Prayut Chan-o-cha (previously spelt Prayuth Chan-ocha; Thai: ประยุทธ์ จันทร์โอชา; rtgs: Prayut Chan-ocha; IPA: [prà.jút tɕān.ʔōː.tɕʰāː]; born 21 March 1954) is a retired Royal Thai Army officer who is the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a military junta, and concurrently serves as the Prime Minister of Thailand. The council has the power to name the prime minister and control prime ministerial positions.
Prayut is a former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army, the post he held from October 2010 to October 2014. After his appointment as army chief, Prayut was characterised as a strong royalist and an opponent of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Considered a hardliner within the military, he was one of the leading proponents of military crackdowns on the Red Shirt demonstrations of April 2009 and April–May 2010. He later sought to moderate his profile, talking to relatives of protesters who were killed in the bloody conflict, and co-operating with the government of Yingluck Shinawatra who won parliamentary election in July 2011.
During the political crisis that began in November 2013 and involved protests against the caretaker government of Yingluck, Prayut claimed that the army was neutral, and would not launch a coup. Yet in May 2014, Prayut staged a military coup against the government and then assumed control of the country as NCPO leader. He later issued an interim constitution granting himself sweeping powers and giving himself amnesty for staging the coup. In August 2014, a military-dominated national legislature, whose members were handpicked by Prayut, non-democratically appointed him Prime Minister.
After seizing power, Prayut launched crackdowns on dissent. He required all students in Thai schools to recite the "twelve values" as formulated by him. He has also banned public discussion about democracy and any criticism of his government, placing heavy restrictions on freedom of expression in Thailand.
Prayut studied at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) Class 12, Command and General Staff College (CGSC) Class 63, the National Defence College of Thailand (NDC) 5020, and attended Infantry Officer Basic Course Class 51 and Infantry Officer Advanced Course, Class 38. He was graduated with a bachelor of science degree from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.
Like his direct predecessor Anupong Paochinda and former defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan, Prayut is a member of the army's "eastern tigers" clique. Most of them, like Prayut, began their military careers in the 2nd Infantry Division (headquartered in eastern Thailand), particularly in the 21st Infantry Regiment (Queen's Guards).
After graduating from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Prayut served in the 21st Infantry Regiment, which is granted Royal Guards status as the Queen's Guards (Thai: ทหารเสือราชินี lit. Queen's Musketeer). In 2002, he served as a deputy commanding general in the 2nd Infantry Division, becoming its commanding general one year later. In 2005, he became a deputy commanding general of the 1st Army, which includes the 2nd Infantry Division, and again became its commanding general within a year.
Prayut was the chief of staff of the Royal Thai Army from 2008 to 2009, and in 2009 he was appointed honorary adjutant to the king. In 2010, he succeeded Anupong Paochinda as commander in chief.
After the 2006 Thai coup d'état, Prayut was appointed to the National Legislative Assembly. In this capacity, he joined the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Prayut sits on the executive boards of a number of companies including a state electricity utility company, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority (MEA). From 2007 to 2010 he was independent director at Thai Oil Public Co, Ltd. Since 7 October 2010 he has been a director of Thai Military Bank and chairman of the Army United Football Club.
In May 2013, Prayut sold nine plots of land in a Bangkok suburb to a company called 69 Property for 600 million baht. Reporters subsequently asked him about the land sale, and the prime minister's position was that the media had no business questioning him on the matter. "The land has belonged to me since I was a kid, it belonged to my father. So what's the problem?" Gen Prayut said. "Please stop criticising me already."
In his mandatory 2014 asset disclosure to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the prime minister listed 128.6 million baht (US$3.9 million) in assets and 654,745 baht (US$20,000) in liabilities. His assets included a Mercedes Benz S600L, a BMW 740Li series sedan, three additional vehicles, two Philipe Patek watches, three Rolexes, US$200,000 in jewellery, and several pistols. He also reported the transfer of 466.5 million baht (US$14.3 million) to other family members. As army chief, prior to his retirement at the end of September, the general received a 1.4 million baht (US$43,000) annual salary.
2014 coup d'état and premiership
Following the 2013–14 Thai political crisis, Prayut attempted to bring the rival parties to an agreement. When that failed, he staged a coup against the caretaker government of Yingluck Shinawatra on 22 May 2014. Yingluck herself had been removed from office earlier by the Constitutional Court, and Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan was acting in her place. After the coup, Prayut repealed the 2007 constitution and established the NCPO to govern the nation, with himself as its head. Prayut quickly cracked down on dissent. He took control of the media, imposed Internet censorship, declared a curfew nationwide, banned gatherings of five or more persons to restrict their freedom of expression, and arrested both politicians and anti-coup activists for exercising their rights of free speech. Some of them were charged with sedition and tried in military courts.
