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Thursday September 21, 2006

Sonthi’s meteoric ascent to power


WHEN General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the leader of Tuesday night’s coup, rose to become army commander-in-chief in the annual military reshuffle last October, he did not really enjoy the confidence of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  

Gen Sonthi built his career at the Special Warfare Command. But he was not considered a member of Thaksin’s clique.  

Gen Sonthi: His appointment as Thai army commander-in-chief last October came as a surprise as he was not a member of Thaksin’s clique.
Therefore, his appointment came as a surprise to many who thought Thaksin would position one of his former classmates into the job.  

Gen Sonthi’s appointment was backed by retired armed forces Supreme Commander General Surayud Chulanont and Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda. Both serve as advisers to the Thai king.  

The army chief - the first Muslim to take the powerful post - was reportedly on his way out and on to an inactive post in the current round of military appointments taking effect next month.  

This was a result of frequent differences with Thaksin over a number of issues, including the handling of the insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern provinces.  

Gen Sonthi, 59, graduated from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in 1969 and was commissioned into the Royal Army Infantry Corps.  

He went on to lead several top units, including the elite Special Warfare Command.  

When the country’s political conflict worsened recently, Gen Sonthi said: “As a soldier of His Majesty, I would like to help him relieve his worries, and the army will adhere strictly to whatever advice he gives us.”  

As the political situation worsened, Gen Sonthi repeatedly denied coup rumours stealing headlines and fuelling concerns of civil unrest.  

During the past three months, Gen Sonthi was seen with Prem at a number of high-profile social functions and speeches, including Prem's controversial talk at Chulachomklao, calling on cadets to reject corrupt leaders.  

Prem likened the military to horses, the government to jockeys and said the king was the real owner of the horses.  

Soft-spoken and known for his professionalism, Gen Sonthi shocked the public here and internationally with his admission that security agencies had accumulated “blacklists” of suspected ethnic Malay Muslim militants in the southern provinces.  

He stopped short of saying the list was used for targeted killings. Gen Sonthi said the list created misunderstandings, and was an obstacle to national reconciliation. He called for an end to the blacklists.  

The army chief has often been singled out by Thaksin whenever serious incidents erupt in southern Thailand. But most analysts see Thaksin as the real obstacle to reconciliation.  

The billionaire politician never gave Gen Sonthi a much-needed mandate to deal with the complex command structures of myriad security agencies in the region.  

This is expected to be high on Gen Sonthi’s agenda even amid the political turmoil in Bangkok. – The Nation / Asia News Network 

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