Thai PM: Govt targeting power handover in 2017

But he stresses that reform must come before real democracy

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that if people do not understand democracy thoroughly, the country risks being influenced by a small group of people again.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said that if people do not understand democracy thoroughly, the country risks being influenced by a small group of people again. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has reaffirmed that his military government was working towards handing over power by mid-2017, but stressed that reform must come before real democracy.

Speaking during his Cabinet's one-year performance review presentation yesterday, the coup-maker said: "If you want to reform, you have to give up democracy."

Completing reforms in just one year is "not easy", he stressed. "What I give you from the past one year and (the coming) year and a half is the first phase of reform."

But if people do not understand democracy thoroughly, he said, "the country would go back to being influenced by some party - under a small group of people and for a small group of people".

Mr Prayut and his military-dominated administration came into power after toppling the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May last year, ending months of anti-government protests, but has since frequently pushed back the projected date of elections.

In September, an appointed reform council rejected the draft of a new Constitution which had been heavily criticised for reducing the role of elected politicians. This restarted the whole drafting process and delayed a future election to the middle of 2017 at the earliest.

In the meantime, the junta has clamped down on political and civil liberties, as well as heightened surveillance on defamation or insults against the monarchy. Under existing Thai law, each count of lese majeste can earn an offender up to 15 years in jail, and sentences have grown more severe after the junta began trying offenders in military courts.

Thailand's ruling generals argue that they cannot let the kingdom descend into the political deadlock experienced just before the coup. Critics accuse them of trying to engineer a means to stay in power even after elections are held.

Over the past year, the government has used its political monopoly to push through 138 pieces of legislation, it was revealed yesterday. A special court and separate law will be enacted to handle corruption trials within six months, said deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam.

Asean's second-largest economy has been weighed down by household debt and slower exports over the past year, hampering its recovery from some seven months of political turmoil prior to the coup. Last month, state think-tank National Economic and Social Development Board forecast full-year growth would hit 2.9 per cent, compared to 0.9 per cent last year.

The government's economic architect, deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak, has been trying to support growth by pushing out rural subsidies to farmers hurting from low commodity prices, as well as accelerating government spending on major infrastructure projects like railways.

At yesterday's presentation, Dr Somkid painted a confident picture, saying that most countries were still eager for economic ties with Thailand despite being critical of its political situation.

"Who can deny that Thailand is the centre of Asean?" he asked. "Even though they say we are undemocratic, the truth is they still want to trade with us."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline Thai PM: Govt targeting power handover in 2017. Subscribe