Thailand's reluctant leader prolongs his grip on power

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures as he reads a statement at a press conference during a visit to the Malacanang Palace in Manila on Aug 28, 2015.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gestures as he reads a statement at a press conference during a visit to the Malacanang Palace in Manila on Aug 28, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - He repeatedly presents himself as a reluctant leader, and yet Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is now on track to become his country's longest-ruling strongman since the 1970s.

Prayut seized power in May 2014 to, as he put it, rescue his turmoil-racked nation and "return happiness to the people".

But the scuttling of a draft constitution this month has prolonged military rule and cast further doubts on the former army chief's professed allergy to high office.

It could also erode rather than consolidate Prayut's power, say experts, as public discontent grows with a junta that has curbed basic freedoms and failed to energise the economy.

Prayut, who arrives in New York this week to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, toppled the remnants of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's elected government weeks after a court removed her. The coup halted months of often violent street protests.

He imposed martial law, cowed political opponents and set about mending what he called "a flawed democratic system".

Martial law was replaced in April by a sweeping security clause that politicians, scholars and human rights monitors said granted Prayut unchecked power.

Criticism also greeted the decision by a junta-appointed council to vote down the draft constitution. Writing a new one, and putting it to a national referendum, will delay a general election until mid-2017 at the earliest, or about a year after the junta initially promised. "I'm not happy that I got more time. It's more hard work,"Prayut told reporters last week.

Yet if he holds power until even late 2016, Prayut will have outlasted every Thai military ruler since Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who was prime minister for almost a decade until ousted by a popular uprising in 1973.

Prayut has comparatively low levels of corruption to thank for his government retaining some "limited legitimacy", said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "As long as corruption remains manageable, Prayut will have some leeway, especially if the economy chugs along," he said.

"SMART ENOUGH"

Prayut, 61, is often portrayed as a buffoon or a tyrant, thanks in part to public gaffes and threats that aides attribute to his abstruse sense of humour.

At one news conference, he vowed to "execute"anti-government journalists. At another, he likened Thai democracy to a wrongly buttoned-up shirt - and then, by way of illustration, began unbuttoning his own.

But even political opponents say Prayut is smarter than he is often portrayed, although they question his ability to bring lasting peace and prosperity to a divided and economically fragile country.

"A lot of people ... say he's a bumbling fool. But he's not. He's smart enough," said Suranand Vejjajiva, Yingluck's former chief of staff. "But does he have the world view or the perspective to run the country? I doubt it."

Prayut was born in Korat, in northeast Thailand, where his father was an army colonel. He attended Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Thailand's answer to Westpoint or Sandhurst.

As a young platoon leader, he formed a lifelong bond with two soldiers who today tower over Thai politics: General Prawit Wongsuwan and General Anupong Paochinda.

Together with Prayut, then a deputy regional commander, they helped oust Yingluck's brother Thaksin in an earlier coup in 2006.

Today, Prawit is Thailand's deputy prime minister and Anupong its interior minister. "They know the way each other thinks," said Major General Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a government spokesman.

Every New Year, the three men gather at Prawit's house and usually celebrate by dressing as cowboys, said Werachon.

HOT HEADS AND HOLY WATER

An ardent royalist, Prayut sees himself as a protector of the monarchy as the long reign of Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's much-loved but ailing king, enters its twilight.

His junta has slapped royal critics with record jail sentences of up to 60 years under draconian lese majeste laws.

Prayut is superstitious, revealing last year he had doused himself in holy water to stop "people putting curses on me".

He is also famously hot-headed. "He speaks his mind, he's sincere," said spokesman Werachon."He can be temperamental, of course ... But when it comes to a crisis, he's the one who is most composed."

Prayut shows little sign of mellowing.

Last week, he defended the decision to detain two opposition politicians at a military base for so-called "attitude adjustment".

"I'm not their father, but if your children disobey your orders, would you allow it?" said Prayut, who also threatened to deal with his critics by putting a plaster on their mouths.