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Thailand’s New Military-Based Cabinet Meets King

  • Reuters

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet complete a photo session after meeting with King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok Sept. 4, 2014.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his cabinet complete a photo session after meeting with King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok Sept. 4, 2014.

Thailand's new military-stacked cabinet met King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok on Thursday, marking the formal start of an administration that will spend at least a year overhauling the political system before calling an election.

The leader of a May 22 coup, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is now prime minister, has said he wants a year of reforms to culminate in a late 2015 election. But observers say there are signs a power transfer could be delayed.

"Prayuth has given himself several tasks to attend to while he is appointed prime minister," said Paul Chambers, research director at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, affiliated with Chiang Mai University.

FILE - Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, shown in June 2012

FILE - Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, shown in June 2012

"These could likely legitimize a reason for him to extend his term as prime minister and thus consolidate the power of his military faction and himself."

Dressed in a white military uniform, Prayuth, 60, led his cabinet to Bangkok's Siriraj hospital. King Bhumibol, 86, has been staying there while he undergoes a health checkup, the palace said.

Tamping down influence

The army seized power after months of Bangkok protests by royalist establishment supporters against Yingluck Shinawatra, caretaker prime minister since her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Analysts say the coup’s leaders want to end the Shinawatra family's influence. Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecom tycoon and populist premier, lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term for graft but retains huge support, especially among rural people. The royalist establishment views him as a threat.

The military-backed government installed after the 2006 coup rewrote the constitution to try to curb Thaksin's sway. But that failed to derail his political juggernaut and his sister, Yingluck, swept a 2011 election to become the caretaker prime minister.

"Rightly or wrongly, there is a feeling among the generals that the armed forces is the only institution in Thailand that is capable of revamping the political landscape and rooting out Thaksin's influence," Ambika Ahuja, a Southeast Asia specialist at Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy, told Reuters in an email.

Amassing power

Since taking control, Prayuth has rolled out a temporary constitution that grants the military absolute powers. He hand-picked an interim parliament stacked with military figures that appointed him prime minister.

The military government is striving to revive an economy that contracted in the first half of the year. Though the situation is improving, recent data suggested a broad-based recovery is some way off.

The new cabinet’s economic adviser is one of its few civilians, Pridiyathorn Devakula, 67. The former central bank governor was finance minister in the government set up by the military after the 2006 coup. But he bungled an attempt to impose capital controls to prop up the currency, leading to a sharp fall in the stock market.

His appointment has garnered mixed reactions.

"I don't think he is a stand-out to foreign investors and any who have followed Thailand for a long time remember his capital controls mistake," Andrew Stotz, chief executive at A. Stotz Investment Research in Bangkok, told Reuters.

Others say he is respected in the international financial community and, as economics adviser to the junta, has helped ease foreign investor concerns about stability.

But democracy, said Chambers, may have to wait.

"Prayuth's promises to achieve multiple goals also gives them what they perhaps perceive as a mandate to remain in power until these objectives are reached," said Chambers.

"Only one year until elections? I doubt it."