Oct. 17, 2016 12:47 p.m. ET
BANGKOK—When Thailand’s prime minister planned his coup two years ago, members of the country’s ruling junta have said that one of his main reasons was to ensure a stable royal succession as King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health faded.
Now Prayuth Chan-ocha’s reputation is likely to be enhanced as the steady hand that steers the country through what could be a long interregnum until a new monarch is installed. The king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has asked for time to grieve along with the rest of the country before being proclaimed king, and some analysts suggest that the extended period of mourning could have the effect of setting up Gen. Prayuth as Thailand’s most influential leader in the years to come.
“It will likely earn Gen. Prayuth arch-royalist political capital that helps to propel him” in the future, said Paul Chambers, research director at the Institute for Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand. “He may emerge as Thailand’s longtime military strongman, protecting the new monarch and guarding the institution of the monarchy.”
The former army chief, 62 years old, is a complex figure. He is popular among Thais for his plain-speaking manner despite widespread misgivings about the coup that deposed elected leader Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in May 2014.
In his weekly addresses to the nation, Gen. Prayuth has discoursed on subjects ranging from the best way to cook rice to gardening tips. People who have served with him in the military say he enjoyed teasing his troops and can be genuinely funny. Some evidence of this roughhouse humor has come through in his current job as prime minister, whether he is lobbing half-eaten bananas to television crews or threatening to have journalists who ask him difficult questions executed.
Gen. Prayuth’s straight-talking manner has helped him through potentially difficult situations, no more so than when he appeared on television after the formal announcement of King Bhumibol’s death on Oct. 13. He quickly dispelled much of the uncertainty over what would happen next by saying that Prince Vajiralongkorn would become king and that there would be a one-year mourning period for his father. The following day, the Stock Exchange of Thailand Index rose more than 4%.
There is, however, growing concern in Thailand and abroad about Gen. Prayuth’s increasingly dictatorial style of government, which echoes a broader authoritarian shift across parts of Southeast Asia, from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drug traffickers and renewed crackdowns on dissent in Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.
He regularly uses Article 44, a law in Thailand’s interim constitution that provides him with sweeping powers. Among other things, he has used it to order the construction of new power-generation plants or the acquisition of land to create new economic zones, by passing environmental and social impact checks.
Article 44 also limits civil liberties, outlawing gatherings of more than five people and provides Thailand’s military with the power to investigate, arrest and detain. Last week, the International Commission of Jurists, which promotes rule of law, noted that Gen. Prayuth has used the law 62 times so far this year, compared with 44 instances in 2015.
“The justifications the military presented for such measures were never valid or credible, and certainly not so after more than two years of direct military rule,” said Wilder Tayler, general secretary of the ICJ.
Government critics say the atmosphere of reconciliation that Gen. Prayuth sought to promote between Thailand’s conservative and populist movements after ousting Ms. Yingluck’s government has ended.
Ms. Yingluck, the sister of telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra who was himself ousted in an earlier coup, is now on trial for allegedly mishandling a pro-poor rice subsidy that investigators say cost the country more than $15 billion. Ms. Yingluck denies any wrongdoing and faces as many as 10 years in prison if convicted.
Some antigovernment activists have been detained for allegedly speaking out too forcefully against Gen. Prayuth’s government.
Still, Gen. Prayuth has some popular support for his efforts to ensure more power for the military. In August, his government won a referendum on a new constitution that allows for an unelected prime minister and which also enables the military to take power again. Gen. Prayuth has promised elections by the end of 2017, although many analysts suggest these will now be delayed to allow for the mourning and cremation of King Bhumibol, who at 88 was the world’s longest-reigning monarch when he died.
The question now is whether Gen. Prayuth himself will run for office or agree to be appointed as leader by a new government.
So far, he has provided mixed signals. At times he has shrugged off the idea that he could lead an elected government, while at others he has entertained the idea.
“I will be pleased to stay,” Gen. Prayuth said at a government function in August. “But I will stay through democratic means and in a dignified way, although I don’t know now how that will come about.”
A few weeks later, in September, he said, “There is no need to discuss if I will be the next prime minister or not because that is a matter for the future.”
Tags: Cambodia, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Duterte, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Malaysia, Philippines, Prayuth, Prayuth Chan-ocha, Prince Vajiralongkorn, Thai King’s Death, Thailand, Vietnam, Yingluck