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(October 12, 2018) The annals of Thailand's military dictators - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

As Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha eyes longer-term power beyond the next election, his eventual legacy will be compared to other military leaders who have come and gone as heads of past Thai governments. Had he left office or stepped down to run for it earlier, Gen Prayut might be in a better place. As things stand, his tenure and subsequent exit from the political scene does not appear promising for how he will be seen in hindsight.

Once they seize the reins of government, military dictators in contemporary Thailand generally do not leave voluntarily. Most often, they are forced out by internal factionalism and power plays within the army high command, based on this or that cohort of officers and competing groups of loyalists. This was the case with Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram in 1957. After ruling for a decade and overseeing two competing cliques in the army that also involved the police force on one side, Phibul lost political control and was ousted in a military coup.

His successor, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarath, is the only Thai military dictator who died while in office in December 1963. Of course, had his health held up, he would have kept on occupying Government House. Sarit is the prototype Thai military dictator for his tough-talking decisiveness and executor of law and order. His personalised rule has been likened to a "despotic paternalism". having inspired generations of young cadets at local military academies.

The Sarit period coincided with the onset of the local communist insurgency and the intensifying Cold War, when Thailand's bureaucracy was revamped and technocratic agencies were established and promoted. The military strongman presided over what would become Thailand's long economic boom by giving complete latitude for technocrats to operate. On the other hand, just like his subsequent peers, Sarit left behind a massive fortune deemed as ill-gotten, more than US$100 million worth of fancy cars, land plots, and other assets.

As Sarit's staunch lieutenant, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn succeeded him and became the first military leader in government to be forced out by a popular uprising. Corruption among military officers, particularly Thanom's clique that included his own son Colonel Narong Kittikachorn and Field Marshal Prapass Charusathiara, became the catalyst for the chain of events that culminated in the October 1973 overthrow of the Thanom government, led by university students. Thanom's later return from exile abroad amidst the political turbulence of the mid-1970s sparked more popular protests. In that period of polarisation germinating with the contentious ideological fervour associated with the Cold War, the student movement from October 1973 was brutally crushed three years later.

By then, a rising young class of officers from the 7th cohort of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, known as the "Young Turks", gained the upper hand over the army. They initially backed Gen Kriangsak Chomanan as prime minister but he was forced out when the young army officers shifted their support to Gen Prem Tinsulanonda in March 1980. The Prem period remarkably lasted eight straight years through five coalition governments, three elections (in 1983, 1986, and 1988), and two failed coups (in 1981 and 1985 by the Young Turks).

Although Gen Prem's role in Thai politics over the past decade became controversial, his rule as an unelected military man in the 1980s is seen as effective and stable. Gen Prem has not been hounded by corruption allegations. He protected technocrats at the Finance Ministry and Bank of Thailand, especially during the precarious devaluation of the baht in November 1984, when rumblings threatened to overturn him. At that time, thanks to army backing, Gen Prem led by example for being a man of few but firm words, managing squabbling elected politicians and minimising their graft schemes. It is this Prem modality that Gen Prayut may have in mind when he hints at staying in power after the election.

The problem is Gen Prayut now is no Gen Prem then. Perhaps somewhat Sarit-like, Gen Prayut is a tough talker who likes to act paternalistically. But back in Sarit's time, communication technologies, public scrutiny and international norms were different. Gen Prayut has had a tougher time dealing with constraints and checks on his rule even though he virtually holds absolute power under the interim charter's Section 44. Most memorably, Gen Prem knew when to call it quits at the top. After the July 1988 election, Gen Prem again was offered the premiership by winning politicians but declined and simply said he had had enough.

Gen Prayut is far from having had enough of Thai politics after four years of unelected office. Nor has he protected policy experts and technocrats from politicisation and vested interests. Instead, Gen Prayut has encouraged and enabled them to partake in politics, even setting up a pro-junta party to see to it that he comes back as prime minister after the polls. And then there's the corruption factor that is waiting to be exposed from unchecked weapons procurement to personal graft allegations among Gen Prayut's inner circle, even the prime minister's lucrative land sale itself that was transacted offshore.

After Gen Prem's time, two other military types became unelected prime ministers. In the 1991-92 coup period, Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon and his army loyalists, solidified and powerful under Class Five of the military academy, took power after a manipulated election won by a pro-junta party. By May 1992, another popular uprising dislodged the Suchinda regime from power marked by confrontation and violence, ending with a royal intervention that reset the stage.

Surely, Gen Prayut would not want to end up with Gen Suchinda's ignominy. In this respect, it was a blessing in disguise for Gen Prayut that the military high command is no longer firmly under his supervision through the Queen's Guard faction. With more military power, the temptation to ride out the political storm by force of arms is greater, as was Gen Suchinda's case. Less control over the military is a natural check on governing power.

Finally, there are two types of military strongmen that Gen Prayut would have done well to follow. One is Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin who led the September 2006 coup. The other is Gen Surayud Chulanont, whom Gen Sonthi appointed to lead the junta-backed government. Gen Sonthi has fared best among all coup makers because he stepped down on time and smoothly entered civilian life, even running for elected office under his own party.

Gen Surayud was like Gen Prem with his overt politeness, tolerance for complaints and criticism, and measured and considered public expression. But perhaps even more than Gen Prem, Gen Surayud knew exactly when to quit from the outset and kept to the election date in December 2007 in defiance of the junta's attempted delays. Gen Surayud thus will be remembered as a man of his word. Gen Prayut will not.