On 22 July 2014, Prayut issued an interim constitution granting himself amnesty for leading the coup and investing himself with complete control. On 31 July 2014, a national legislature was established according to the constitution. However, the legislators, mostly senior military and police officers, were handpicked by Prayut and included Prayut's younger brother. The legislature (which mostly consisted of Prayut's close associates) later unanimously voted Prayut the new prime minister. The formal appointment was made on 24 August 2014. As a result, Prayut held three positions at the same time: army chief, NCPO leader, and prime minister, before retiring from the army chief post in October 2014.
Although Prayut claimed the coup was needed for combating corruption, some members of his own cabinet and members of the appointed national legislature, including his brother Preecha Chan-o-cha and Minister to the Office of the Prime Minister M.L. Panadda Diskul, have themselves been beset by various corruption scandals. Prayut then prohibited any criticism of his government. In February 2015 he explained, "If people want to do opinion polls, they are free to do so. But if the polls oppose the NCPO, that is not allowed."
In his role as head of the NCPO and the government, General Prayut was granted a salary of 125,590 baht per month (US$3,520). Each of the other NCPO members was granted salaries of 119,920 baht per month (US$3,362). These salaries are in addition to the benefits they are already entitled to receive by virtue of their posts in the armed forces.
His appearance in Milan at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on 16 October 2014 drew protests.
"Returning happiness to the people" speeches
On 30 May 2014, Prayut gave his first of a series of Friday night speeches on national television. Preempting normal broadcasting, including Thai soap operas (a national obsession), Prayut sometimes spoke for more than an hour, explaining governmental policies, warning the media to cease spreading dissenting views, and complaining that people weren't minding him. "Sometimes I feel a bit slighted. I am not sure whether you have heard me or listened to the information that we have sent out", he once said. In March 2015, Prayut announced that his Friday night addresses would be shortened to 20 or 30 minutes and would include his ministers speaking for themselves. "I'm tired of speaking for hours," he said. "So from now on, I will reduce the duration of my 'Returning Happiness to People' speech ever [sic] Friday and will have my ministers who oversee each topic to speak in the programme.".
On 31 March 2015, Prayut announced that he had taken the required step of asking the king's permission to revoke martial law, which had been in place since the coup of May 2014, to be replaced with Article 44 of the interim constitution. Article 44 authorises the junta chairman to issue "any order to suppress" any act that "undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics, or the administration of state affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom." The Bangkok Post commented, "The section has no constraint, no oversight, no checks or balances, and no retribution. It says forthrightly that anything done by the NCPO chief is 'legal, constitutional and conclusive'". "Article 44 essentially means Prayut is the law...It needs to be added that the junta leader can also insist on staying on in absolute power indefinitely". Prayut told reporters that he would not use Article 44 to violate the civil rights of anyone who is innocent. "If you didn't do anything wrong, why are [you] worried?" he snapped in response to a question. According to Article 44, the prime minister is not required to inform the government before issuing an order, but must notify the interim parliament "without delay". In late August, Article 44 was used to suspend Sukhambhand Paribatra, the governor of Bangkok, after irregularities made by the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG).
In February 2015, Prayut declared he had the power to forcefully close media outlets. In March, when asked how the government would deal with journalists who did not adhere to the government's "laws", he took an even harsher position, "'We'll probably just execute them', said Prayut, without a trace of a smile...You don't have to support the government, but you should report the truth' the former army chief said, telling reporters to write in a way that bolsters national reconciliation in the kingdom". His remarks were promptly condemned by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
The prime minister has claimed that Thailand's economic slowdown is not attributable to his government, but is due to the world economic situation. He stated his goal of moving Thailand from a middle income economy to a high income economy by aiding farmers and by encouraging Thai industry to produce quality products at low prices. In a speech before the Federation of Thai Industries, Prayut declared that providing more aid to farmers, increasing the sale of Thai rubber to China, and completing a potash mining project to cut farmers' cost of fertiliser would help achieve this goal. As would encouraging manufacturers to cut packaging costs, particularly "beautiful packaging".
