Tiger had ascended.

Critics say the Thai junta is abusing human rights in its bid to wipe out opposition

Yet, since coming to power, Prayuth has managed to cast himself as a somewhat benign uncle figure and as a man who will unite the country despite the nature of his factional rise.

To do this, Prayuth wrote a hit ballad — Return Happiness to Thailand — played relentlessly on Thai radio and 'Happiness Events' across the country. He even sang it recently to assembled reporters from the balcony of Government House.

Not limited to song writing, he has also offered to draft the scripts for a number of soap operas aimed at curing social rifts. During his weekly TV broadcasts, he delivers North Korean-esque "on-the-spot-guidance" to farmers, teachers and the general public on how to tend their fields, teach their students and live their life.

Thailand's Military Is Forcing People to Stop Worrying and Love the Coup. Read more here

A largely servile local press lavish praise, telling readers that, as a child, "he was the best looking boy in the class." While polls, the reliability of which has been questioned by observers, indicate "satisfaction" with Prayuth to stand at 90 percent.

Prayuth casts himself as a benign figure who will unite the country

International coverage of Prayuth has often focused on such details, as well as on his sometimes outlandish comments. He most recently suggested that tourists who wear bikinis are not safe in Thailand — unless they are "not beautiful" — following the murder of two British backpackers last month, and raised the possibility of introducing identity wristbands for all foreign visitors to the country.

However, rights groups and international observers say that behind this facade is a regime that continues to strengthen its grip on power by stifling any opposition.

In a recent report, Amnesty International slammed the human rights record of the junta. It said: "Hundreds of arbitrary detentions, reports of torture and other ill-treatment, sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and unfair trials in military courts are creating a climate of fear in Thailand, and there are no signs of a let-up."

While the world focuses on electronic tagging of tourists, and other local absurdities, the Eastern Tigers are working to ensure that the endless cycle of power in Thailand ends with them.

As for his critics and doubters, Prayuth asks them to simply have faith. He told a recent press conference: "I want everyone's trust. So if still you're suspicious of me, I want you to go back and listen to my song."

The UN Has Condemned Thailand's Crackdown on Human Rights Advocates. Read more here

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