BANGKOK – Three months after overthrowing Thailand's last elected government, this Southeast Asian nation's junta leader is poised to step out of his army uniform for good — to take up the post of prime minister in a move critics say will only extend his time at the helm and consolidate the military's grip on power.
The legislature, hand-picked by the junta and dominated by active and retired duty officers, is expected to hold a vote in Bangkok on Thursday nominating Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to the new role.
The 60-year-old Prayuth is due to retire from the armed forces next month and the change appears aimed in part at ensuring stability and continuity as the military implements sweeping political reforms in the months or possibly years ahead.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian studies at Kyoto University in Japan, said those reforms are designed to purge the influence of the former ruling party and favor an elite minority that has failed to win national elections for more than a decade.
Prayuth's new posting will do little to change the status quo since the May 22 coup, with power remaining firmly in the junta's hands. Prayuth has effectively served as de facto premier since then.
"He could have refused the job, but what would be the point?" said Pavin, who has been critical of the new regime. After he refused to respond to a junta summons ordering him to return home and report to the army, the junta revoked his passport.
Thursday's National Legislative Assembly vote is the latest in a series of moves by the junta to consolidate power on its own terms. In July, the military adopted a temporary 48-article constitution. The junta then appointed the assembly a couple weeks later.
Earlier this week, Prayuth appeared at Parliament to explain next fiscal year's budget; he was dressed for the first time in public in a business suit, an apparent signal he was readying for the new job.
Prayuth's nomination requires a simple majority vote in Parliament. It must then be approved by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a formality likely to occur within a week. Prayuth will then name a new Cabinet.
Thailand has not had a prime minister since caretaker premier Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan's government was ousted in the May coup. Niwattumrong held the position only briefly to replace Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who took office after a landslide 2011 election.
Yingluck was forced from office for nepotism in a court case her supporters say was politically motivated; she has kept an intensely low profile since, part of a vast coterie of politicians who opposed to the coup have been forced into silence.
The coup was swiftly condemned by Western powers, but Thailand's relations with Asian nations remain unchanged. Concerns over human rights and the return of democracy were not mentioned publicly earlier this month during a regional foreign ministers summit earlier hosted by Myanmar.
Thailand has been deeply divided since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck's brother — was toppled after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Bhumibol.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire whose political allies have won every national election since 2001, lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai but remains an intensely polarizing figure. He is highly popular among the poor in Thailand's north and northeast, but despised by a Bangkok-based elite backed by the army and staunch royalists who view him as a corrupt demagogue who bought votes with populist promises.
Pavin, the analyst, said the junta was trying to remove all traces of Thaksin's influence.
Ultimately, "the elite want to gain control over politics. In the last decade, their domination was taken away by Thaksin through elections. They are trying to weaken that now ... and ensure that politicians linked to Thaksin can't come back."
Prayuth's junta has been criticized for cracking down on all dissent, and critics say reconciliation — and any legitimate debate on the nation's fate — cannot take place in a climate of fear.
Prayuth has justified the coup by saying the army had to intervene to end half a year of protests that had paralyzed the government and triggered sporadic violence that left 28 people dead and hundreds injured. And he has promised to eventually restore democracy, with elections as early as 2015.
But the gruff leader's speeches have also veered beyond usual government policy talk and taken on a paternalistic tone. During regular Friday night speeches to explain the junta's objectives, Prayuth has urged people to recycle their trash, to avoid credit card debt, and even to avoid shopping if they feel stressed.
He has also launched a "national happiness" campaign and spelled out the "12 core values of the Thai people," key among them, showing respect for the nation's king.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.