Thailand’s military ruler Prayuth Chan-Ocha has already given himself absolute power as head of the junta that controls the country. Now he’s looking to add legitimacy by taking on the role of prime minister.
It will be tough to convince critics that his appointment to the premiership today by his hand-picked legislature is anything more than the consolidation of power by a junta that has used the threat of detention and military trial to crack down on all dissent since ousting the elected government on May 22, in the country’s 12th coup in 82 years.
“Thai strongmen have long wanted to dignify their illegal hold on the country by assuming the title of prime minister,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “And General Prayuth clearly sees himself as the latest in a long line of such strongmen.”
Prayuth, who is also army chief, has said the installation of an interim government is the next step in his plan to reform Thai politics and society before returning the country to elections in late 2015 at the earliest. It’s unclear what those reforms will look like, how inclusive they will be and whether the Thailand that emerges from them resembles the “happiness-filled” democracy that Prayuth, 60, has said his tactics will produce.
Prayuth’s own comments to the National Legislative Assembly, which is dominated by military men and other members of the country’s traditional elite, indicate that the interim government will be under control of the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order.
“You don’t have to worry no matter who will become ministers or prime minister,” he told a meeting of the assembly on Aug. 18 while introducing a budget bill that was passed unanimously. “We can control them and make them work.”
Prayuth was the only candidate nominated by the assembly today, and the vote to name him prime minister was unanimous. Prayuth was in the eastern Thai province of Chonburi attending a military event.
Among Prayuth’s most pressing challenges as premier is jump-starting an economy that avoided slipping into a technical recession in the second quarter, after shrinking 1.9 percent in the first three months of 2014. The perception of increased political stability has helped lure back investors, with the benchmark SET Index (SET) of stocks rising 11 percent since the putsch, and the baht strengthening 1.9 percent against the dollar, the most among major Asian currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
Even though a temporary, junta-written constitution gives Prayuth absolute power over the country and any appointed government, keeping the prime minister’s post for himself will ensure that the junta’s plans for the country are implemented without interference, Montesano said.
“Prayuth has made clear that he likes to rule actively, even to micro-manage,” Montesano said. “If he were NCPO head but not prime minister, he would have to rule through an agent. And, despite his having full authority over that agent, the process by which he dictated policies and measures would be more complicated.”
Prayuth said he staged the coup to stop a civil war from breaking out in a society divided by a decade of often deadly protests by supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin and his allies have won every election since 2001 on support from the nation’s rural majority. That dominance swung the traditional balance of power away from an elite centered in Bangkok, who accused Thaksin of vote buying and seeking to usurp the popularity of Thailand’s monarchy.
The 2006 coup was seen by the elite as a failure because Thaksin’s proxy party, led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won the very next election, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. One of the perceived mistakes was quickly handing power to an appointed government headed by people outside the junta.
“Prayuth has learned the lesson of the 2006 coup, and that is don’t dissect the authority during military rule,” Chambers said. “It’s better to just have one person do the job.”
Since toppling Yingluck’s government , Prayuth has used his power to temporarily detain hundreds of politicians, academics and activists, ban political gatherings, transfer civil servants seen as loyal to the Shinawatras and lay out plans for his overhaul of the nation. Each Friday night, he takes over every television station in the country to air his “Returning Happiness to the People” program.
The show, which sometimes lasts as long as two hours, features the junta leader sharing his thoughts on everything from reform of the police to the price of rambutans. He shifts from telling farmers how to plant their rice crop to explaining why it’s important for people to behave themselves on social media. He often includes a section on “social psychology,” sometimes sharing his thoughts on the values he believes all Thais must have.
“All problems that have arisen in this country are the result of people’s different beliefs and attitudes,” he said on the Aug. 1 program. “Therefore, we need to adjust their values and attitudes in order for Thai people to be nice, sharing, caring, smiling, moral, and ethical, and for them to know their duties.”
He also warns against those calling for a quick return to democracy and complaining about rules and regulations or what political reforms will look like.
“I say these people might not be Thai,” he said Aug. 1. “Thai people have to put the interests of the nation before those of their own. That is what we think, as the people’s military. If people keep worrying about the country not being a democracy, or not having elections, or about the effect on a party’s votes when there can no longer be populist policies, we will not go anywhere.”
While his tactics are popular with many opposed to Thaksin, the junta has been criticized by Western governments and rights groups. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Aug. 19 it was concerned by the increased use of the lese-majeste law, which mandates jail sentences as long as 15 years for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.
“The threat of the use of the lese-majeste laws adds to the chilling effects on freedom of expression observed in Thailand after the coup, and risks curbing critical debate on issues of public interest,” the office said in a statement.
Prayuth has said that the next step for the junta will be appointing a Reform Council, which will suggest changes in areas including politics, law, education and the media. It will also set up a constitutional drafting committee that will write a new charter to replace the interim document. Once that’s completed, Prayuth has said elections could be held if there is no unrest or dissent.
“I think this is going to be a very reactionary government because this is the second time a coup has had to occur to dislodge a pro-Thaksin elected government,” Chambers said. The new constitution is likely to be less democratic than previous charters and will “go the extra mile to keep the ‘ignorant’ people from electing the ‘wrong’ politicians.”
Until then, the junta is unlikely to ease restrictions it has put in place, such as the implementation of martial law, Montesano said.
“That is likely to happen only if unhappiness with it grows among members of the Thai middle class, something of which we have seen no sign yet, or as a gesture to suggest that Thailand is back on track to normalcy despite its rule by military dictatorship,” he said. “That suggestion will, of course, be a lie.”
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