BANGKOK - Thailand's junta leader swatted away his critics Wednesday vowing to remain in power "despite how much you hate me", as political tensions simmer ahead of a referendum the military says will pave the way for elections.
Thailand's mercurial Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha seized power two years ago from the elected government, promising to heal the country's bitter decade-long political divide.
But critics say his regime has curbed free speech, outlawed political activities and has penned a new charter to entrench its role in government.
"I won't go anywhere as long as the country is not at peace and in order. I won't leave, despite how much you hate me," Prayut, who is renowned for his often irate outbursts, said in remarks to a forum in Bangkok.
On the surface, Thailand's political climate has calmed significantly under the junta, after years of competing street protests that often turned deadly.
But disquiet is returning ahead of an August referendum on their charter, despite a new law punishing campaigning in the run up to the vote with 10 years in prison.
The junta has promised elections will go ahead in 2017 but has not clarified what will happen if the charter is rejected in the referendum, raising fears the timetable will slip once again.
On Wednesday Prayut also defended the sweeping powers granted to him as junta chief under a law known as Section 44.
"It is still necessary to use Section 44 to ensure peace and move (the country) towards an election... there are still some politicians expressing their opinions," he said.
His comments come after the junta appeared to be loosening its grip on the country by lifting travel restrictions on many former politicians and promising to move its "attitude adjustment" sessions -- a common punishment for critics -- from military camps to government buildings and police stations.
Critics say the junta is bent on dismantling the powerful political network run by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose parties have dominated the polls but are reviled by Bangkok's military-allied elite.
Analysts say Thailand's political troubles are exacerbated by the failing health of its 88-year-old monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej as competing elites jostle for power ahead of the succession.