Thai army ruler named prime minister

By Todd Pitman in Bangkok

Prayuth set to become PM and extend the Thai military's grip on power.

Prayuth Chan-ocha is sporting a new look, swapping his military regalia for a suit. Photo / AP
Prayuth Chan-ocha is sporting a new look, swapping his military regalia for a suit. Photo / AP

Three months after overthrowing Thailand's last elected Government, the junta leader is stepping out of his army uniform for good - to take up the post of Prime Minister in a move critics say will only extend his time at the helm and consolidate the military's grip on power.

The legislature, hand-picked by the junta and dominated by active and retired duty officers, held a vote in Bangkok, nominating General Prayuth Chan-ocha to the new role. Prayuth was backed by 191 members of the 197-strong assembly, with three abstentions and three voters absent.

The 60-year-old Prayuth is due to retire from the armed forces next month and the change appears aimed in part at ensuring stability and continuity as the military implements sweeping political reforms in the months or possibly years ahead.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University in Japan, said those reforms were designed to purge the influence of the former ruling party and favour an elite minority that had failed to win national elections for more than a decade.

Prayuth's new posting will do little to change the status quo since the May 22 coup, with power remaining firmly in the junta's hands. Prayuth has effectively served as de facto premier since then.

"He could have refused the job, but what would be the point?" said Pavin, who has been critical of the new regime. After Pavin refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him to return home and report to the army, the junta revoked his passport.

The National Legislative Assembly vote is the latest in a series of moves by the junta to consolidate power on its own terms. In July, the military adopted a temporary 48-article constitution. The junta appointed the assembly weeks later.

This week, Prayuth appeared at Parliament to explain the next financial year's Budget; he was dressed for the first time in public in a business suit, an apparent signal he was readying for the new job.

Prayuth's nomination requires a simple majority vote in Parliament. It must then be approved by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a formality likely to occur within a week. Prayuth will then name a new Cabinet.

Thailand has not had a Prime Minister since caretaker Premier Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan's Government was ousted in the May coup.

Niwattumrong held the position only briefly to replace Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who took office after a landslide 2011 election.

Yingluck was forced from office for nepotism in a court case her supporters say was politically motivated.

- AP, AFP

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