BANGKOK - The Thai general who led a coup last year said on Thursday he was happy to stay on as leader if given a mandate at a general election next year, calling on Thais to "protect me from both outside the country and within the country".
Since overthrowing Yingluck Shinawatra's government in May last year, Prayuth Chan-ocha has been criticised by countries such as the United States for his undemocratic rise and his zero-tolerance approach to dissent.
Prayuth, who was chosen as prime minister last year by an interim legislature dominated by the military he commands, has promised to give Thailand "true democracy" as fast as possible and has long denied having political aspirations.
"If the people want me to stay, they have to find a way for me to stay, then I will and I can," Prayuth told reporters. "But everyone must find a way to protect me from both outside the country and within the country."
The junta expects a general election around August 2016 to give time for a referendum to be held to give the public the final say in passing a new constitution.
Thailand's intractable conflict has festered for a decade and broadly pits a royalist establishment with staunch military support against a powerful political machine created by self-exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra.
The billionaire's populist juggernaut has won every election since 2001 on massive rural support and has endured two coups, two party dissolutions and scores of political bans.
Its opponents say it is a vehicle for rampant graft and cronyism.
Prayuth has frequently come under fire from rights groups and the United Nations for using military courts, threatening opponents and the media and allowing detentions without charge.
The dropping of martial law in April failed to appease his detractors, who said its replacement - article 44 of the junta's interim constitution - was even more authoritarian.
Prayuth said he thrived on that kind of criticism. "People still attack me and say that I want to prolong my power," he said.
"Many people say that I am undemocratic, that I did not come from an election. I'm not afraid of these words, the more abuse I get, the more motivated I am."