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I try to think positive but I hate disagreement, says Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures as he speaks during a press conference at Government House in Bangkok on April 17, 2015.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures as he speaks during a press conference at Government House in Bangkok on April 17, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

THERE'S a frisson in the small crowd gathered at the bottom of the staircase in Thailand's Government House. The prime minister is making his way down.

Since staging a coup in May 2014, former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha has traded his fatigues for Thai silk tops and the khaki civil servants' uniform. Today, he dons a dark suit to meet three Singapore media journalists.

"I remember you," he says as I join my palms in a traditional wai greeting.

We had met three months ago, when the death of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew drew global attention.

General Prayut, who was due to make an introductory trip to Singapore at the time, ended up attending Mr Lee's funeral in his first outing to the Republic as premier.

"I am sorry for your loss," he had said to me then, as he spoke to Channel News Asia correspondent Panu Wongcha-um about Mr Lee's legacy.

Now, three months later, the real visit to Singapore finally took place. Singapore, as per tradition, named an orchid hybrid after him, and even gave him a platform to address the island's top business executives.

The junta chief, who staged Thailand's 12th coup in 83 years, liked what he heard in the island city.

"They praised the situation in Thailand, that it is now peaceful, free, stable and safe," he said.

Gen Prayut has had a prickly relationship with the media since taking power. At his Cabinet's six-month progress report in April, he scolded the media for criticising his work, speaking at a clip that left his simultaneous interpreters at a loss.

He has famously tossed a banana peel at a cameraman, and threatened transgressing journalists with execution - which he attributes to his own brand of humour.

There is none of that flippancy at work in this interview. He speaks in Thai, but does not bother to wait for the interpreter to translate each question from English to Thai before answering.

Asked about his critics as well as Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former premier who was accused of lese majeste after accusing the Privy Council of backing the coup that toppled the administration of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra last year, Gen Prayut states that those who try to create conflict from abroad are opposing the law.

"Attacking the monarchy is a very serious crime for Thai people. Foreigners might not understand," he adds.

Insulting or defaming the monarchy in the Kingdom carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.

"I want to tell the world, let the world understand, don't to listen to these people too much," he says, refusing to refer to Thaksin by his name. "If you have any questions, come and ask me. All countries can ask me directly what the truth is."

Gen Prayut ruled with martial law until April 1 this year, and continues wielding absolute power through a special clause in the interim Constitution. Human rights groups have condemned the junta's intolerance for dissent - even going to the extent of banning an indoor discussion on human rights.

He maintains he has pulled his punches against critics.

"I don't use my power," he says. "I didn't put anyone in prison, didn't kill anyone, (and) only talk to them…

"I wonder if they are afraid I will do too many good things for the country."

Gen Prayut, who has made "returning happiness to the people" a theme of his administration and declared 12 Thai values including being "honest" and "patient", thinks Thai people who don't agree with him are simply uninformed.

"I think nowadays Thais have better understanding about the situation, except there are still some parties that still don't understand."

He asserts an oft-repeated line that he staged a coup to save the country from a political deadlock after debilitating street protests, and will make way for an election as soon as a new Constitution - now being deliberated - is in place.

Yet a draft charter under scrutiny now has been attacked for strengthening the hand of the elite and middle class versus the electoral majority, a situation some quarters feel are unlikely to resolve the Kingdom's deep, long-running political conflict.

The election is not expected to take place until at least late next year. It is something Gen Prayut says he is well prepared for.

"The first day I decided to be in office, I had to have enough courage to stay," he says.

With so much responsibility on his shoulders, how does he relax?

His eyebrows furrow ever so slightly.

"I try to think of everything in a positive way. Seeing people happy, seeing people smile, these things relax me. Watching people voice disagreement, that I hate."

Sometimes, he says, he plays sport.

"But I also have to be careful, because my family and I are in a situation where it's not safe," he says, in a rare admission of vulnerability. "But everybody is ready to make sacrifices."

tanhy@sph.com.sg