By THOMAS FULLER, AUG. 20, 2014
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Credit Pm.Amaro/Associated Press
The army general who led the overthrow of Thailand’s elected government in May was named prime minister on Thursday by a rubber-stamp legislature, sealing the military’s acquisition of near-absolute power in a country once considered a regional beacon of political freedom.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was chosen as prime minister by the National Legislative Assembly, whose members were handpicked by the junta last month. There were no dissenting votes, and General Prayuth was the only candidate.
Thailand has a long history of generals seizing power, but the military this time has been more aggressive in rooting out democratic institutions than after the coup in 2006. All forms of popular elections have been suspended, including those for local councils that first appeared over a century ago when Thailand was an absolute monarchy.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 86 and ailing, has endorsed the junta and was expected to formally approve General Prayuth’s selection as prime minister.
Thailand’s military says it will eventually restore democracy. But the junta has not provided a firm timetable for elections, and an interim constitution says that democracy, when it is restored, will be “suitable for a Thai context,” a vague qualification that has yet to be defined.
Surachart Bamrungsuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and an expert on the Thai military, describes the current system as a “soft dictatorship” and says the top generals are trying to cement their place in the country’s future.
“What they want is a kind of guided democracy where the military has a supervisory role,” Professor Surachart said.
Although martial law is still in effect and more than 500 people with links to political activism have been detained since the coup — most of them since released — the junta’s political repression is scarcely felt on the streets of Bangkok, which remain lively despite a 10 percent drop in the number of foreign tourists this year and an economy that shrank in the first half of 2014.
Even those skeptical of the coup admit that the military has significant support, especially among the urban middle class.
The military seized power on May 22 after six months of political stalemate brought on by protests backed by the Bangkok establishment. The coup achieved the ultimate goal of the protesters: the removal from power of the party founded by the billionaire former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose movement has strong support in the provinces but antagonized the Bangkok elites.
Military rule is popular with Thais tired of street protests and polarized politics, said Sarinee Achavanuntakul, an investment banker turned blogger who has been critical of the coup. “I think there’s a false normalcy now,” she said.
Political rancor has been pushed underground. The normally divisive process of passing an annual budget was dispensed with in a few hours this week and a unanimous legislative vote. Politicians — anyone who has held a position in a party in the past three years — are barred from membership in the assembly.
Thongchai Winichakul, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the junta is harnessing disdain for politicians and a yearning, among some Thais, for virtuous authoritarianism. “Buddhist political philosophy has always featured an enlightened despot,” he said.
But Professor Thongchai predicts that ultimately the generals will be unable to manage Thailand. “Paternalistic dictatorship won’t work anymore,” he said. “The society is too complex.”
General Prayuth, who gives weekly addresses to the country, speaks in a folksy style and often brushes off serious issues with attempts at levity. He had a relatively low profile before becoming the chief of the army in 2010.
A military spokesman said no résumé was available for General Prayuth, 60, who was instrumental in organizing the crackdown on Bangkok protests in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead.
General Prayuth faces legally mandated retirement from the military next month; his appointment as prime minister will allow him to continue to lead the junta.