In his nationwide address of 27 March 2015, the prime minister focused on the Thai fishing industry and its reliance on forced labour. Gen Prayut said that his government had elevated the fight against human trafficking to the top of the national agenda, the same as drug suppression, saying it has long tarnished the country's image. He blamed worsening human trafficking, particularly in the fishing industry, on inaction or ignorance by the previous government, toppled in his 22 May coup. Prayut vowed to put fishing operators out of business if they are found to violate laws and abuse workers in ways that jeopardise Thai exports worth hundreds of billions of baht a year. Thailand is facing international bans of its fisheries products. These bans could be extended to other Thai exports like rice or rubber. "The people who do wrong in this area must repent. They have done this for a long time, for many years, and past administrations were never able to cope", he said.
Prime ministerial viewpoints
- In the aftermath of the slaying of two British tourists on Ko Tao, Prime Minister Prayut observed that, "There are always problems with tourist safety,...They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they wear bikinis and walk everywhere....Can they be safe in bikinis...unless they are not beautiful?"
- The prime minister has asked the media not to report on human trafficking to suppress the country's flaws without considering how the news will impact the country's seafood industry and its reputation abroad. "Please don't escalate this news," Prayut told reporters in advance of a Channel 3 report about Thai nationals forced into slaving on Thai fishing boats in Indonesian waters. "The media should consider the impact the news will have on the country," he said. "It may cause problems, and affect national security ... If this news gets widely published, [it could raise] problems of human trafficking and IUU [Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing]." He warned that if any news reports cause Thailand's seafood industry to lose customers, "the people who published the news will have to be held responsible." The government will summon the Channel 3 journalist, Thapanee Ietsrichai, who has been reporting on the plight of Thai men labouring on the ships. "Let me tell you now, Thapanee will have to come see officials," said Prayut.
- In a speech marking Thailand's National Media Day on 5 March 2015, Prime Minister Prayut urged journalists to go beyond merely "reporting the facts". "This morning, someone said the media needs to be impartial. No. I don't think they should say that. It isn't good,...What they should say is, first, media should report news that is factual. Second, they should support the government's efforts to move the country forward. And third, they should help reduce conflicts in society, and create understanding about the government's policies that give clear results. Can you not do these three or four things together, dears?" He went on to say, "If this person says, this side good, that side not good, if media keeps presenting news like that, when will our country have peace?" The general then wished the media happiness and told the journalists to "be good reporters, be quality reporters, and be lovely reporters."
- Gen Prayut pledged to use Article 44 powers to address the nation's failure to meet the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) aviation safety standards. The prime minister placed the blame on staffing issues, noting that the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) only has 13 aviation safety inspectors. The DCA employs 1,514.
- In his weekly Friday night "Returning Happiness to the People" televised broadcast of 24 April 2015, Prime Minister Gen Prayut conceded that Section 44 powers will not be enough to resolve illegal fishing issues that have prompted an EU warning and possible ban on Thai exports within the six-month period stipulated by the EU. He noted that it was a long-standing problem and that, "I cannot use Article 44 to solve every problem, I cannot use it to solve expensive lemons, to solve the economy or to solve the ICAO aviation safety concern problem. Section 44 is just for allowing military officers to do what they could not do in the past." During the same program, the prime minister reported progress on tackling forest encroachment, saying the government had reclaimed more than 35 million rai (56,000 km2) of illegally occupied public forests.
- At an anti-corruption event in Bangkok on 8 June 2015, Prayut vowed to eliminate corruption and repair Thailand's tarnished international image. At one point, responding to media questions, he stated, "Don't try to fool me and act like you can do or say anything 'because we are a democracy....'" "Do you misunderstand something? Today, I am the one makes the rules. Previous governments couldn't do that. But today, I made the rules [sic], and all of you have to follow them."
- Speaking to a visiting group of young Thais who were raised abroad, Prime Minister Prayut said, "...many groups try...to compare our monarchy with other nations. This cannot be done, because our [monarchy] has a long, ancient history. They [Thai monarchs] are like deities. Our King is not involved with anyone. He is above all disputes. When someone violates him, we need to use Section 112 of the Criminal Codes, which is like a libel law, because whenever someone insults us, we can sue them, but if it's the monarchy, [the royal family] cannot sue them. This is because His Majesty is not involved with anyone, and he is under the constitution, and under every law that the government has created to protect him. Yet, people see it as human rights issue. Let me ask you: if someone insults your father, would you give in? We wouldn't. But if it happens to our parents, they can sue. But since His Majesty the King is not involved, he cannot sue, and who would take care of him? Thai people have to. Whoever doesn't understand this is not a Thai. They are awful. This is a sensitive matter. I would like to ask the audience to explain that the monarchy of Thailand is not like the monarchy in any other country."
