BANGKOK (TIP): He’s a mercurial army general known for penning saccharine ballads and angry tirades against his critics. Now Thailand’s junta chief has launched a new eye-catching project: trimming the waistlines of the kingdom’s civil servants.

Former army chief turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha ditched his fatigues for a tracksuit and trainers Wednesday as he led hundreds of bureaucrats in an mass exercise session.

As music blasted out of loudspeakers he boxed, played volleyball and led an aerobics class, complete with star-jumps and squats, alongside hundreds of employees of Government House.

The trim 62-year-old, who seized power in 2014, has ordered all civil servants to exercise every Wednesday afternoon following concerns that Thailand’s famously laid back attitude to life has thickened their waistlines.

Prayut revels in being macho, plain-speaking and unpredictable — a demeanour that creates many amusing press appearances and is a gift to social media meme-makers.

Highlights have included him kicking a muay thai boxer, throwing a banana at a cameraman, tickling a reporter’s ear and riding a bike around Government House as his security detail jogged behind in the tropical heat.

Each Friday night he delivers a nationally broadcast “bringing happiness back” speech in which he doles out advice to Thais — anything from how to get foreigners to appreciate pungent durian fruit to the best Korean soap opera.

He has also written two ballads since his coup emphasising love for the nation and what it means to be Thai.

Thailand has been politically divided since the military launched a coup in 2006 that toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his elected government.

Years of debilitating street protests and another coup in 2014 that toppled Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s sister – followed.

The Shinawatra clan is loved by Thailand’s rural and urban poor.

But they are loathed by Bangkok’s middle classes and military elite, who say the family were corrupt.

Prayut has vowed to bridge the country’s divides but reconciliation seems far off.

His critics see him as the most authoritarian ruler Thailand has had in a generation. Some have likened him to Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, a Second World War-era dictator who famously issued decrees on how Thais should behave, including how long they should sleep for, how they should spend their days off and how they should dress. (AFP)