photo: Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was chosen as prime minister by the National Legislative Assembly, whose members were handpicked by the junta last month. Credit Pm.Amaro/Associated Press
The army general who led the overthrow of Thailand’s elected government in May was named prime minister Thursday by a rubber-stamp legislature, sealing the military’s acquisition of near-absolute power in a country once considered a regional beacon of political freedom.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was chosen as prime minister by the National Legislative Assembly, whose members were handpicked by the junta last month. There were no dissenting votes, and General Prayuth, who was attending a military ceremony outside of Bangkok and was not present, was the only candidate.
Thailand has a long history of generals seizing power, but the military this time has been more aggressive in rooting out democratic institutions than after the last coup in 2006. All forms of popular elections have been suspended, including those for local councils that first appeared well over a century ago when Thailand was still an absolute monarchy.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 86 years old and ailing, endorsed the junta soon after the coup and was expected to formally approve General Prayuth’s selection as prime minister.
The ascendance this year of military power in Thailand goes against a recent trend of greater democratization in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, which for decades was ruled by a military strongman, a populist governor, Joko Widodo, defeated a former general in the July presidential election. Meanwhile, Thailand’s western neighbor, Myanmar, is embracing multiparty democracy after five decades of harsh military dictatorship.
Thailand’s military says it will eventually restore democracy. But the junta has not provided a firm timetable for elections, and an interim constitution introduced by the military says that democracy, when it is restored, will be “suitable for a Thai context,” a vague qualification that has yet to be defined.
Surachart Bamrungsuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and one of the leading experts on the Thai military, describes the current system as a “soft dictatorship” and says that the top generals are trying to cement their place in the country’s future.
“What they want is a kind of guided democracy where the military has a supervisory role,” Professor Surachart said.
Although martial law is still in effect and more than 500 people with links to political activism have been detained since the coup — most of them have since been released — the junta’s political repression is scarcely felt on the streets of Bangkok, which remain lively despite a 10 percent drop in the number of foreign tourists visiting the country this year and an economy that shrank in the first half of 2014.
Even those skeptical of the bloodless coup admit that the military has significant support, especially among the urban middle class.
The military seized power on May 22 after six months of political stalemate brought on by protests backed by the Bangkok establishment. The coup achieved the ultimate goal of the protesters, the removal from power of the governing party founded by the billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose movement has strong support in the provinces and has repeatedly won national elections but antagonized the Bangkok elites.
“A lot of people who supported the coup see it as a necessary pause for democracy — they are buying into what the coup leaders are saying,” said Sarinee Achavanuntakul, an investment banker turned blogger who has been critical of the coup.
Military rule is popular with Thais who are tired of street protests and polarized politics, Ms. Sarinee said. “I think there’s a false normalcy now,” she said.
Political rancor has been pushed underground. The normally divisive and cacophonous process of passing an annual budget was dispensed with in a few hours this week when members of the National Legislative Assembly, most of whom are either current or retired soldiers, voted unanimously to pass it. Politicians — defined as anyone who has held a position in a political party within the last three years — are barred from membership in the assembly.
Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the junta is harnessing disdain for politicians and a yearning, among some Thais, for virtuous authoritarianism.
“Buddhist political philosophy has always featured an enlightened despot,” he said.
But Professor Thongchai predicts that ultimately the generals will be unable to manage the country, the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, and will meet resistance to their rule.
“Paternalistic dictatorship won’t work anymore,” he said. “The society is too complex.” Previous military strongmen in Thailand operated during a time when the country was poor and agrarian, he said; Thailand today has a population that is much more politically aware and demanding.
General Prayuth has decreed an expansion of spending on railways and roads, and regularly makes pronouncements on matters well beyond the normal duties of a career soldier. In a recent speech he addressed the Ebola outbreak in Africa, trash management, begging syndicates, education, tourism, household debt and surrogacy.
The military says its mission is to bring “happiness back to the people” and has announced a number of populist policies since coming to power, including a raise for civil servants, free movie tickets and putting World Cup soccer games on free television channels.
General Prayuth, who gives weekly addresses to the country, speaks in a folksy style and often brushes off serious issues with attempts at levity. Unlike previous Thai military strongmen, he had a relatively low profile before becoming the chief of the army in 2010.
Even a military officer who researched a book with him says he knows little about General Prayuth’s career and personal life.
“Very few people know his background,” said the officer, Col. Khajornsak Thaiprayoon, a lecturer at the Command and General Staff College in Bangkok who helped publish the book, “The Royal Thai Armed Forces and Non-Traditional Threats.”
A military spokesman said there was no resume available for General Prayuth. The general does not appear to have ever served in battle, but he was instrumental in organizing the crackdown against protesters in Bangkok in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead.
General Prayuth, who is 60, faces legally mandated retirement from the military next month; his appointment as prime minister will allow him to continue to lead the junta.
Professor Surachart, the military expert, says the junta’s acceptance by the public will depend in large part on whether the ruling generals keep their hands clean.
“The big question is will they revert to the corrupt practices of the past,” he said.
Previous military strongmen in Thailand amassed staggering levels of wealth. The estate of Sarit Thanarat, who seized power in a coup in 1957 and ruled for six years, was valued at $140 million when he died, a sum equivalent to more than $1 billion in today’s dollars. The general’s fortune became public after 20 people who claimed to be his wives, mistresses and children sought legal action after his death. The New York Times By Thomas Fuller