BANGKOK (Reuters) - Just months before his retirement, Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has taken on a responsibility he may much rather have dodged.
"Prayuth in charge," the Nation newspaper blared across its front page on Wednesday, a day after the 60-year-old soldier declared martial law, putting himself at the centre of a nearly decade-long political impasse.
"What we have now has been described as 'half a coup' or 'martial law light'," said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane's.
"It basically puts the lid on further conflict over the short term but leaves him holding the political ball."
At a meeting of government agency heads on Tuesday, people present said Prayuth came across like an exasperated school headmaster, chiding the head of the government's investigation agency for pressing charges against a protest leader.
"Stop, enough. In terms of prosecutions, softly, softly, OK? Otherwise this business will never end," Prayuth told the agency chief, according to participants at the meeting.
Protesters took to Bangkok's streets in November, accusing the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of corruption and nepotism. Since then, nearly 30 people have been killed in sporadic violence.
Prayuth denied that martial law amounted to a military coup, and said he had acted to restore order and investor confidence.
Yingluck, the younger sister of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was herself removed by a court ruling last week, but her caretaker government remains in place.
The government and the Shinawatras' "red shirt" supporters want an election as soon as possible. But the anti-government protesters want a "neutral" interim prime minister to oversee electoral reforms to end what they see as the corruption of politics by former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin's wealth.
Both camps now have protesters on the streets and gunmen in their ranks.
Prayuth warned last week the military might have to step in after a gun and grenade attack on anti-government protesters in which three people were killed and about 20 wounded, leaving the steps of the historic Democracy Monument smeared in blood.
"This is not a place he wanted to be in," said Davis. "My sense is this was intended to pre-empt the likelihood of more and escalating violence in coming days. He's always been a professional soldier. He's now playing a political game that he's not necessarily good at, in tough conditions."
The military has mounted 18 successful or attempted coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 but the irascible general, known for his testy exchanges with the media, has made clear since he became army chief in October 2010 that he would be extremely reluctant to follow suit.
He is close to the palace, the heart of Thailand's establishment. He also belongs to a powerful clique that includes former defence officials and retired officers who despise Thaksin.
But army officers say Prayuth is loath to see a repeat of a September 2006 coup that he helped execute as a deputy regional commander, which plunged the country into years of turmoil and, in the end, failed to end Thaksin's influence.
"Prayuth is aware that dealing with the problem by staging a coup is not constructive and, after a while, the same problems will come back again," army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhadhpatipak said earlier this year.
Prayuth has also been driven by a desire to restore the army's image after clashes with pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010, when he was deputy army chief, in which more than 90 people were killed.
He established a cordial relationship with Yingluck after her election in 2011 and repeatedly said he wanted the military to remain politically neutral.
He also has to be mindful of fissures within the army with some soldiers openly sympathetic towards Thaksin's cause.
Aides say he struggled for days with the decision to impose martial law, with lots of late-night meetings.
The 100-year-old law he invoked gives the military broad powers over civilian authorities to maintain security, but beyond that, it's not clear if Prayuth has any grand strategy.
"I'm not sure he has a concrete plan, other than trying to get all the protesters off the streets," said Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think-tank.
"I don't think he can push the actual movements into a compromise - they are too embedded to do so. I think right now he is just trying to stop the violence from spiralling up, and then see what happens."
Thak Chaloemtiarana, a Thai academic at Cornell University in the United States, said Prayuth was walking a delicate line in trying not to be seen to take sides.
But while striving to maintain the semblance of an even-handed guarantor of security, Prayuth is unlikely to back the caretaker government's call for an early election. He is instead likely to favour the appointment by the Senate of an interim prime minister to oversee reforms.
"My own sense is that the army may want to tackle 'reform' first before allowing elections to take place," said Thak.
But Thaksin's "red shirt" supporters, seething with frustration that another government they elected is under such pressure, have warned of trouble if the caretaker administration is pushed aside and elections put off.
"The next few days will be telling," Thak said. "The test will be how martial law will deal with the public demonstrations."
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Simon Webb; Editing by Martin Petty and Alex Richardson)
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