BANGKOK — A year after becoming Thailand’s elected civilian prime minister, former military coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is tightening security links with the U.S., increasing financial deals with China and enjoying applause for containing the COVID-19 epidemic in this Southeast Asian nation.
Mr. Prayuth’s political enemies, meanwhile, are suffering. Several have been ousted from the country’s lopsided, junta-stacked parliament or are seen to be struggling in a state of disunity.
But street protests that have a history of rattling political stability in Thailand are expected to resume soon against Mr. Prayuth’s evolution from 2014 bloodless coup leader to civilian prime minister, who was sworn in on July 16, 2019, after his coalition won a parliamentary election.
Mr. Prayuth is seen to have an upper hand against opponents at the moment, having restricted free speech and assembly with an emergency decree that he claimed was needed to control Thai society in the COVID-19 era. The country has officially recorded just 58 deaths from the viral disease. The prime minister is separately gaining a reputation for navigating the diplomatic line between China and the U.S. Thailand’s need for investment and strategic territorial access in Southeast Asia are attractive to both, which perceive Mr. Prayuth as a willing partner.
“Since Trump took office in 2017, Thailand has begun to tilt back toward the United States, buying more U.S. weapons systems and participating in more joint [military] exercises,” said Paul Chambers at Thailand’s Naresuan University.
Mr. Prayuth recently permitted U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville to lead the first foreign delegation to Thailand after others were blocked because of COVID-19. The American general appeared in a face mask while meeting similarly masked Mr. Prayuth, Army Commander in Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong and other Thais.
“Our two nations typically have hundreds of military trainings and events each year, and we are working in unison with the Royal Thai Government to ensure that all of our training scenarios will be done with the utmost care with regards to the pandemic,” Gen. McConville said.
While the tighter U.S.-Thai military relations hang as a backdrop, analysts say, Mr. Prayuth still faces a major vulnerability stemming from Thailand’s economy, which is reeling from coronavirus-related shutdowns.
The prime minister has promised to spend billions of dollars to rescue farmers, entrepreneurs and tourism, and asked Thai and international investors to help.
“China has been more eager to invest in, and trade with, Thailand than the U.S. has,” said Mr. Chambers. “Beijing is seeking to extend a high-speed train through Thailand and even build a canal through Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra.”
“Such activity has won Beijing increasing numbers of Thai business friends and military connections,” he said.
Others say the prime minister is pandering to China, seeking ideological and stylistic alignment with the authoritarian government in Beijing, even as he keeps up warm military ties with Washington.
“While [Mr. Prayuth] is certainly pragmatic in his dealings with the U.S. having happily visited the White House in late 2017, his far more numerous and meaningful interactions with China are underscored by an ideological affinity and attraction,” said Benjamin Zawacki, author of the book “Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China.”
“Authoritarianism, state supremacy, patriarchy, control,” are Prime Minister Prayuth’s priorities, Mr. Zawacki said in an interview.
Former CIA officer Paul Quaglia said Mr. Prayuth the civilian leader is not so different from Mr. Prayuth the former military coup leader. “The core of this government — like the core of the previous [Prayuth junta] government — is composed of three retired military generals, all of whom served as army chiefs: Prayuth, [Deputy Prime Minister] Prawit and [Interior Minister] Anupong Paochinda,” said Mr. Quaglia, who manages a Hong Kong-based political risk consulting firm. “They are brothers in arms.”
Some believe Mr. Prayuth’s stability depends on military support as well as influential and wealthy Thai royalists, and investors are hoping a burst of government spending will ease coronavirus-related economic losses. “The government is essentially a Bangkok phenomena, created for Bangkok consumption and the periphery as passive audience,” said David Streckfuss, author of the book “Truth on Trial in Thailand.”
Mr. Streckfuss suggested in an interview that it may be only a matter of time before there is pushback. “There is literally no hope for any important change emanating from Bangkok,” he said. “The only question is how long the periphery will allow themselves to be coerced into a begrudging consent.”
For now, a year into his civilian reign, small victories are keeping Mr. Prayuth’s government afloat. Mr. Chambers noted the Thai Constitutional Court’s January move to dissolve the Future Forward Party, perhaps Mr. Prayuth’s most powerful parliamentary.
The prime minister, meanwhile, is widely hailed because “Thailand’s performance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the best in the world,” former Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an interview.
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