I know I am young and this has been used against me in the past ... but I am someone who will stick to my principles and my beliefs. And we are all getting older all the time.' That was a remark by new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva 11 years ago as he examined the challenges ahead in navigating the traditionally venal world of politics in his country. He was just 33 then, an eloquent and handsome product of Bangkok's academic and diplomatic elites and one keen to represent the higher aspirations of Thailand's emerging democracy. A spokesman for the Democrat Party, the country's oldest political grouping, Mr Abhisit was the great hope for those who wanted to welcome a new era of clean government after the corruption and meaningless money politics of the past. Despite the challenges of the Asian financial crisis, Thailand pushed through a bold new constitution in a bid to finally clean up its political system - and Mr Abhisit was a key proponent. All these years on, Mr Abhisit is, of course, older. At 44, he has kept his looks and clean-cut appeal. He may have entered office at the end of last year with his principles largely intact, too. But many analysts question whether they will be able to survive the compromises that inevitably accompany taking power at such a fraught time. An avowed democrat, Mr Abhisit is the unelected leader of a bitterly divided country. After a court disbanded the ruling People's Power Party, loyal to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the Democrats cobbled together a ruling coalition following some back-room deal-making. That meant compromises with political veterans markedly less high-minded than Mr Abhisit. Then there is the role of the army-dominated military. During long years in opposition, Mr Abhisit was one of the figures most critical of the excesses of Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire who became the most powerful political figure of his time. Mr Abhisit railed against corruption and cronyism, as well as deteriorating human rights and freedoms. Behind the scenes, the military was restive too. Eventually, the generals also tired of Thaksin and ousted him in a bloodless coup in September 2006. They cited corruption across his ruling Thai Rak Thai party and suggested he was not respectful of the Thai royal family. It was the first coup in 15 years, and has undoubtedly lowered the threshold for the tanks to move again. A pro-military constitution rammed through by the junta before it relinquished power further enshrines its role. Any Thai leader must privately know that they rule only at the behest of the military. It is against this backdrop that Mr Abhisit must deal with one of the first crises of his rule - an increasing tide of Rohingya boatpeople and mounting international concern about the manner of their expulsion from Thailand. A stateless Muslim tribe, the Rohingya flee Myanmar in small boats during winter calms in the Andaman Sea with the aim of making it to Malaysia. Many wash ashore in Thailand. A South China Morning Post investigation revealed that, in recent months, Thai army forces had towed more than 1,200 boatpeople out to sea and abandoned them in unpowered vessels. Hundreds died. The military has admitted 'pushing' migrants out to sea, but authorities said they were given adequate food and water supplies, and their boats were in working order. Their plight brings the challenges faced by Mr Abhisit into sharp relief. On the one hand, he is an avowed humanitarian and Oxford-educated liberal. On the other, he finds himself ruling with a newly assertive military behind the scenes. 'Mr Abhisit has always been eloquent but now, after the first couple of months, we are finding out that his rhetoric can sound empty and hollow,' said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a leading political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. 'We are finding out whether Mr Abhisit will be outclassed and overwhelmed with the challenges ... the feeling is that he is beholden to the military. 'The issue of the Rohingya will test Mr Abhisit's relationship with the military. He is saying some of the right things, but acting on them will be another matter ... and the widening gap is going to undermine his credibility,' Professor Thitinan added. Asian and western diplomats monitoring the situation privately echoed his views, noting that there was little room for manoeuvre for Mr Abhisit unless he wanted to risk an early confrontation with his military backers. The fact that he did not create the situation only added to the challenge. 'This is a chance for Mr Abhisit to show everyone that he is his own man,' said one veteran Asian envoy. 'So far, he has not risen to that challenge.' The problem can be traced to the Internal Security Operations Command, the feared ISOC, as it is known. A cold-war relic that successfully deployed both military and psychological warfare techniques against Thailand's communist insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s, ISOC was given a new lease of life after the 2006 coup. Tasked with lending support to the junta, as well as tackling a worsening Muslim insurgency in Thailand's deep south, ISOC was expanded and given a bigger budget. In theory, the prime minister provides civilian oversight to the command. But, in reality, Thai analysts say, ISOC operates in a para-legal twilight world marked by secrecy and under the direct watch of top military brass. One of Mr Abhisit's predecessors, Thaksin-ally Samak Sundaravej, demanded tough action against the Rohingya, including detaining them on a deserted island as a deterrent. By November, senior ISOC officer Colonel Manat Khongpan had arrived in Ranong on the Andaman coast to insist that the army would take over the handling of the Rohingya, according to local press reports. Colonel Manat has admitted visiting Rohingya on the deserted island of Koh Sai Daeng and providing funds for food and water but has insisted no Rohingya had been harmed. He also denied ISOC involvement, saying they were being handled by the police. After the Post reports last month sparked international media scrutiny, Mr Abhisit pledged a full investigation and repeatedly stressed Thailand's humanitarian traditions. He later confirmed, however, that ISOC had been put in charge of the investigation. He also tried to cast doubts on testimony from Rohingya about ill-treatment. Some who had washed ashore on India's Andaman Islands told of being towed at gunpoint from Thailand in unpowered boats and cast adrift in open seas with little food and water. Speaking on the fringes of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Mr Abhisit confirmed an investigation was continuing but questioned international news reporting on the plight of the Rohingya. 'I know there have been reports, but they appear to be based on the accounts of those who clearly want to be recognised as refugees and then put the burden on Thailand in particular,' he said. 'This policy that was adopted by ISOC had a number of principles, including not to violate their rights ... they have done what other countries do around the world.' Mr Abhisit has also sought to drive regional efforts to solve the problem. He had earlier pledged to crack down on illegal immigration and human trafficking, warning it would affect Thailand's national security as well as job opportunities for local labourers. 'Our problem is human trafficking. We have to investigate this issue and make our coastal security system more robust as there are multiple agencies looking after our coastline,' he said. The comments speak not only to his juggling act with the military, but also his efforts to play to the domestic gallery. There are few domestic votes in giving the Rohingya an easy ride - or even quietly tolerating them in the kind of border camps that have been home to other Myanmese, Laotian and Cambodian migrants for decades. Human-rights workers have long noted Thailand's efforts to quietly help migrants from its more troubled neighbours, but speak of a 'blind spot' towards the dark-skinned Muslim Rohingya. Conversely, Mr Abhisit needs to be careful not to play into nationalistic hands, a powder keg in a deeply divided post-Thaksin Thailand. Mr Abhisit's next steps towards the Rohingya and the investigations could define how he is able to wield his power. He is, after all, dealing with one of the toughest leadership challenges facing any regional leader, democratic or otherwise. It is tempting to think he might just feel his age by the time his tenure ends.