Thai PM hails progress, says he doesn’t want to stay in power

BANGKOK (REUTERS) – Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha hailed the performance of his military government on Friday and said a much-criticised overhaul of the constitution was needed to pull Thailand out of years of political crisis.

In a televised speech to mark six months since a military-appointed legislature chose him as prime minister, General Prayut said his government was sticking to its plans to restore democratic rule and that the generals were not abusing their power.

“All the timeframes that I had set out, I’ve never deviated from them,” said Gen Prayut, who led a coup last May to oust the remnants of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government after six months of occasionally violent protests. “I don’t want to stay in power ... I’ve never received any benefits, only some compliments and much criticism,” he said.

Gen Prayut has come under fire from rights groups and the United Nations for using military courts, threatening opponents and the media, and allowing detentions without charge. Martial law was replaced this month with article 44 of the junta’s interim constitution, which critics say is more authoritarian.

He rejected that criticism and said the law was necessary for bureaucratic expediency. Foreign governments, he said, understood Thailand’s predicament. “They’re not worried,” he said in his 90-minute speech. “They just want us to hold elections quickly.”

Elections originally slated for this year have been pushed back to 2016 while junta-picked representatives draft a new constitution, which Gen Prayut said needed to be reworked. “Do you want to go back to the same place?” he said, referring to a decade-long political crisis. “If you don’t want to go back, the constitution must have some specific changes.”

Thailand’s intractable conflict broadly pits a royalist establishment backed by the military against the political machine of self-exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra – Ms Yingluck’s brother – whose populist parties have won every election since 2001 on massive rural support.

Gen Prayut said in a thinly veiled swipe at Mr Thaksin that his government was trying to maintain peace despite resistance at home and abroad. “I’m here to fix problems. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I cannot hurt Thailand,” he said. “Ask someone outside the country, how much longer will they keep hurting Thailand?”

The economy, which grew just 0.7 per cent last year, was in recovery, he said, owing to stimulus measures, cheap loans, a speeding up of investment procedures and payments to farmers. “We think long-term, we work diligently for the country to be peaceful and safe,” he said.

He added that his government will launch a committee to look at the health of the country's economy and an audit of how the budget has been spent as part of a push for greater transparency.