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Robert Horn/Bangkok

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 reticent coupmaker. But he may have felt forced to act. By some claims, Thaksin Shinawatra’s henchmen were allegedly planning a violent incident in Bangkok that would have given him an excuse to declare a state of emergency, seize direct control of the army and rule by decree. By launching a coup, Sonthi may have beaten the Prime Minister to the punch. Others say the coup served to pre-empt Thaksin’s plans for a military reshuffle that would have strengthened his grip on power and weakened Sonthi and his allies. In any case, says Kasit Piromya, a former diplomat who once helped write policy papers for Thaksin, “I think [Sonthi] did this reluctantly. There really was no choice.”

In some ways, it’s surprising that Sonthi ever came to be army chief. Born near Bangkok, he’s the first Muslim in this predominantly Buddhist nation to hold the position. Sonthi is a descendant of Thailand’s first Islamic spiritual leader, and his mother was a lady-in-waiting at the royal court. After graduating from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Thailand’s West Point, in 1969, Sonthi received training in the U.S., served with the Thai contingent in the Vietnam War, became an expert in counterinsurgency, and went on to lead Thailand’s Special Forces. He was promoted to army chief in 2005 in a compromise between the palace and Thaksin, who installed his own loyalists to command key units around Bangkok.

As tensions bristled between Thaksin and the army, Sonthi transferred those loyalists to far-flung posts in July. He openly complained in recent weeks that he was still being pressured to promote Thaksin’s friends. Given the responsibility of ending the Muslim insurgency in the south, Sonthi proposed talks with separatist leaders. Thaksin ignored his advice—and the violence continued. The former Prime Minister had already lost faith in Sonthi when the army chief refused his request to use troops to quash anti-Thaksin protests last March. Said a Western diplomat based in Bangkok at the time: “[Sonthi] wanted no part of getting the army involved in politics.” Yet he now finds himself at the apex of Thai politics. No one is quite sure how Sonthi will handle it. “I believe he’s a straightforward person,” says Somchai Homlaor, a human-rights lawyer in Bangkok. “But power can change people.” Thais will be praying it doesn’t change Sonthi.

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