Gen. Prayuth Faces Mandatory Retirement From Army Next Month
By James Hookway | Updated Aug. 21, 2014 7:12 a.m. ET
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BANGKOK—Thailand’s rubber-stamp legislature nominated army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to become prime minister Thursday, giving him the chance to swap his military uniform for a business suit nearly three months after he seized power in a coup d’état.
His new role, if, as is likely, he accepts it, would give the sometimes blunt-spoken general freer rein to cement his power shortly before facing mandatory retirement from the army at the end of September. The 60-year-old commander has said he aims to win over voters and foreign investors, who are looking beyond Thailand and its troubles to other locations such as Indonesia and Vietnam.
Gen. Prayuth noted that has to wait for a royal endorsement before formally taking on the role, though royal approval is largely viewed as a formality and the general already appeared focused on his new job. The military-appointed legislature nominated him in a 191-0 vote with three abstentions.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, on Aug. 7 in Bangkok’s old Parliament building and at right, the junta leader in Thailand’s capital on Aug. 18. Associated Press
“Let’s move the country forward,” he said, deploying some of the optimistic bravado for which he is has become known since the May 22 coup. A song he co-wrote, “Bringing Happiness Back to Thailand,” is still widely heard here three months after the putsch and he has enjoyed strong approval ratings in some opinion polls.
Taking on the premiership would provide Gen. Prayuth with more time to uproot the political machine of populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in an army-led coup in 2006.
Governments linked to Mr. Thaksin have won every national election in Thailand since the turn of this century. His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, served as premier until a court removed her from office in May for abuse of power.
These left-leaning administrations gave a powerful voice to the nation’s large rural population, alarming many wealthier, urban Thais worried about another looming upheaval: A royal transition in the coming years when a new monarch replaces the influential, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Political analysts say the army is now likely to devise a more-limited form of democracy before allowing elections, which Gen. Prayuth has slated for the end of 2015. In this sense, this latest coup differs from the 2006 putsch, when the army quickly handed power back to a civilian administration. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Japan’s Kyoto University and a critic of the May coup, argues that the army’s goal now is “to ensure that Thaksin’s proxies will not be returning to politics again.”
A Prayuth premiership would also face economic challenges. As head of the ruling junta, he inherited serious problems, including weak investment and spending that this week prompted the government’s economic planning agency to downgrade its upper-end growth forecast for this year to 2% from 2.5%.
Like previous governments, Gen. Prayuth’s administration so far is staking some of his prestige on delivering big-ticket infrastructure projects. His junta recently signed off on a $75 billion plan to build rail networks and ramp up capacity at airports and shipping hubs.
Infrastructure lags behind that of regional competitors such as China, Malaysia and Singapore, while the quality of the Thai education system was ranked below those of many of its neighbors—including that of tiny, impoverished Laos—according to a recent World Economic Forum survey.
In some ways, the nation’s educational woes are surprising. As a percentage of gross domestic product, Thailand spends more on education than Germany. Critics, however, privately say that Thailand’s public education system relies heavily on rote learning and reciting a series of unchallenged assertions.
Gen. Prayuth’s economics czar, Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong, said in a recent interview that the education system is among Thailand’s most significant weak spots.
“We have over 60 million people and the average Thai is still very poor,” Marshal Prajin said. “There is a lack of education and a lack of language to communicate with tourists and our neighbors. This makes is difficult to find jobs. We are trying to improve the efficiency of education.”
Investors say the country’s problematic education system is one of the primary reasons that some businesses are making fresh financial commitments elsewhere in the region.
—Warangkana Chomchuen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this article.
Write to James Hookway at email@example.com