Thai junta chief Prayuth likely to become PM when national assembly convenes

Thailand's army chief and head of the National Council for Peace and Order, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, reads statements to members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) at Parliament in Bangkok on Aug 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Thailand's army chief and head of the National Council for Peace and Order, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, reads statements to members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) at Parliament in Bangkok on Aug 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's coup leader is expected to be picked as prime minister by the kingdom's new army-dominated national assembly, junta sources said on Wednesday, cementing the military's hold on power in the politically turbulent nation.

Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha is likely to be the sole candidate for the premiership when the 197-strong appointed assembly convenes on Thursday to select a new leader for the South-east Asian country, the sources told AFP.

"It was difficult to find people to become prime minister other than General Prayuth. If it's not him, who else should it be?" one junta official said on condition of anonymity.

"He staged a coup. He has to be responsible for solving all the problems by himself. By becoming prime minister, he will have full power," the person added.

Another member of the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said Prayuth was set to be chosen because he is "suitable for the job".

"According to polls, he enjoys public popularity and people also admire the NCPO's work," said the source, who also asked not to be named.

Prayuth seized power from an elected government in a bloodless coup on May 22, shortly after Yingluck Shinawatra was dismissed as prime minister in a controversial court ruling.

Thailand has been hit by political divisions since Yingluck's elder brother, the former billionaire telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled as prime minister in a coup in 2006. Thailand's army rulers say they want to introduce political reforms before holding a general election late next year.

They say their power grab was necessary to end a months-long political crisis and related street violence that left nearly 30 people dead and paralysed the former civilian government.

Critics see the move as an attempt to purge Thailand of Thaksin's political influence, which has already been undermined by a purge of his allies in government, state industries and the police.

The junta has vowed to remain in place in parallel to the future government, which will be nominated by the new prime minister.

Prayuth, who is due to retire as army chief in September, is seen as a staunch opponent of Thaksin and a fervent royalist known for bluntly stating his opinions. He gave a hint of his apparent political ambitions when he swapped his uniform for a suit and tie to appear in parliament on Monday to oversee the approval of the national budget, which was waved through with no opposition.

Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid prison for a corruption conviction that he insists was politically motivated. Yingluck, who was indicted for dereliction of duty a day after she was removed from office, could also face criminal charges linked to a loss-making rice subsidy scheme.

Thaksin, who clashed with the royalist establishment before his overthrow, lives in Dubai but remains a hugely divisive figure in his homeland.