Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok, in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha ended his military junta’s five-year rule when his new government was sworn in on July 16, nearly four months after a democracy-restoring election that reaffirmed him as national leader.

Wearing identical white uniforms, the staunch royalist Prayut and 35 cabinet members began their new administration after being sworn in by King Maha Vajiralongkorn in the Dusit Palace, a requirement under Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.

In addition to the premiership, Prayut also took up the mantle of defense minister after relieving the previous elderly holder, General Prawit Wongsuwon, because of ill health.

The controversial Prawit retained a cabinet post as one of several deputy prime ministers, with a purview over security affairs.

The powerful Interior Ministry, which also controls Thailand’s police, remained under retired former army commander-in-chief General Anupong Paojinda, a known Prayut ally who supported the 2014 coup and an earlier 2006 putsch.

The new government, comprising 19 parties, is a mixed bag of junta holdovers and rehabilitated machine politicians.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (right) and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan look on before a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, January 4, 2017. Photo: Twitter

Foreign Minister Don Pramundwinai, who served under the outgoing military regime, retained his influential post as the government’s face to the world. His staunch defense of the 2014 coup put him at odds, at least initially, with Western nations critical of the suspension of democracy.

That hit strategic ties, as well. “After the coup in Thailand, we severed a significant amount of mil-to-mil [military-to-military] engagement,” said US Army Command Sergeant-Major Eric Curran. “We lost a lot of traction.”

Some new Thai military captains have “no desire to come to the United States. They want to go train in Russia and China. That’s one of the impacts we notice on the ground level,” he said according to Army Times.

US President Donald Trump’s support for Prayut’s military-led regime is expected to continue and improve with the transition back toward democracy.

However, not all analysts are convinced about by Prayut’s shift from coup-installed to democratically elected prime minister.

“Now Thailand has moved from a military government to a civil-military authoritarian rule under disguised and manipulated electoral legitimacy,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Bangkok’s influential Institute of Security and International Studies.

At the same time, there are clear indications of new thinking. The new health minister is Bhumjaithai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, who campaigned on a medical-marijuana legalization platform that vowed to allow each Thai household to grow six marijuana plants for sale to the government.

Bhumjaithai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul campaigned in part on a marijuana legalization platform. Image: Twitter/Bhumjaithai Party

Prayut’s most immediate challenge will be ruling without the use of Section 44, a law that gave him absolute powers and immunity from prosecution. Now that his junta has ended and he leads a new Palang Pracharat party, that provision has expired.

His new government, however, kept other feared tools at its disposal for vocal opponents, including a continuation of Prayut’s infamously Orwellian “attitude adjustment” punishment.

Under junta rule, that meant being taken to a military camp where dissidents were persuaded to stop speaking or acting against the government.

Prayut’s newest political adversary is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the new youth-backed, Internet-savvy Future Forward party.

The 40-year-old scion of wealthy auto-parts industrialists wants to end the military’s role in politics, slash their escalating budgets and end the draft.

Thanathorn, warmly received by many diplomats, academics and others, is now the darling of the opposition’s diverse parties, standing as their surprise nominee for prime minister versus Prayut.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit greets supporters on arrival at the Office of the Attorney General in Bangkok on February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

His supporters insist he will not flee the country after recently being charged with sedition because he allegedly gave an anti-junta protest leader an “escape” ride in his vehicle. If convicted, Thanathorn faces up to nine years’ imprisonment on the charge.

He is also accused of election violations involving his previous media investments and if found guilty could lose his seat in parliament. Thanathorn has denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

“Regime supporters have been resorting to witch-hunting … often accusing opponents of being disloyal to the monarchy and chastising them to ‘go live in another country if you’re not happy with Thailand,’” wrote Bangkok Post columnist Wasant Techawongtham.

Meanwhile, both Prayut and Thanathorn face cases in the Constitutional Court that could disqualify either of them from holding public office.

More than 100 opposition members of parliament petitioned the court to declare Prayut unfit as a prime-ministerial candidate because he was simultaneously a “state official” in the ruling and now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order junta.

Thanathorn and his Future Forward party secretary general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, meanwhile, are fighting in the court against allegations that they attempted to overthrow the constitutional monarchy, charges they have both denied.

The court has allowed Prayut to remain in power while he contests his case but barred Thanathorn from taking his parliament seat because of a separate case involving an alleged financial conflict of interest.

Thai parliament members attend recent session to vote for a new prime minister in Bangkok. Photo: Twitter

The March 24 election allowed only the House of Representative’s 500 seats to be elected; Prayut’s junta appointed the 250-seat Senate, including 101 army and police senior officers.

Prayut’s brother, Prawit’s brother, and the brother of Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam are among those 101. The head of the army, navy, air force and national police were also appointed senators.

Some analysts already speculate that Prayut’s four-year term may be cut short because of rivalries within his coalition and resistance to his policies from the opposition.

“Even though the new government can be established, it might not be able to stay in power for a long time, given the cohesiveness of the newly established 19-party coalition government,” said World Bank senior economist for Thailand Kiatipong Ariyapruchya.

“It’s a key risk factor for the Thai economic outlook.”

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.

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