ONE February night in 1991 Thai army chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon was dining at the Oriental Hotel's China House restaurant. By chance an old rival, just named defence minister, was eating nearby. You can be sure the suave General Suchinda did not stoop to throwing rolls at General Arthit Kamlang-ek. But neither good manners nor the niceties of constitutional government stopped General Suchinda and his friends from overthrowing an elected government the next morning. Now, three elections after that coup, people are again talking about the chance of the military pushing into politics. Driving the speculation is the Government's reputation for being peopled with politicians who are out to make a fast buck. Everyone here remembers how the excesses of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan's notorious Buffet Cabinet gave ambitious soldiers a convenient excuse to take over. General Wimon Wongwanich, who retired last week as army chief, is a professional soldier who appears genuinely averse to coups. But it is notoriously hard for outsiders to know what is happening inside the Thai Army, an organisation built on lifetime friendships and riven with cliques. A diplomat described it thus: 'A business, a career office, a social club and - if pushed - sometimes even a fighting force'. Friendships that shape careers are forged during the five years officer cadets spend at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Thailand's West Point. The 1991 coup was led almost entirely by Class Five graduates from Chulachomklao. More often than not, the country's much vaunted democracy has been a facade behind which military cliques jockey for power. This is even though the generals affect an attitude of contempt toward the corrupt ways of Parliament. Yet an examination of the reasons why the military has overthrown an elected government four times (1991, 1976, 1948 and 1947) and suspended parliaments serving military regimes three times (1951, 1958 and 1971) shows they were mostly grabs for raw power. The generals' ability to buy politicians and crush genuinely democratic parties has provided the shaky historical platform which allowed former prime minister Chuan Leekpai to win plaudits for holding a government together for a record 21/2 years. Although the military no longer controls Cabinet appointments, the widespread money politics that put the current Government in power still suits the generals because it keeps pliable politicians in power. The traditional press hoo-ha over the annual military reshuffle that promoted an ally of army chief turned politician Chavalit Yongchaiyudh may have been overdone locally. But if Mr Chavalit is indeed preparing for a tilt at the premiership, it shows how necessary he thinks it is to have someone dressed in green watch his back.