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Thailand has never been short on ruthless generals with a lust to rule. Since 1932, when a clique of army officers and politicians overthrew the last absolute monarch, the kingdom has suffered 18 coups. Yet the man whose tanks rolled into Government House in Bangkok last week, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army, never appeared to harbor such ambitions. "He's not someone with an appetite for political power," says Panitan Wattanayagorn of the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok.

A soft-spoken, mild-mannered 59-year-old with a reputation for integrity, Sonthi is perhaps Thailand's most...

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