Thailand Has Long History of Coups, Military in Gov't

Few people expected Thailand's political crisis to lead to a coup. But when the military made its move, it was no surprise that Army Commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin was the person in charge.

The army chief's position has been a traditional springboard to the prime minister's seat in the days when the military was less shy about flexing its muscle.

Even so, as recently as last week, amid growing tensions in the wake of an alleged bomb plot against now-ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Gen. Sondhi was busy quashing coup rumors.

"Has the situation gone to that point? No. There is still a way to go by democratic means," said the 59-year-old officer. "We should stop talking about it. It is impossible."

Sondhi, the first Muslim army commander in Buddhist-dominated Thailand, was appointed to the top army post last year with a mission to deal with an Islamic insurgency in the country's south.

He was seen as bringing unique qualities to the job. As a former head of the special warfare command, he was considered especially suited to deal with counterinsurgency problems. That he served with Thai forces in the Vietnam War gave him added credibility.

"I will make the Royal Thai Army into the army of the people, and will make soldiers the beloved soldiers of the people," Sondhi said at his appointment. "We already have more than enough soldiers in the (southern) region, but we need tangible results from them."

Coups are nothing new to Thailand, but many had hoped that after 14 years of uninterrupted civilian rule the days of revolving door military regimes might finally be over.

Many believed that Thailand's economic and political maturing meant that coups were outdated in this age of globalization.

In recent months, however, mass protests and an impasse over flawed elections have thrown the country into its worst crisis since the last army takeover in 1991.

Prior to that, Thailand's political timeline is weighed down with long periods of military rule and sporadic attempts at democracy.

Even when massive anti-Thaksin demonstrations earlier this year threatened to erupt into violence, Sondhi kept his distance.

"Military coups are a thing of the past," he said, echoing comments from other top military officers. "Political troubles should be resolved by politicians."

But Sondhi is thought to be close to Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has expressed unhappiness with Thaksin's administration.

"The situation in the country is a cause of great suffering for His Majesty," Sondhi said in May. "If there is anything I and the army can do for the country, I am ready to do it because I am a soldier under the king."