Thai Opposition Red Shirts Balk at New Army Chief

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General Prayuth Chan-ocha looks on at a ceremony in Bangkok, Aug. 25, 2010

Thailand's opposition movement expressed fears Friday over the appointment of General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new commander of the Royal Thai Army, comparing the general to past military dictators and predicting he will be tougher on dissent. Prayuth's promotion, along with the appointment of a new national police chief, consolidates power in the security forces among officers with strong royalist views.

Thailand's elected Prime Minister is Abhisit Vejjajiva, but his imposition earlier this year of a state of emergency in response to protests by the opposition group known as the Red Shirts has shifted power over security affairs to the hands of a council that includes the army chief, police chief and prime minister. Though the state of emergency has been lifted in most parts of the country, many political gatherings have been banned and websites and community radio stations shut down. Local elections in Bangkok have smoothly proceeded, but there continue to be sporadic grenade attacks in the capital, with many pointing to the Red Shirts as the culprits.

The Thai King formally appointed Prayuth on Thursday to succeed his predecessor, who is retiring. Upon his promotion, Prayuth did little to allay the concerns of human-rights groups over the military's growing role. "As the political situation remains critical, the armed forces must take the lead in ensuring security and order for a longer period," Prayuth was quoted as saying on Friday by the Bangkok Post. He had pledged earlier to return the troops to the barracks, a standard bromide of Thai army chiefs to appease the public.

"The danger is that Prayuth will try to crush us, and in all likelihood, repression will increase," says Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). "He's a decisive commander in the style of the old field marshals," he says, referring to Thailand's past military dictators who brooked no opposition and were instrumental in restoring the monarchy to prominence in the 1950s and '60s.

Known as the Red Shirts for the color they wear, the UDD staged a two-month protest from March through May, occupying large areas of central Bangkok while demanding that the prime minister dissolve parliament and call new elections. The army dispersed the demonstrators on May 19. Red Shirts burned more than 30 buildings in the capital as they fled, while their supporters torched government buildings in several outlying provinces. During the two months of disturbances, 91 people were killed, including 11 soldiers, and about 2,000 were wounded. Several Red Shirt leaders have been arrested and the state of emergency is still in effect in Bangkok and a handful of provinces.

Prayuth commanded the May 19 operation to clear Bangkok of the protest camps, according to reports in the English-language Bangkok Post and the Nation, and had been pushing for tougher action against the Red Shirts since the protest began. His superior and mentor, army chief General Anupong Paochinda, was viewed as wanting to take a more cautious approach.

The widely expected promotion of Prayuth was formally approved by constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday as part of an annual reshuffle that saw 550 military officers promoted or transferred. Prayuth will take the reins on Oct. 1. That date will mark the retirement of General Anupong, the last actively serving member of the Council for National Security, a group of generals who staged the bloodless coup on Sept. 19, 2006, that ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Many Red Shirts still support Thaksin, who fled Thailand rather than serve a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction. One reason for the Red Shirts' rejection of an offer from Abhisit of early elections in exchange for ending their protest, according to several analysts, was that the proposed date for the polls in November would have still come after this week's military reshuffle. The Red Shirts, they say, wanted to gain power earlier to prevent Prayuth's promotion and install an army commander friendlier to Thaksin.

At the age of 56, Prayuth could remain as army chief for as long as four years before having to retire mandatorily at 60. Along with most of the generals appointed to top positions, he is a veteran of the Queen's Guard unit, as is the new chief of the Royal Thai Police, General Wichean Potephosree. The police were widely seen as sympathetic to Thaksin and the Red Shirts during the protests and were nicknamed "tomatoes" by the public. Factions of the military are also seen as still loyal to Thaksin, and some analysts have raised concerns that the apparent preference for placing power in the hands of officers from one particular unit and holding one particular political viewpoint will increase divisiveness within the military.