- In a speech launching the Discover Thainess 2015 festival, Prayut declared that disagreeing with his vision "...was incompatible with the very nature of 'Thainess'. 'Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other,...The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles,...'”
- "If seafood is expensive then don't eat it. Leave it to the wealthy. I cannot ensure equality in this manner. If you want to eat expensive items then you must work hard and find a lot of money....We cannot pull everyone to the same level."
- Announcing the Public Assembly Act, which took effect on 13 August 2015, Gen Prayut said the law requires that protesters apply for permission from police for rallies at least 24 hours in advance. It bans all demonstrations within 150 m (500 ft) of Government House, parliament, royal palaces, and courthouses unless authorised by authorities. It also bars protesters from blocking entrances or creating a disturbance at government offices, airports, seaports, train and bus stations, hospitals, schools, and embassies. "This law will be strictly enforced to prevent the type of nuisance and violence that happened in the past," Prayuth told reporters. "It's not possible to have it all—happiness, equality, democracy—without giving us the tools."
- A bomb exploded at Bangkok's Erawan Shrine on 17 August 2015, killing 20 and injuring 125 persons. Commenting on the search for those responsible, Prime Minister Prayut, who had earlier rejected an offer of investigative help from the US, suggested that Thailand's senior police educate themselves about how to investigate the bombing by watching Blue Bloods, a fictional New York Police crime series. "Police investigators, especially the national police chiefs, should watch this series," Prayut told journalists. "They will get tips, ideas and insights into their case."
- The prime minister said in an August 2015 press conference that politicians have no right to criticise the new, draft constitution. Rival politicians have urged the National Reform Council to reject the new charter, citing numerous defects. "They have no right to suggest that to anyone." Prayut told reporters. "Why do the media give a platform to these people?...These people, now that they are being harsh to me, I will have to be harsh in return,...There's no need for a prohibition [gag order] now. But when the time comes, I will deal with them," Prayut said. "Today I have to teach people to think....Today we are still stuck in the trap of democracy, a trap of conflicts," he fumed. "We still let emotions dictate our judgment. We have to fix these issues."
- In November 2015, he was quoted "If they want to engage in activism or whatever, it’s up to them. If they aren’t afraid of the laws, it’s up to them, and if someone finds a gun and shoot them, or throws grenades at them, well, they have to live with that. If they aren’t afraid, it’s up to them."
- Unveiling the government's 2015 year-end assessment of its achievements during the year, Prime Minister Prayut denied that his government committed human rights abuses against its critics. He said that detentions of activists were the fault of his opponents for protesting against his rule. "The law says you can't do this and yet they still do it,..." he lamented. Prayut's government pointed to a survey conducted by the National Statistical Office which found that 99.3 percent of 2,700 Thais surveyed were satisfied with the government's performance.
- In the event showcasing governmental achievements in 2015, PM Prayut told his top supporters that it is "...up to the middle class to swarm to the polls and defeat the poor who are just after government handouts....If they [political parties] use the same old campaign strategy, they will come [to power] with the votes of the poor who want more money to make their life better," he said. "The people in the middle- and upper income ranges have to...cast their votes in national polls and the charter referendum too." During the same week he disparaged the poor looking for handouts, the government announced a slate of "New Year's gifts" to the populace. These included tax breaks on purchases made between 25–31 December, toll-free expressways, and discounted appliances and other governmental largesse.
- On 25 December 2015 Prime Minister Prayut said that he would no longer put up with criticisms from "irresponsible newspaper columnists" and had instructed officials to invite them for "talks". He said the media should not accuse him of depriving them of free expression as he had already made clear to them the limits of free expression and media responsibilities.
- "Why don't people respect the laws instead of asking for democracy and human rights all the time?...No one is allowed to oppose [the NCPO]. I dare you to try to oppose [the NCPO]...I don't care what the international community would think about this. I will send officials to explain to foreign embassies. I am not afraid of them. I will tell them to understand that this is Thailand and we are enforcing Thai laws."
- Speaking at a vocational training gathering on 29 January 2015, Prayut veered off-topic and launched into a discussion of gender roles. "Everybody's saying that we should create equality, women and men should have the same rights, should be able to do the same good and bad things—if that's the case, if that's how you think, Thai society will deteriorate!" He went on, "Women are the gender of motherhood, the gender of giving birth. When you return home...who is it? Who has a wife? Isn't the wife looking after the home? At home she's the big boss, isn't she? Outside I'm the boss—at work, everywhere I have lots of authority. When I return home, I have to be quiet because she's looking after the home, the kids, everything in the house. I haven't done anything at home since we married, she's doing everything."
