The army seized power on May 22 in a bloodless coup following six
months of sometimes deadly street protests that contributed to the
ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose populist
government was opposed by the Bangkok royalist establishment.
Although Prayuth's appointment paves the way for an interim
government to be set up in the coming weeks, power will remain
firmly in the junta's hands. The general has said he plans to press
ahead with a year of political reforms before a new election that he
said will take place by late 2015.
"It is designed to give him the power to run the country according
to the law. The premier position will give him legal power in the
Thai governance system," Gothom Arya, a lecturer in human rights
studies at Mahidol University, told Reuters.
The nomination comes as no surprise - the National Legislative
Assembly (NLA) that chose Prayuth is largely considered little more
than a rubber stamp parliament tasked with enacting sweeping reforms
under the army's watch.
The 60-year-old Prayuth will retire as army chief in September but
will stay on as head of the junta, formally known as the National
Council for Peace and Order. His appointment will need to be
endorsed by Thailand's king.
In the weeks leading up to the coup Prayuth denied rumors that the
military was planning to take control, but a Reuters report in May
revealed the army had a plan ready that ran through various
scenarios and how the military should respond.
Yingluck, the sister of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, had already been forced to step down on May 7, after a
court found her guilty of abuse of power, but the army said its
putsch to remove the remnants of her government two weeks later was
necessary to restore order.
Prayuth, who was not present at Thursday's vote in the legislature,
has said he will hand over power once a three-phase roadmap of
reconciliation, an interim government to oversee reforms and
elections is complete.
Moments after his appointment Prayuth, who was inspecting troops at
an army camp in Chonburi province south of Bangkok, was asked by
reporters whether he had heard the news.
"I didn't know I had been asked to join," Prayuth said, shaking his
head, adding: "First, I want the country to move on."
Since launching the coup, Prayuth has displayed signs of
authoritarianism. A draft 2015 fiscal budget was approved on Monday
in a unanimous vote, with only three abstentions by the NLA
president and deputies according to convention.
"Nobody had any problem. Nobody disagreed," Prayuth said after the
vote on Monday.
Australia, the United States and the European Union downgraded
diplomatic ties with Thailand after the coup and western diplomats
Reuters spoke to said the appointment amounted to little more than a
public relations exercise.
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"The prime minister title is just a cosmetic change and the
nomination is not unexpected," said one Western diplomat in Bangkok,
who declined to be named.
"Prayuth is a soldier and not a democratically elected politician
and Western nations will continue to press Thailand for progress
toward free and fair elections. Right now, we are more concerned
about Thailand's human rights record."
The army detained scores of politicians and activists following the
coup. Most have since been released although the army has yet to
release official figures on the total number of people summoned,
detained and released.
An opposition activist has alleged she was tortured in military
custody. The military has denied the allegations, which it said were
"100 percent fabricated".
Thailand has been bitterly divided for years between supporters of
Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire who was
himself ousted by the army in 2006, and the traditional
establishment in the capital and the south.
Many of Prayuth's reform plans echo demands made by the
anti-government protesters who hounded Yingluck and played a hand in
her downfall. They wanted the electoral system to be redrawn to
eliminate the influence of Thaksin.
Since taking power, the junta has purged many officials linked to
Thaksin in the civil service and the police force.
An outspoken leader, Prayuth became commander of the First Army
Region, which oversees Bangkok and the central plains, in 2006 and
became commander-in-chief of the army in 2010.
Mahidol University lecturer Gothom said it was hard to predict what
Prayuth would do next.
"If he doesn't respect the timing of reforms, interim government and
elections then we will be in trouble," he said.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Kaweewit
Kaewjinda; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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