BANGKOK, Thailand — Three months after overthrowing an elected government, Thailand’s junta leader is stepping out of his army uniform to take up the post of prime minister in a move critics say will prolong his rule and bolster the military’s grip on power.
Thailand’s legislature voted overwhelmingly Thursday to name Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to the new job. There was little doubt over the outcome since Prayuth was the only candidate and the assembly — hand-picked by the junta — is dominated by active and retired duty officers.
The 60-year-old leader is due to retire from the army next month and until then will hold both positions.
Thursday’s appointment appears aimed at keeping him at the helm as the military implements sweeping political reforms critics say are designed to purge the ousted ruling party’s influence and benefit an elite minority that has failed to win national elections for more than a decade.
Prayuth has effectively served as de facto prime minister since staging the May 22 coup. For several years before that, he held the position of army chief, a post many regard as one of the country’s most powerful. Thailand’s military has a history of intervening in politics and has seized power 12 times since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
“He could have refused the job, but what would be the point?” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian studies at Japan’s Kyoto University.
“If he wasn’t prime minister, he would have been manipulating the prime minister from behind the scenes,” said Pavin, whose passport was revoked after he criticized the coup and refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him home.
Prayuth’s appointment by the National Legislative Assembly must be approved by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a formality likely to occur within a week. Prayuth will then name a 35-member Cabinet.
The vote was the latest in a series of moves by the junta to consolidate power on its own terms. In July, the military adopted a temporary 48-article constitution. Shortly afterward, it appointed the assembly.
Prayuth has said the army had to intervene to halt half a year of protests that had paralyzed the government and triggered violence that killed dozens and wounded hundreds more. While stability has been restored and life has largely returned to normal, it has come at a steep price: Thailand’s democratic institutions have been entirely dismantled, and the country’s authoritarian rulers have crushed all dissent.
Most politicians from the ousted ruling party, including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, were detained by the army and released only after signing agreements preventing them from speaking out. Violators, the junta has warned, will face prosecution.
Critics say reconciliation — and any legitimate debate on the divided nation’s fate — cannot take place in a climate of fear.
The May putsch was swiftly condemned by Western powers, but Thailand’s relations with key Asian nations remain unchanged. Concerns over human rights abuses and the restoration of democracy were not even mentioned publicly earlier this month during a regional foreign ministers summit hosted by Myanmar.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday the U.S. hopes the selection of an interim prime minister is a step toward establishing democratic institutions. She told reporters the U.S. remains concerned about limits on free speech and assembly in Thailand, and that U.S. restrictions on aid would stay in place until there’s a democratically elected government.
Thailand has been deeply divided since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother — was toppled after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the king.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire whose political allies have won every national election since 2001, lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai but remains an intensely polarizing figure. He is highly popular among the poor in Thailand’s north and northeast, but despised by a Bangkok-based elite backed by the army and staunch royalists who view him as a corrupt demagogue who bought votes with populist promises.
Although Prayuth has promised to eventually restore democracy and hold elections as early as 2015, analysts say the junta is working to remove all traces of Thaksin’s influence before then.
Ultimately, “the elite want to gain control over politics. In the last decade, their domination was taken away by Thaksin through elections,” Pavin said. “They are trying to weaken that now … and ensure that politicians linked to Thaksin can’t come back.”
Thailand has not had a prime minister since caretaker Premier Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan’s government was ousted in the May coup. Niwattumrong held the position only briefly to replace Yingluck, who took office after a landslide 2011 election victory but was forced to resign for nepotism in a court case her supporters say was politically motivated.
Prayuth has gone beyond typical government policy talk and his speeches have sometimes taken on a paternalistic tone.
Taking to the airwaves almost every Friday night to explain the junta’s objectives, Prayuth has urged people to recycle their trash, avoid credit card debt, and even avoid shopping if they feel stressed. He has also launched a “national happiness” campaign and spelled out the “12 core values of the Thai people,” key among them, showing respect for the king.