Prayuth wrestles with tough choice
analysis: Army chief must decide soon whether to rule or retire
Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing a difficult decision as he fast approaches his scheduled retirement on Sept 30 after having served as army chief for four years.
He has to choose whether to extend his term as army chief and remain as the leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), or retire as army chief but stay on as head of the NCPO.
If he chooses the first option he would be criticised and the rank-and-file might become restless as this might hinder their move up the career ladder. But his power would be assured since he would still be in direct charge of the nation's troops.
In the latter case, he would earn praise but be in a weaker position since he and many other members of the NCPO would be classified as retired officers.
Gen Prayuth heads a long roll call of military officers who will retire at the end of September, according to a list released on Saturday by the Defence Ministry.
The list, however, is just paperwork and par for the course, since it is quite possible a statement will be issued before the Sept 30 retirement deadline extending the service life of key NCPO members.
Of more than 350 names on the retirement list, 117 of them are army officers.
Other key NCPO members whose mandatory retirement is expected on Sept 30 are Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn, navy commander Narong Pipattanasai and air force commander Prajin Juntong. All three are NCPO deputies.
Their retirement order has been signed by acting permanent secretary for defence Surasak Kanchanarat. Gen Surarak will also retire on Sept 30.
Last Wednesday, assistant army chief Phaiboon Khumchaya, who oversees legal and judicial affairs for the NCPO, hinted at what might happen when he told reporters: "Gen Prayuth will not retire unless order in the country is restored."
Shortly after the declaration of martial law, Gen Prayuth himself told a gathering of businessmen that he would not retire if national security is still threatened.
Observers were questioning whether the terms of the supreme commander and other armed forces leaders should also be extended if Gen Prayuth stays on, given that they are all NCPO deputies.
An army source said extending military careers is an irregular occurrence these days and would be a source of ire to upcoming military officers awaiting promotion.
But if Gen Prayuth agrees to retire as army chief and remains at the head of the NCPO, he will become "powerless", the source said.
He said if Gen Prayuth opts to retire, he will certainly promote the officer he trusts the most to succeed him as army chief to support the work of the NCPO.
However, if Gen Prayuth chooses not to remain as army chief past his retirement date, a possible counter-coup could occur if the new army chief and armed forces leaders have differing views on how to run the country, although the possibility of a counter-coup is slim, the source said.
Deputy army chief and NCPO secretary-general Udomdej Seetabutr is tipped to succeed Gen Prayuth, while Gen Phaiboon is another possible candidate for the top army post. Both are trusted by Gen Prayuth, the source said.
However, an extension of Gen Prayuth's term means they would have little chance of becoming army chief as they are due to retire next year.
"His subordinates may have to make sacrifices so Gen Prayuth can continue working to solve the country's problems," the source said.
The source said Gen Prayuth may well have to issue an NCPO order delaying his retirement, or if a new interim government is in place, the interim defence minister may extend his term.
According to political observers, another scenario is that Gen Prayuth could appoint himself interim prime minister, thereby allowing senior officers next in line to be promoted. If this turns out to be the case he would have to be very sure of support from the military, especially from the army.
ACM Prajin has claimed that about 90% of the public are satisfied with the NCPO’s performance, though it wasn't clear how he had arrived at that figure.
He also noted there was enough time for the NCPO to decide whether Gen Prayuth should stay on as army chief or become prime minister.
An army source said although Gen Prayuth was happy about the NCPO’s popularity, he was not sure how long the “honeymoon period” would last.
“We have to work hard to prove we are not here to seek power,” the source quoted Gen Prayuth as saying.
But Gen Prayuth must carefully consider whether he should take the interim prime minister post as this could lead to criticism that he seized power with the specific intention to become premier.
This would be met with considerable opposition from the international community which would expect an interim government to be led by a civilian rather than by a military leader, the source added.