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Date: 12/26/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Politics


IN one of their worst years economically, Thais have seen extraordinary things happen. The Thai military regained public confidence by distancing itself from politics, while popular faith in one of the strongest religious institutions -- Wat Dhammakaya -- wavered amid a range of controversies. Politically, a rural doctor's crusade blew open the lid on a Pandora's box of corruption. And society's desperate search for inspiration in a year of gloom found, again, a ''good samaritan'' who wasn't quite one.


BY a curious combination of fate and professionalism, Gen Surayuth Julanont was catapulted to take the Army's helm in October as a dark-horse contender.

In almost an overnight transformation, Surayuth emerged from obscurity to make an impact with several unprecedented changes in the country's political and military landscape. And his major achievements have so far been derived mostly from declared inaction rather than the profuse activities pursued by his military predecessors.

Less than three months on the job, the new Army commander-in-chief has proved true to his word of keeping the military out of politics, even though he has yet to steer the Army to a new height of professionalism.

Known as the man who gets his mission accomplished without attracting attention to himself, the Army commander began his tenure by resigning his Senate seat and other non-military appointments. The reason? To focus his full attention on the Army affairs.

Surayuth's retreat from politics has already set precedents for his military peers to refrain from politicking.

Based on news reports during the last quarter of this year, the military suddenly stopped meddling with politics. There were no daily comments from military leaders on matters outside their responsibility. And there was no speculation about behind-the-scenes politicking by the military as often happened before.

With Surayuth distancing himself from politics -- the act which past military leaders talked about but failed to implement -- the military now seems to have more breathing space to develop professionally and not to be distracted by the political struggle with an adverse impact on democracy.

Regarding the military restructuring, the new Army commander has set in motion several changes, aiming at a leaner and modernised armed force even though it is too early to evaluate the outcome.

Some encouraging results on military discipline and transparency have already started to emerge.

Servicemen who run the protection and debt-collection racket have scaled down their activities, although they have not totally disappeared.

Under a new policy of military accountability, the public has gained access for the first time to lucrative concession contracts on Army-run radio and television stations.

On the military's duty to safeguard national security, Surayuth has hinted at a new policy of non-acquiescence in the hot pursuit operation by a neighbouring country, especially on the western border.

In the past the Army was strongly criticised for its inadequate response to border violations caused by the spill-over of fighting between Burmese troops and rebel minority forces.

Surayuth, commissioned into the service of the special warfare corps in 1966, earned a reputation for his professionalism as he led troops to fight against communist terrorism during the Cold War.

By an act of fate he had to wage the ideological war on the opposite side of his father, Col Payom Chulanont, who lived in exile with the Communist Party of Thailand in Beijing.

After serving combat duty, he moved on to work as a close aide to former premier Gen Prem Tinsulanonda -- who is now the president of the Privy Council -- between 1980 and 1988 when he gained national prominence by tackling the problem of rice shortages.

Now, with five years to go before retirement, he is mandated to become the longest-serving Army chief in more than two decades with a clear view to improving military professionalism.

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