Gen Prayuth - PM in waiting

opinion July 28, 2014 00:00

By Thepchai Yong
The Nation

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History has taught the generals that success is based on total control

Don’t waste your time trying to decipher what you think might be some hidden messages in the provisional constitution drafted by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and promulgated last week. Don’t even bother to look for clues if it was tailor-made to prolong the junta’s hold on power and pave the way for junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to be the next prime minister.
The junta is making no pretense of its agenda. The interim charter is only a means to accomplish what it sees as its ultimate mission. So it should surprise no one that the provisional constitution was designed from the very beginning to ensure that the power of the NCPO stays intact and no-one challenges General Prayuth for the top executive post.
Wissanu Kreau-Ngam, one of the country’s leading legal experts who advises the junta on legal matters, was only trying to make the whole thing palatable to the sceptics when he downplayed the scope of the NCPO’s power under the new charter. But he certainly knows too well that the constitution is exactly what it appears to be. After all, the legal piece has his fingerprints all over it and there is not one clause or article that deviates from the blueprint given to him by the junta.
In fact, in private conversations the generals can be as blunt as in their usual military-style demeanour when it comes to defending the provisional constitution. Their bottom-line message needs no interpretation: we need to have power over the interim government. So Wissanu and his team of legal experts can draft whatever charter they like as long as it reaffirms the NCPO’s supreme authority – and of course, as long as it opens the door for General Prayuth to lead the new administration.
No, the junta insists it doesn’t want power for power’s sake. It has a mission to accomplish and why would it want anyone to get in the way? If the interim government is an executive tool, the legislative body will provide the legal means to get there. And for the generals, there should be no time for messing around. Complete control of both branches will give them that assurance.
The ruling generals don’t want to repeat the mistakes made by their predecessors. When General Sonthi Boonyaratglin seized power from the Thaksin government in 2006 he made what many people believed to be his biggest blunder by hastily transferring total power to a civilian administration.
Because of that, the power seizure in 2006 went down in history as what came to be popularly known as “a big waste”. What should have been a fresh start for a new political order ended up as a futile exercise. Today’s generals believe that the General Sonthi-led junta squandered a rare opportunity to constitute reforms that would have forestalled simmering political conflicts that subsequently polarised the country.
The NCPO has no intention of being a mere bystander, even after the legislative assembly begins functioning and a new government is installed.
Firstly, the NCPO will make sure there will be no dissenting voices in the legislative assembly. That will be easy because the constitution gives General Prayuth an absolute say on who will sit in the assembly. And don’t forget that it’s the assembly president who nominates the next prime minister.
It’s not difficult then to guess who General Prayuth and the junta will choose for this crucial position.
When it comes to forming a government, don’t expect surprises.
Generals don’t usually like surprises anyway. It will be an administration that is most likely to be an extension of the junta. There will be men in uniforms – many of them of course – but with enough civilian facade that will give some semblance of a normal government, especially in economic areas.
For the NCPO generals, this command and control style of management is unavoidable under the current extraordinary circumstances if they don’t want to see their endeavour end up as another “waste”. They see their mission as being more than seizing power and then returning to the barracks the next day. They see hordes of problems that are blocking the country’s political progress and which can only be resolved through drastic means. Only a legislative body and a government that are answerable to the NCPO can do the work.
General Prayuth and his military colleagues apparently believe there is no turning back for them. Evidently encouraged by positive public feedback since taking power, they only want to do more but probably with as little oversight as possible. If critics are silenced and freedom of the press gets trampled along the way, they see it as part of the sacrifice for common good. What about sanctions by western governments? A nuisance, yes, but not a big deal. After all, since they were the ones who started the ball rolling, they believe it is incumbent on them to finish the job. And to do that they need to be in control every step of the way. Success or failure, they are the ones who will be held ultimately accountable.
What will “Prime Minister Prayuth” be like? Don’t expect a make-over. Prayuth the prime minister will be like Prayuth the general we all should be familiar with by now – direct and impatient, but probably with a little fine-tuning. Known for his no-nonsense approach, General Prayuth is unlikely to depart from his command and control leadership which has been most evident since the day he came to power.
Of course, running a government and orchestrating a power seizure are two different things. But General Prayuth is making sure that sometimes when you have the power you also have the best of both worlds. If he happens to have his hands tied as prime minister (a situation which is unlikely to happen) he can always exercise his power as the NCPO chief to circumvent whatever gets in his way. Article 44 of the Provisional Constitution is his ultimate weapon.
Don’t worry if General Prayuth sometimes has to struggle to get his message across in public. After all, he has been a soldier all his life and communicating with people may not be his hallmark. But the next time you watch his weekly address, don’t pay attention only to its substance, but also try to notice improvement in his delivery skills. This programme is where General Prayuth does his on-the-job training in the art of communication.
General Prayuth as prime minister is something that has been cast in stone from day one. And it appears that the junta has not even worked out a fallback plan. Other names might have been floated, but they all turned out to be nothing more than media imagination.
The way the provisional constitution was designed leaves no doubts as to who the real power-that-be will be for the next one year or so. General Prayuth and his military friends have already set their sights on what they see as the endgame. Meanwhile, they want everyone to understand that they will be using every possible tool and trying every possible means to get there. As one NCPO general said repeatedly “the end will justify the means”.
Thepchai Yong is Group Editor-in-chief of Nation Multimedia Group.