In one way, he doesn't want to be seen as the "Supreme Leader". But then, since he has decided to take the plunge, he will have to see the mission through - and most people around him have told him he will have to go through with it whatever it takes.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Army chief and head of the coup-makers who form the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), might have made the most difficult decision of his life so far when he decided to seize power on May 22. Now, a series of even more frustrating questions awaits him:
1. Does he want to be the prime minister while he is still NCPO chief?
2. Even more complicated is the question of whether he will also remain Army commander-in-chief at the same time.
3. A related, and no less frustrating, question: If he keeps his NCPO post and names somebody else as prime minister, how much power should he retain? Can he still be in charge and not be seen to be dictating the government – while also being able to get things done his way?
General Prayuth has gone on the record as saying he and his NCPO team have no intention of overstaying the transition period. “We do not seek to stay on in power,” he declared.
A day later, one of his close aides, Defence Permanent Secretary General Surasak Kanchanarat, confirmed to reporters that the coup-makers would stay as long as stipulated in the roadmap – which means, if interpreted strictly according to the statement, by the end of next year, the military would be back in their barracks and the top brass would either step down or retire into oblivion.
But then, another leading NCPO leader, Air Chief Marshal Prachin Chantong, in response to reporters’ questions last week, suggested that the NCPO would very likely remain in existence even after a new government is appointed to run the country’s affairs. In his scenario, the NCPO and the government will operate in parallel, obviously with the former wielding somewhat more power than the latter.
Taking all the statements and suggestions together, some conclusions seem clear:
1. General Prayuth will remain the most powerful person in the political landscape for the foreseeable future, no matter what power-sharing composition is decided upon.
2. The interim constitution to be put in force later this month will give clear hints on Prayuth’s role(s) in the new political set-up.
3. The content of the interim charter will offer ample hints on whether General Prayuth will simultaneously assume the post as premier in the new government – and whether he will extend his term as Army chief before his retirement on September 30.
In the unlikely event that he straddles all the three posts, the wording about the NCPO’s directly supervising the government won’t have to be too specific; a general reference to the NCPO and the government working hand in hand with the National Legislative Assembly would suffice. It is also clear that the NCPO will be actively involved in the work of the National Reform Assembly, which will decide on a number of crucial reform issues that will have far-reaching consequences in the days ahead.
A more likely scenario is that he will keep only the NCPO post, while retiring as Army chief to pave the way for one of his deputies to take his place in the military hierarchy.
He is of course experienced enough to realise that if he forces an extension of his term in the Army, no matter how close they are to him, those waiting to move up the ladder would begin to lose their loyalty and his power base would start to erode.
In that case, General Prayuth may be urged by his top advisers to concurrently lead the government so that he can carry on some of the main items on the national agenda.
Any close observer of the Army chief’s moves would agree that he is meticulous in his strategic planning. Even before he declared martial law and then staged the coup, he offered sufficient hints in what appeared to be casual bantering. (“We won’t stand by idly if things got out of hand.” “You really want soldiers to come out? Let me warn you: If soldiers come out, they won’t go back.”)
If one studies his recent remarks carefully enough, a rough sketch of his intentions might be discernible.
As Sun Tzu wrote in his famous “Art of War”: “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”
Assuming he has made his mind up about his own future role or roles, General Prayuth hasn’t dropped any hints publicly so far. But you can be sure that he has factored all the risks into his calculations. The reason is clear: The day he decides to become the country’s “Supreme Leader” by taking over all three top posts is the day the countdown to the end of his power begins.