BANGKOK – Well it is official, Thailand’s military dictator is now also Thailand’s prime minister. At 10.39am on August 25th Mr Prayuth Chan-ocha received the royal command in a ceremony held at the army’s headquarters in the capital, Bangkok. Dressed in a white army uniform, sword at his side, he knelt down before a larger-than-life oil painting of the king. The army leadership appeared in full strength. The press had been shut out but TV stations carried the occasion live. Mr Prayuth has become Thailand’s 29th prime minister—and the 16th army chief to assume the role.
Thailand’s new leader now wears three hats. Mr Prayuth is the head of a group that calls itself the National Council of Peace and Order; it has been running the country since he and his arch-royalist classmates sprung a coup d’état in May. As on the day when he ousted a civilian government, Mr Prayuth remains the army chief. From Monday, he is also the prime minister. It might look like the concentration of power has just become that much more extreme, but really this is only a function of the army’s wish to put a civilian veneer on its rule.
The king has already endorsed an interim constitution which grants the army absolutist powers. The new document is so retrograde as to make the constitution of 1997, which gave the people a voice, look like an aberration in Thai history. A national assembly has been seated, and begun to take up its docile work. The ID cards that were distributed to the legislators are not marked to expire until 2020—which leaves some people hoping there was a printing error. After all, the junta has promised to hold an election in late 2015.
On his retirement from the army, expected on September 30th, the 60-year-old Mr Prayuth is tipped to add the defence portfolio to his responsibilities. He has yet to form his cabinet, but details about the line-up have been rumoured for weeks. The expectation is that it will look like a carbon copy of the junta, printed on civilian stationery. General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, the supreme commander of the armed forces, might become the foreign minister. The head of the navy, Admiral Narong Pipattanasai, is poised to become education minister and Air Marshal Prajin Jingtong is likely to head the transport ministry. The assistant army chief is set to become a justice minister…and so on, down the ranks.
The pro-establishment press in Bangkok is trying to keep up the pretence that the army has stepped in to save democracy. It has run tributes to Thailand’s new leader that are of nearly North Korean proportions. The Nation informed its readers that Mr Prayuth’s childhood dream was to become a soldier and that he was “the best-looking boy in the class”. The general loves golf too, but nobody has yet hinted that he could ever outdo the late Kim Jong Il, who, according to North Korean state media, shot eleven holes-in-one the first time he ever played.
Mr Prayuth, says one who knows him well, is “thoroughly decent”. Though a reluctant coup-leader, says this person, “he’s the kind of character who will want finish the job”. The job he has set for himself includes some extraordinary feats. First he must demonstrate that Thailand’s economy—which is relatively small, open and currently stagnant—can return to rapid growth despite the dictatorship. Second, he must ensure that the soldiers now in charge of Thailand’s patronage system do not come to be seen as hijacking it for their own benefit. Third, he must make sure that ordinary people fare better economically. This is especially important to a leadership that rejects the principle that the people ought to be able to choose their government. And finally, he must keep the trust of the palace, the privy council and the army, when the waters get choppy and the current course starts to look like it might sink the old order sooner than save it.
To most Thais, this week’s formalization of another cycle of army rule seems to be of little practical import. Their attitude is sure to change however, if they find that they fared better under the populists who preceded the generals.
It is impossible to say when or whether democracy will return to Thailand. The generals do not seem likely to head for the exit next year, not unless utter failure should force them out. But they say it is their aim to build a “Thai-style democracy”, whatever that means. One hundred days into the generals’ rule it has become apparent that the doors are not open to criticism. Only a few Thais have tested the regime so far while many others have kept silent, presumably from fear of retribution.
The soldiers’ sense of timing may prove to be acute. Some will be offended by the very discussion of this fact, but it must be noted that Mr Prayuth and his classmates have chosen to act effectively as a caretaker regime at exactly the time that a royal succession seems imminent. The king is 86 years old and in poor health. Whoever the monarch will be, there is a deep schism between those people who favour a winner-takes-all approach to democratic politics, such as was practised for most of the decade before this coup, and their opponents, who believe self-appointed “moral people” should rule. Neither is a successful way to lead a country in the 21st century.