One year on, Thailand's testy coup leader battles dictator label

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 15, 2015 5:02 PM

By Aubrey Belford and Kaweewit Kaewjinda

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The last two times Thailand's army grabbed control, in 2006 and 2014, fortune teller Warin Buawiratlert called it, informing the would-be junta ahead of time that they were destined for power.

So when Warin recently predicted that junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha was set to stay for up to three years - far beyond his declared "roadmap" for a return to civilian rule - the media in this mysticism-obsessed country crackled with the news.

The military government quickly poured cold water on the prediction. But for a growing chorus of domestic critics, it was yet another signal that Thailand's irascible leader is getting far too comfortable with power almost a year after the military coup.

"If (the army) had come to fix short-term problems and adjust the rules for neutrality and fairness, and then returned power to the people, I would have accepted that," said Chavalit Vichayasut, deputy secretary general of the Puea Thai Party of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

"But if the fortune teller's prophecy is correct, the country will shatter."

When the army took over last May, most observers expected something similar to previous coups: a brief interregnum, and then a transfer to civilian government. That hasn't happened.

Elections originally slated for this year have been pushed back to 2016, while junta-picked representatives draft a new constitution.

Since the coup, at least 712 people have been summoned by the military for "attitude adjustment" and 159 have been charged with political offences, according to iLaw, a legal monitoring organization.

Martial law was abolished this month, but has been replaced with rule under Article 44 of the junta's interim constitution. It grants sweeping powers that have been decried by domestic critics and the United Nations as even more authoritarian.

The result is a throwback to the kind of sustained military dictatorship last experienced by Thailand in the depths of the Cold War, said Thailand scholar Chris Baker.

"Prayuth has got this opinion of himself and his power which has become more and more evident in the last couple of months, really, that he thinks he can do anything," Baker said.

The junta's goal appears to be to stifle dissent while it drafts a constitution that will curtail the power of political parties, favoring Thailand's traditional military and bureaucratic elite, Baker said.

Tension between a royalist elite and popularly elected governments linked to exiled billionaire and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in 2006, has underscored a decade of political turmoil.

But even anti-Thaksin activists, whose protests sparked last year's coup, have been sidelined. Some members of the pro-establishment Democrat Party have joined Thaksin's Puea Thai in criticizing the direction of the draft constitution.

GAFFES AND THREATS

Prayuth's image has not been helped by a series of public outbursts and gaffes. In one incident, he flung a banana peel at TV cameras and last month said with a straight face that he would "probably just execute" journalists who did "not report the truth."

The junta, which dismisses Prayuth's antics as the product of an off-beat sense of humor, is keen to put a benign face on its sustained rule.

Just because the military has the power under Article 44 to detain and charge anyone it deems a threat to security does not mean it will necessarily use its full powers, spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said.

"The prime minister has said many, many times that he is adhering to the roadmap that is proceeding at the moment and there have been no deviations so far," he said.

Article 44 is also aimed at clearing bureaucratic hurdles to much-needed economic reforms, he said. Indeed, it is being used to shake up the aviation industry and fight forest encroachment.

Fortune teller Warin insists that old acquaintance Prayuth does not intend to hold on to power longer than pledged but because of the underlying dissent he may have no choice.

"He has taken on a heavy burden, the entire country," he said.

(Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat; Editing by John Chalmers and Neil Fullick)