Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Profile of Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin

Meteoric rise to Power

Never one of Thaksin's favourites, Sonthi is vknown to be softspoken and is respected for his professionalism .

Close to the country's King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and has been seen as an unofficial spokesman for the monarch.

After parliamentary elections in April, which were later annulled because of concerns about their legitimacy, he said that King Bhumibol was "saddened" by the situation.

When General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the leader of last night's coup, rose to become Army commander-in-chief in the annual military reshuffle October 2005, he did not really enjoy the confidence of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

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

Therefore, his appointment came as a surprise to many who thought Thaksin would finesse one of his former classmates into the job.

Sonthi's appointment was backed by retired armed forces Supreme Commander General Surayud Chulanont and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda. Both serve as advisers to His Majesty the 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 Thaksin's handling of the insurgency in the Malay Muslim majority southern provinces.
The Southern Malay Muslims has long been fighting for a seperation from Bangkok. The southern provinces were originally part of the ancient Malay Kingdom of Pattani, a region which adopted Islam in the mid-13th century. Thailand annexed the region in 1902.

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, 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, Sonthi repeatedly denied coup rumours stealing headlines and fuelling concerns of civil unrest.

During the past three months, Sonthi was seen with Prem at a number of high profile social functions and speeches.

These included Prem's controversial talk at Chulachomklao calling on cadets to reject corrupt leaders and reminding them their loyalty lay with His Majesty.

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

Softspoken and known for his professionalism, Sonthi shocked the public here and internationally with his admission that security agencies had accumulated "black lists" of suspected Malay Muslim militants in the southern ptovinces.

He stopped short of saying the list was used for indiscrinate and targeted killings Malay Muslims by the Thaksin administration.

He said the list created misunderstanding and was an obstacle to national reconciliation. He called for an end to blacklists.

The Army chief has often been singled out in Thaksin's criticisms whenever serious incidents in the South have erupted. This has failed to tarnish his reputation as a professional soldier. Most analysts see Thaksin as the real obstacle to reconciliation.

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

Interagency rivalries and overlapping division of Labour continue to be the hallmark of the government's handling of the insurgency.

This is expected to be high on Sonthi's agenda even amid the political turmoil in Bangkok.

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