Army chief to coup leader to prime minister

Army chief to coup leader to prime minister
Thailand's newly appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (above) waving as he leaves an anniversary celebration of the Queen's Guard regiment in Chonburi province, outside Bangkok. His position - he was the sole nominee for the premiership - was sealed by the army-appointed National Legislative Assembly (above) yesterday. There was no debate.

Thailand's army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has consolidated power, with the army-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) rubber-stamping him into the post of premier.

The 60-year-old general, who seized power on May 22, was the only name nominated for the prime minister's post yesterday, and drew 191 votes from the 194 members present in the 200-seat NLA. Three members abstained from voting. There was no debate.

The general, from the army's elite Burapha Phayak or "eastern tigers" clique which swears absolute loyalty to the King and Queen, was busy yesterday at a military celebration in Chonburi province south-east of Bangkok.

He declined to answer reporters' questions, saying he would wait for the endorsement of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Papers seeking the endorsement were forwarded to the ageing monarch last night.

But Gen Prayuth did say he was "not worried" about taking the post of Prime Minister.

A key factor in the overwhelming vote was the perception that it was necessary to have one man in charge rather than competing personalities at the top of the post-coup d'etat power structure, NLA member Anusart Suwannamongkol told The Straits Times.

Although Gen Prayuth will retire from the army at the end of next month, he will remain head of the junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and will be Prime Minister too.

As such, he has absolute power to push through reforms - aimed at restructuring the political system to curb the powers of civilian politicians and reinforcing the supremacy of the monarchy and the army in what he has been calling "Thai-style democracy".

Observers see this move as a backlash of the conservative elites against the populism of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the army in 2006 but whose political machine has won elections repeatedly despite his being in self-exile abroad from 2008 to avoid a jail term.

Gen Prayuth will form his Cabinet by the end of this month or early next month. His government will set up reform committees and a drafting panel to work on a new Constitution, which would be Thailand's 20th.

According to the general's time line, elections will take place in the last quarter of 2015, although sceptics warn that they could be delayed.

Internationally, the foreign community has little choice but to accept him as premier, out of pragmatism, say analysts.

But domestically, there will be bigger challenges if the flagging economy does not pick up steam; sections of the middle class begin to chafe at authoritarian rule; and the army mismanages the country or becomes tainted by corruption.

"It's not going to be rosy," cautioned Chulalongkorn University professor of political science Panitan Wattanayagorn, a former government spokesman. "Thai society is very dynamic, complex and full of competing forces."

Another analyst, who asked not to be named, noted that the general had not been inclusive, having replaced political power networks with his own network of loyalists. This would trigger discontent among those left out.

But some Thais have no issue with Gen Prayuth holding so much power. They include Ms Kesorn Chartprechakul, 35, a Krabi native who runs a clothing shop in Bangkok's Siam Square. She told The Straits Times the general was the only one who could control the country and restore its deeply divided society to the way "we used to be".

Still, many analysts see this attempt to re-establish a traditional hierarchical order after the last eight years of frequent turmoil as a doomed project.

Professor Michael Montesano, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said via e-mail: "Trying to impose a… 'new order' on Thailand in 2014 is an exercise in futility."

This article was first published on August 22, 2014.
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