BANGKOK – Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha appears to be on the cusp of a remarkable reinvention from a gruff – and often ridiculed – general to a civilian prime minister with a popular mandate after his party took a surprise lead in the country’s first election since the 2014 coup.
General Prayut, 65, has struck a stoic pose in the chaotic last weeks of a campaign that saw the King’s elder sister, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, briefly ranged against him as a candidate for prime minister.
She was put forward by a party allied with Gen Prayut’s nemesis – Thaksin Shinawatra – in what momentarily appeared to be a brilliant move to checkmate the political aspirations of the royalist general.
But it fell apart within hours after a rare royal command by King Maha Vajiralongkorn called the candidacy “highly inappropriate” for a Thai royal – and Gen Prayut has been on the up ever since.
Gen Prayut justified his 2014 coup, which knocked out the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, by saying he would not tolerate the crisis-stricken country becoming another Ukraine or Egypt but would defend the nation and its revered monarchy.
As army chief he had stepped back for months while violence-flecked protests paralysed Bangkok.
Just four years earlier, forces under his command fired on protesters – “Red Shirt” Thaksin supporters – who had massed at some of the same spots in downtown Bangkok, leaving scores dead.
Since his coup, Gen Prayut has pitched himself as a figure of reconciliation – a reluctant general prodded by duty to stay in power.
Now, observers say his desire to occupy centre stage shows no sign of ebbing.
“Prayut wants to continue to lead the country… He may also have personal interests to protect, fearing what could happen if his opponents regained power,” said Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
SONGS AND ADMONISHMENTS
Stern and blunt-speaking, Gen Prayut has resisted calls to step aside, repeatedly pushing back elections and carving out a new Constitution which embeds the military’s role in politics for the next 20 years.
But despite muzzling dissent and clamping down on the media, he has worked hard to cultivate his man-of-the-people image with endless photo opportunities, including holding a toad and leading outdoor workouts.
He is also fond of penning saccharine pop ballads posted on YouTube.
The last just before the election caught the 65-year-old in a reflective mood, pining for the “democratic path” nearly five years after overthrowing the last elected administration.
However, there are limits to the rebranding campaign and Gen Prayut draws derision from large sections of the public, wearied by his choleric temper and finger-jabbing televised addresses.
The junta leader is “prone to anger and very hierarchical”, said Dr Paul Chambers, a specialist in Thai politics at Naresuan University.
He is also notoriously chippy when questioned by the media.
Gen Prayut is desperate to eliminate the political dominance of Yingluck’s elder brother Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms tycoon who shook up Thai politics by mobilising millions of rural poor with populist measures, catapulting him to the premiership in a 2001 election.
Gen Prayut also supported the coup to depose Thaksin in 2006, according to a US diplomatic note released by the WikiLeaks website, an act that saw Thailand tumble into an eight-year political quagmire.
Born on March 21, 1954, in Thailand’s north-eastern Nakhon Ratchasima province, Gen Prayut rose from military college to become commander of the Queen’s Guards in 1980.
“As a child, he was very rowdy, but in class he was very diligent, fearing his mother, who was our teacher,” recalled Ms Sukanya Pimolpan, a former classmate.
The golf lover and father of twin daughters was promoted to head of the army in 2010.