- In the final week of March 2016, Prayut attended a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC. While there, he granted an interview to the Thai section of the Voice of America. In the interview, Prayut charged that disaffected politicians who had fled Thailand following the May 2014 coup had hired lobbyists in the US to spread propaganda discrediting his government. He cited fabricated lies that his government had murdered 400-500 journalists and had imprisoned thousands of Thai citizens. This in spite of the fact that there are no reports of such stories in the media.
- Matichon Online reported on Tuesday, 12 April 2016, that Prayut, before a cabinet meeting, greeted people with his convivial wishes for the Songkran holiday. Prayut urged Thais to wear traditional Thai costumes for the holiday and to refrain from baring too much of their bodies during the festival. According to Prayut, "...women are like candies or desserts which should be wrapped nicely..." because people will not buy unwrapped candies or desserts. "During Songkran, I ask that women wear proper clothes, Thai style, so they would look good and civilized," said Prayuth, a father of two daughters. He asserted that women "are like toffee or candy," which people would shun if already unwrapped.
- Speaking of the draft constitution, on 19 April 2016, Prayut said, "They [critics] have no rights to say that they disagree [with the draft constitution]...I don't allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for 10 years. No one will be exempted when the Referendum Act becomes effective [after publication in the Royal Gazette]. Not even the media. Why don’t people respect the law instead of asking for democracy and human rights all the time?"
- On 11 July 2016, Prayut said that if the August draft constitution referendum were to be voted down, he would draft another by himself, adding that he could do anything since he has survived military parachute training. "If things remain unsettled, I will draft it [the constitution] myself,...There is nothing in this world I can’t do. As a soldier, I've been through a lot, risking my life so many times. When I was in the infantry...I underwent parachute training. I had to jump and land by myself. Once I deployed the parachute, I knew that I can do anything." The following day Prayut retracted his statement, attributing it to a slip of the tongue. He blamed the media for highlighting his thoughtless words and putting him in a bad mood.
As a New Year 2016 gift to the Thai people, General Prayut announced that he had written a new song to boost the country's morale. "I wrote it as a personal New Year present for the people," Gen. Prayuth said. "In the lyrics, it doesn't only mean me, but it means the media, too, because everyone is united and I have to please them. I use my every breath to help this country move forward." The song, Because You Are Thailand, sung by Sergeant-Major Pongsathorn Porjit, includes the lyrics, "The day we hope for is not far away" and "Because you are Thailand, you will not let anyone destroy you."
In the aftermath of the 2014 coup, Prayut wrote a song called Return Happiness to Thailand, which is widely played on state radio and television stations.
Prayut has been described as paranoid and volatile. The Guardian has said that, "He has presided over a repressive political and media climate, an under-performing economy, a gerrymandered constitution entrenching military control, and an upsurge in violence among the disadvantaged Muslim minority in the impoverished south."
Prayut's nickname is "Tuu" (Thai: ตู่; rtgs: Tu). Prayut is married to Naraporn Chan-o-cha, a former associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's Language Institute. She has served as president of the Army Wives' Association since Prayut's selection as army chief in 2010, and is involved with distance learning organisations, for whom she teaches English on a long-distance learning television channel. She claimed to have told her husband to cool down when speaking to the media. Moreover she told reporters that she was "looking after" her husband, taking responsibility for his clothes, makeup and haircut. According to her, Prayut was dressed "in the English style", wore shoes by Church's and suits tailored at "Broadway".
They have twin daughters, Thanya (Thai: ธัญญา) and Nittha (Thai: นิฏฐา), twenty-somethings who enjoyed success as a "punk-lite rock duo" several years ago. His family has generally kept a low profile, particularly after a Red Shirt leader called for his daughters' kidnapping if Prayut were to stage a coup.
In September 2014, Time magazine reported that he had become "increasingly eccentric" and "highly superstitious" since taking power. Prayut has stated publicly that he consults a fortune teller, Warin Buawiratlert, regularly. He said there was no harm in seeking advice. When suffering from fever and aches early in his premiership, he blamed his ills on spells cast by his political enemies and combated the malady with holy water.
According to the Bangkok Post, Prayut has a collection of lucky rings which he varies daily in accordance with that day's activities. He also wears an elephant hair bracelet to ward off bad luck. He has revived the wearing of the traditionally inspired phraratchathan, first popularised by Prem Tinsulanond in the 1980s, and has instructed cabinet members to dress in the phraratchathan at meetings, rather than in Western suits.