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Second stage of 'roadmap' may end junta's easy ride

The honeymoon with the Thai public has already lasted two months but the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is set to face many more challenges while trying to make the honeymoon long-lasting.

After His Majesty the King endorsed the provisional charter, which took effect on Tuesday, the country has stepped into the second of the three-stage reform roadmap drawn up by the NCPO.

The public is now holding its breath, because by the end of September we will know what the National Legislative Assembly will look like and who will take the 35 Cabinet seats and the prime minister's post.

The image of the NLA and the look of the Cabinet under the umbrella of the junta will unavoidably be compared with those of elected governments in terms of how competent and how trustworthy they are. Will the reminiscence of the "yucky" Cabinets endorsed by some elected governments come back to haunt us?

What nearly everyone wants to know, however, is whether NCPO chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha will simultaneously assume the PM post. Prayuth has not publicly given a hint about his future role or roles, although he did give ample hints before declaring martial law and seizing power. It is clear that the interim charter does not ban NCPO members from taking Cabinet seats or the PM post. The charter stipulates that the responsibility for selecting the prime minister rests with the NLA.

Opinion surveys show Prayuth has strong public backing, with his high job-approval rating leaving other prospective candidates far behind. Along with his ability to lead and get urgent problems affecting the public solved effectively, the public favours Prayuth's meticulous, bold personality, his blunt speaking style and outspokenness.

Prayuth has arrived at a crossroads that leaves him struggling with the dilemma on whether he should let the interim government take over the responsibility of running the country and bringing about reform while he and the NCPO take a step back.

Even though under the new charter Prayuth remains the most powerful person, if he opts to keep only his current post as NCPO chief, there is no guarantee the interim government will do things his way and problems will get solved. If the reform mission fails, the NCPO cannot escape criticism.

If he takes suggestions from his supporters to take the plunge with the PM post and go through with all the missions he aims to accomplish, he will be subjected to attacks by his critics, even though he does not want to be called the supreme leader. For Prayuth, it is damned if you do and damned if you don't.

By October, the formation of the National Reform Assembly will be completed. That agency is tasked with a number of crucial reform agendas, from political, economic and societal to the environment, justice and energy, that will have far-reaching impacts across all segments of society.

Among the hottest issues is said to be reforming the energy sector, which elected governments dared not touch for fear of losing political support. The National Reform Assembly will give its recommendations to the Charter Drafting Committee, which will complete the charter draft by July next year.

The content of the charter is expected to draw hot debate, including over whether it should be subject to a public referendum.

Realising the formidable task ahead and increasing criticism, the NCPO invoked strict penalties in an attempt to curb critics and the media. Luckily, it has taken a wise and compromising move by agreeing to relax the restrictions, although critics must make constructive comments in good faith and with honest intentions.

Let's pray the NCPO steers the country smoothly through the challenges presented in the second stage of the reform roadmap.


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