The Thai army, which was accused of conducting a “silent coup” this week, is planning to deploy soldiers to rural areas to persuade unhappy peasants to support the new government.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 44-year-old Etonian, became prime minister on Monday after the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, was widely reported to have encouraged or coerced MPs to support him.
Only a year ago Mr Abhisit was decisively defeated in national elections by supporters of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Thaksin enjoys devoted support among the poor, especially in the populous and rural north east of Thailand, a region known as Isan.
“Basically I love Isan people,” said Gen Anupong.
“Soldiers can go into the local areas and talk to people there,” he explained. “We can’t force them to love certain people. If they get angry we have to talk with them calmly. And I want to talk with them.”
Gen Anupong, who is responsible for airport security, did nothing to stop anti-Thaksin demonstrators who recently overran Bangkok’s airports, stranding 350,000 travellers. The protests ended when a court dissolved the ruling party and the former opposition then formed a new government with Gen Anupong’s very public approval.
Mr Thaksin’s supporters, in a group called the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) also known as the “red shirts”, believe that the army carried out a “silent coup” against the elected government.
The general implied he is willing to overlook northern voters’ behaviour at the ballot box as long as they do not continue to oppose the new administration.
“They’ve done nothing wrong,” he said of northerners in general. “I don’t want to call them the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship or red shirts because they are people the government must take care of.”
General Anupong was a member of the junta which overthrew Mr Thaksin’s government in a bloodless coup in 2006. The new army installed government then rewrote the constitution to limit the power of elected politicians.
Army documents leaked during 2007 showed the military leadership equated the Thaksinites with communists who were suppressed in a 1970s counter-insurgency campaign.
Mr Thaksin is a multi-millionaire telecoms tycoon who was supported by the poor because of his cheap health care and rural development policies. He is loathed by the urban middle class and the elite in the army and royal palace.
Mr Thaksin’s enemies say he is corrupt, autocratic and a threat to the country’s monarchy.
Fifteen months after the coup his supporters convincingly won elections for the third time in a row, but less than a year later they have once again been forced from power.
The Thai army has fought few foreign wars in modern times but dominates the country’s politics, mounting 18 coups since 1932.
Unarmed democracy protesters were massacred by soldiers in 1973, 1976 and 1992.
The army owns several television and radio stations and generals appointed themselves to the boards of several lucrative state enterprises following the 2006 coup.