Rare admission comes as 2018 crystallises as decisive year in politics.
PRIME MINISTER General Prayut Chan-o-cha admitted for the first time yesterday his status as a politician – an occupation he had earlier belittled and blamed for the country’s problems and conflicts.
The admission came in the same year in which the junta has promised to hold the next general election.
Many political observers see Prayut as the strongest candidate and likely to hold power after the election. He has held firm in his commitment that the election will be held in November, contingent on remaining organic laws being enacted in time and social stability maintained.
“I am no longer a soldier. Understood? I’m just a politician who used to be a soldier. I still have a soldier’s traits,” the prime minister said at his weekly press briefing yesterday.
When asked if he wants to be a politician for a long time, the former Army chief said: “I have never wanted to be a politician for a single day – since day one until today.
“But it was due to necessity” that he had taken on a politician’s role, he said. “And I am responsible for my own life.”
It was a rare, unexpected remark, since Prayut usually distances himself from politicians, from whom he seized power in the 2014 coup. He often blames the political class for “accumulating the country’s problems”.
His year-opening remarks also came ahead of political developments in 2018, when all election-related laws are supposed to be formulated with a promise that the next nationwide vote will be held in November.
The election, which is seen as a significant event marking the transition of power, could instead be a tool to prolong the power of Prayut and the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), according to political observers.
The organic laws and the 2017 Constitution have been written to not only weaken traditional politicians, but also strengthen emerging political parties, which could be the junta’s mechanism to stay in power after the election.
Prayut’s invocation of Article 44 order last month, which significantly amended the existing Political Party Act, has also been slammed by politicians as an attempt to decrease major parties’ support by requiring members to resubmit verification documents.
The premier, meanwhile, yesterday said the change was essential for people to “reconsider their preferences based on political ideologies rather than parties”.
“If [any party] has problems, the Election Commission will help solve them,” he said. “It may be a burden for those parties, but not the country.”
Prayut also indicated that the junta’s ban on political gatherings of five people or more, which has been in place since the 2014 coup, might not be lifted in the near future.
“From the security authorities’ evaluation, the country is orderly to some extent. But this is because the NCPO still rules,” he said. “If the ban is lifted, who knows what chaos will happen. An election can’t be held if conflicts are severe again.”
Running out of support?
For the year ahead, the premier said he would continue to focus on so-called national reforms and the national strategy – the latter being intended to be legally binding for future governments.
The National Economic and Social Development Board will collect reform models so “clear answers will be eventually told to the public”, Prayut said.
He also interpreted comments by Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda, who had said Prayut had “almost ran out of all his supporting force”, last week when he led Cabinet members to call on Prem ahead of the New Year holiday.
Prayut said he thought Prem meant he had utilised all of the capable people at his disposal.
“He always encourages us. He wouldn’t say anything to cause damage,” the prime minister added.
In a separate development, the government announced plans to draw up a road map to fight poverty based on HM the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sufficiency Economy Philosophy this year.
“We aim to reduce the number of poor people. Our help will first go to those registering themselves as low-income earners,” Prayut said.
In the next phase, the government planned to provide assistance under a province-based model.
“We will encourage groupings and inspire people to improve themselves,” he said.