By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, April 30 (Reuters) - When there’s a power struggle in Thailand, you can guarantee wily political heavyweight General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh won’t be far away.
The one-time prime minister thrives in the rough and tumble world of Thai politics and has in recent weeks been thrust into the spotlight of one of the worst crises in Thailand in decades.
As chairman of the opposition Puea Thai Party, analysts and commentators say the political veteran, who at 77 is a month older than Thailand’s fragile democracy, wants to get his hands on the premiership one more time.
The self-proclaimed peacemaker known to Thais as "Big Jiew" (small), a military nickname, says he only has the country’s best interests at heart.
On Friday, the former army commander-in-chief delivered a windy one-hour speech on Thailand’s democratic history and mapped out a plan to haul the country out of the political quagmire by forming a "provisional government".
Embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is distrustful of Chavalit’s motives. Wary of his powerful connections, the government has moved against him with accusations he is part of a clandestine plot to overthrow Thailand’s revered monarchy.
Abhisit also alluded to his involvement in a bloody April 10 clash between troops and "red shirt" protesters when masked black-clad gunmen suspected of being recruited with the help of Chavalit wreaked havoc before disappearing without a trace from a riot that left 25 dead and more than 800 injured.
But as is usual with Chavalit, a teflon-coated schmoozer and skilled behind-the-scenes operator, the mud never seems to stick.
Chavalit fiercely denied having anything to do with the shadowy assailants, who many experts believe could be members of ranger units he put together in the 1970s to fight communists.
Instead of waiting to be summoned for questioning by the authorities, Chavalit donned his military uniform on Friday and visited an army base housing Abhisit to deliver a letter pledging his loyalty to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Chavalit also mentioned that Abhisit was incompetent, saying he could do a far better job.
POLITICAL DOUBLE ACT
But what has riled Abhisit and Thailand’s conservative elites is Chavalit’s political double act with ousted and exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, widely believed to be the de facto leader of Puea Thai and the red-shirted protesters.
Chavalit’s provocative visit to Cambodia to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen triggered a massive diplomatic row when he returned to announce Hun Sen had offered Thaksin, who has been convicted of graft, asylum and a job as an economic advisor.
A smiling Chavalit shrugged off criticism and insisted he was trying to mend bridges between the two countries.
With many of Thaksin’s political heavyweights serving five-year bans after courts dissolved two of his parties, Chavalit came to the rescue of a flagging Puea Thai, which he immediately reinforced with scores of retired army generals, who are always handy men to have around in Thai politics.
His military achievements have been largely restricted to parliamentary politics.
In 1987, as army chief, Chavalit sent troops to fight a three-month border war with the rag-tag army of impoverished Laos and suffered one of Thailand’s most humiliating military defeats.
Chavalit began his political career a year later as defence minister, also taking interior minister and deputy prime minister posts before finally getting a shot at the top job in 1996 after his New Aspiration Party won the most seats in an election.
He lasted for only 12 months and resigned under pressure after his government came under fire for botched fiscal policies that led to the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis.
He has since served as deputy prime minister in two governments led or backed by Thaksin and has emerged as the key power-broker in Puea Thai, while his well-heeled associate remains in exile to avoid a two-year prison term for graft.
Chavalit controversially requested an audience with the King recently to find a way out of the crisis. He has not heard back from the palace and has instead announced a "road map" to heal Thailand’s dangerous rifts and build a stronger democracy.
However, the first step of his ambitious plan appears fundamentally flawed.
It hinges on an earlier-than-planned election, which is already the biggest bone of contention and something the government and its backers are refusing to call.
"We shouldn’t fight anymore," he told reporters. "We have to stop this. We must not take sides, we must work together." (Editing by Bill Tarrant)