The Strongman of Siam

With Thailand’s ailing monarch fading from the scene, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is positioning himself to rule indefinitely — by silencing all dissent.


BANGKOK — On March 25, Thailand’s unelected Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha asked the country’s journalists for a little goodwill. “I am not saying you cannot criticize me,” he told a group of them at an air force base in the capital, Bangkok. “You can criticize me, but you have to have some understanding.” When asked about how the government would deal with uncooperative reporters, Prayuth’s response was deadpan: “Execution, maybe?”

The general was trying to be funny, but Thais could be forgiven for not getting the joke. In May 2014, the Thai military toppled the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup d’etat. Since then, the 61-year-old Prayuth, formerly commander-in-chief of Thai’s military the Royal Thai Army, has suspended the constitution and dialed back civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. In April, he ended martial law. But he replaced it with Article 44 of an interim constitution, which gives the ruling junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, sweeping powers to search, arrest, and detain people without judicial oversight.

Prayuth has further undermined his image with a series of tin-eared PR messages and public outbursts. After the coup, the junta launched a widely ridiculed “happiness” campaign involving free concerts and svelte young women in camouflage miniskirts. He even penned the lyrics to a pop song, titled “Returning Happiness to Thailand,” which defended the military’s seizure of power and promised to “bring back the love.” These attempts to remake military rule for the social media age have failed to conceal the general’s thin patience for the sort of questions usually directed at politicians. In recent months, Prayuth has hurled a banana peel at a television cameraman and referred to his opponents as “human trash.”

Like Thai military leaders past — since 1932, this country of 67 million has experienced 19 coups and coup attempts — Prayuth has described himself as “a soldier with a democratic heart,” working to cleanse his nation of corruption. (The one political constant throughout the country’s tumultuous modern history is 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has held the throne since 1946.) From that long cast of strongmen, Prayuth’s impulsive style is probably most similar to Sarit Thanarat, the mercurial general who seized power in a coup in 1957 and ruled until his death in 1963. Sarit famously referred to Thai society as “a big family” in need of a strong, wise patriarch. Prayuth’s critics say his own year in power has reflected a similar view of the Thai people and their ability to make informed decisions. “I don’t think this is a democratic way of doing things,” said Phongthep Thepkanjana, who served as deputy prime minister in the ousted Yingluck administration. “It’s like ‘father knows all.’”

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Prayuth was always a serious person. Born in the mid-1950s into a military family in Nakhon Ratchasima, a city in Thailand’s northeast, he told a student magazine that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and be a soldier. The magazine described him as bookish and mature beyond his years — a teenager who enjoyed reading and studying more than playing outdoors.

Like much of Thailand’s military brass, Prayuth attended the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Bangkok, and upon graduation, entered the officer corps. According to Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, Prayuth soon became a prominent member of the Eastern Tigers, a royalist military faction based in eastern Thailand.

In the 1990s, Chambers said, the Eastern Tigers amassed considerable wealth by trading gems with Cambodian Khmer Rouge insurgents based along the two countries’ border, a racket which “directly benefited” the faction and some of its commanders. Within a decade, the Eastern Tigers dominated the Thai military. In 2004, factional head Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan was appointed army chief, and a string of protégés and associates followed, including Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratglin, who led Thailand’s last coup in 2006, and Prayuth himself, who was promoted to army chief in 2010. Kasit Piromya, a former Democrat Party MP who served as foreign minister from 2008 to 2011, said that throughout his career, Prawit — now serving as defense minister — has looked out for Prayuth, helping shepherd him through the ranks. “Prawit was like a big brother,” Kasit said.

Prayuth was army chief when Thailand’s political crisis boiled over in late 2013. For years, a bitter struggle had pit allies of former prime minister and billionaire telecoms mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, whose social and economic policies made him wildly popular among the rural poor, against members of the traditional royalist elite. The fight reflected a widening social rift between the conservative middle-classes in the cities and the rural and working-class Thais, who found their political voice in support of Thaksin.

