Prayut steps from solid ground to shaky one
Prayut Chan-o-cha is a man counting his own ironies, and the latest one starts today, when Parliament elected the former coup leader as prime minister overseeing Thailand’s return to a “civil rule”.
The ironic journey is just half-way through, and the path ahead will be increasingly treacherous. From someone promising a national reconciliation, he has become a main source of divisiveness himself. In addition to that, a stable politics that he pledged after his 2014 coup is entering its most unpredictable phase ever. And he has abandoned formidable post-coup powers for extremely fragile “democratic mandate” that could prove short-lived.
After five years of leading Thailand through special powers, gained after a coup he staged against the Yingluck government, Prayut has managed to prolong his prime ministerial status. But barely just. The road ahead is strewn with lethal booby-traps, some of which could do considerable damage as soon as his Cabinet is unveiled.
To recap it: His key allies are ready to turn against him anytime. His House of Representatives mandate is thin, and both friends and foes could take advantage of that. The opposition is strong, and hell-bent on attacking what they perceive as his weakest spot _ the military link and an image of someone who had taken out an elected government by force. Western powers are obviously not on his side.
Gen Prayut, who headed the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the coup-makers called themselves, decided to stop being a “referee” to become a player himself. His participation in a “democratic” game was one of the first ironies. A lot of critics said it should have been one way or the other.
Prayut’s uphill, political task is to prove that there is something in between “democracy” and “dictatorship”. The former can be used as a shield for crooks, hence undermining itself. The latter can empower itself by being corrupt “absolutely”.
The former Army chief’s coup in 2014 ended widespread political violence, stemming from confrontation between the “red” and “multi-coloured” shirts. He was widely admired at that time, but five years have chipped away at much of the popularity, and his determination to stay on has given opponents ammunition and allies or potential allies considerable skepticism.
He has had a sizeable number of fans, judging from the remarkable support the Palang Pracharat Party got from the March 24 election. Admirers love and detractors hate his characteristic uniqueness of military men, his nationalistic appearance, his aggressive style of dealing with the media, and “decisiveness” that sometimes bordered on imprudence.
Despite his post-coup promise about reconciliation, Prayut went straight to become part of the political conflict himself, getting mired in wars of words with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the latter’s supporters and proxy political parties. Those outside the Thaksin camp have also fought with him, namely Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party.
Prayut, 65, wielded his wide scope of power over the past five years, but he will have to play by normal parliamentary rules now. Remnants of his coup, critics say, can still be seen in the 250 senators who were appointed while Thailand was still under his military rule and who kept his opponents at bay in the race for the post-election premiership. The senators can’t help him on several other parliamentary affairs, though, which is why his government could be skating on thin ice from now on.
Gen Prayut was born on March 21, 1954, in the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. His father was an Army colonel and his mother a school teacher. He has two brothers and a sister _ one brother an Army general and the sister an Air Force general.
Prayut got his primary education in Lop Buri and secondary schooling in Bangkok, moving from one school to another as his father was posted in one province after another. He graduated from the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School in 1971 and from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in 1976. After graduating from the academy, he began his military career in the 21st Infantry Regiment, which is known collectively as the Queen’s Guards.
He later became deputy commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, whose commanding officers formed the powerful “Burapha Phayak” (Eastern Tigers) faction of the Army. Prayut’s “brothers in arms” from influential factions are fellow former Army chiefs General Prawit Wongsuwan and General Anupong Paochinda, who are both key members of his Cabinet.
In 2003, Prayut was promoted to become commander of the 2nd Infantry Division. Two years later, he became deputy commander of the First Army Area, which includes the 2nd Infantry Division, and again was promoted to become its commander within a year.
The general served as the Royal Thai Army’s chief of staff from 2008 to 2009. He became the Army’s commander-in-chief in 2010, succeeding Anupong. Four years later, he led the country’s latest coup.
Prayut is also good at songwriting, having composed eight songs since assuming power following the 2014 coup. The first song, “Returning Happiness to Thailand”, released shortly after the coup, is the best known but is often joked about, as the lyric promises early reconciliation. The latest song, “A New Day”, was just released on March 4.
It looks like a highly-decorated professional and personal background. But that may count for little as he is entering a stage where something different is essentially required.