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Reform path still uncertain as Prayuth hops onto tiger's back

Thailand finally has a new prime minister, after General Prayuth Chan-ocha was handpicked for the job by the National Legislative Assembly. General Prayuth will head both the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the new government.

Ever since he led the military coup on May 22, it has been inevitable that he would have to grab the power of high office and proceed on with this treacherous course until the next election. But now Prayuth finds himself riding on the proverbial tiger's back.

Will he cling on with dignity till the end of his term? Before answering that question we must consider a few others. Is he doing all of this for himself, or for vested interests or for the country? If he staged the coup to grab power for himself and to serve vested interests, it's doubtful he will survive for too long. But if he intends to lead Thailand for the benefit of all Thais, then he will go down in history as a national hero. There is a fine line between a statesman and a tyrant. Prayuth is now at a crossroads. Which path will he choose?

Prayuth may be the nominal leader of Thailand, but it is no secret that General Prawit Wongsuwan, former army chief and defence minister, has been wielding power behind the scenes. Although General Anupong Paochinda is also a member of the NCPO and helped mastermind the coup, he has preferred to keep a low profile. Since Prayuth has a high regard for Prawit, he lets the latter run the show. Prawit has a free hand in fielding key persons for appointments at various state agencies and departments as well as the National Legislative Assembly. Hence, this has almost completely become a General Prawit show.

It's for this reason that we have not seen representatives from different factions of Thai society willing to join Prayuth in running the country during this transition period. Those who have assumed power largely belong to an old boys' network of familiar faces. This goes against the spirit of reform that the Thai public has been fighting for over the past decade, culminating in the mass protest led by Suthep Thaugsuban. General Prayuth has claimed that the military staged the coup to end the polarisation within Thai politics, restore order, return happiness to the Thai people and, finally, create an atmosphere of reconciliation. The public should thank him for assuming this responsibility given all the risks involved in staging a coup. But many people now are feeling uneasy with the people that Prayuth and Prawit have handpicked for the various agencies, departments and National Legislative Assembly.

What seems lacking so far in Prayuth's moves is a strong reform agenda, particularly for the energy sector. Even worse, the military yesterday nabbed some 10 activists in Songkhla Province for organising a campaign to reform the energy sector, charging them with violating martial law. This does not bode well for Prayuth ahead of his next move to form a Cabinet. The reform agenda could end up being declared dead on arrival.

It will be interesting to see who makes it into the Prayuth Cabinet. The Suthep-led group, the yellow shirts, the multi-coloured shirts and even the red shirts are feeling uneasy with developments. It appears that the military has taken all matters into its own hands without listening to other sectors of society. There is a danger of a we-know-best mentality. But the military might hand down a blanket-amnesty bill to keep all parties happy and on the sidelines so that there is no opposition to military rule.

It is never too late to do good. Prayuth has shown courage in leading a coup to end the political deadlock and to prevent further bloodshed. But seizing power was the easy part; managing the aftermath is more difficult. If Prayuth sets his sights on running his administration for the benefits of the country, he will dismount the tiger's back elegantly. If not, Thailand could face another round political turmoil, which does not bode well for the country.


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