As the country stuttered from crisis to crisis, the streets of Bangkok saw oscillating protests by pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts. (While Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile for years to avoid prison on corruption charges, the 2006 coup failed to dent his popularity inside Thailand, where his proxy parties, backed by the Red Shirts, have swept the last three general elections, including a landslide victory in 2011 that brought his sister Yingluck to power.) On May 20, 2014, after months of Yellow Shirt protests calling for Yingluck’s resignation, the army declared martial law and summoned the country’s political leaders for peace talks — arresting them when they arrived. Two days later, Prayuth announced that the armed forces were assuming control. Televisions blared martial anthems; the constitution was repealed.

Upon taking power, Prayuth promised the Thai people “sustainable happiness” and laid out a “roadmap” for a return to democratic rule. “I have taken over the power because I want democracy to live on,” he said in January. Military spokesman Col. Werachon Sukondhapatipak said that after years of political dysfunction, somebody needed to step in. “His motivation is not for himself, for his own power, but to end the deadlock and take the country forward,” he said of Prayuth. He described the roadmap’s goal as “fully-functioning democracy.”

To some, however, Prayuth’s year in power has seemed stifling and paranoid. Flailing out at any hint of opposition, the junta has banned protests, political party activities, and public readings of George Orwell’s 1984. It has defined the public eating of sandwiches — an anti-government protest stunt — as a criminal act. When other activists adopted the three-fingered salute from the blockbuster Hollywood franchise The Hunger Games, that gesture was banned too. Over the past year, more than 1,000 politicians, academics, and journalists have been detained or sent to Thai military facilities for “attitude adjustment” — while Yingluck is on trial for criminal negligence over alleged graft in a rice subsidy scheme. Sean Boonpracong, a former spokesman for the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts who served as national security advisor under Yingluck, said this heavy-handedness reflected the personality of the junta’s leader: “a little bit erratic, highly-strung, emotional.” (In an interview, Werachon claimed that many of the general’s public utterances have been lost in translation. “This is just his sense of humor,” he said.)

Moving ahead with its roadmap, in April the government released a draft of a new constitution, which includes a pro-junta senate and a new voting system favoring small parties and weak coalition governments. With the constitution still to be finalized and approved by referendum, the government said in mid-May that a general election won’t be held until at least August 2016.

Even then, it’s unclear what a return to democratic rule will entail in practice. The 35-member drafting committee claims that the draft constitution includes “everything that every citizen ever felt the need to fight for,” but critics say the military’s real aim is to prevent a return of the sort of concentrated electoral power once wielded by Thaksin. “The military is now trying to put in place an infrastructure through constitutional drafting to ensure that even when it is forced out of power, it could continue to control Thai politics,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thailand specialist based at Kyoto University in Japan.

The real stakes go far beyond Prayuth’s legacy. Observers on both sides of Thailand’s political divide say the military’s long game is geared to the eventual passing of King Bhumibol, who is in ill-health. “They want to ensure that at the time of the transition, or the succession period, that they are still in control,” said Kasit, the former foreign minister.

Whether or not the junta succeeds in this aim, Prayuth’s “democracy with Thai characteristics” may struggle to bridge his country’s deep political and social divides. American academic David Streckfuss has described his rule as a throwback to Thailand’s “golden age of military dictatorship” during the Cold War, as outdated as the martial songs that accompanied last year’s coup. Particularly, it overlooks the rising political expectations of the Thai people. “This is not the same Thailand as 1958, 1976, or 1991,” Streckfuss writes. “And neither are the Thai people the same. Democracy in Thailand may not be inevitable, but its chances are considerably higher than successfully putting the genie of political consciousness back in the bottle.” In other words, Thailand’s latest military father figure may well find his “children” growing restless.

Photo credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist covering Southeast Asia and the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century (forthcoming in August 2020). Twitter: @sstrangio