Tue, May 08, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Junta leader cozies up to old clans

AFP, BURIRAM, Thailand

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, at podium, delivers an address yesterday at a massive gathering in the “Thunder Castle” stadium in Buriram.

Photo: AFP

The sons of a convicted murderer, a rural “don” who has spun a fortune from soccer and gun-loving provincial bigwigs — as elections near, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is cozying up to “influential figures,, a group he vowed to expunge from politics with his coup four years ago.

Throughout his rule Prayuth, the gruff former general whose army seized power in May 2014, has maintained one key refrain: Politicians and their cronies are the cause of the nation’s political instability.

However, the 64-year-old is suddenly changing his tune as he looks to complete a metamorphosis from dictator to elected leader at polls promised for next year.

The retired general has been coy on formally announcing a run for office, but he has in recent months been busily courting the political fiefs that dominate the country, specifically potential allies of his nemesis, the billionaire former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The prime minister yesterday rolled into Buriram, a northeastern province dominated by Newin Chidchob, a former politician turned sports mogul, whose shape-shifting alliances have made him a key political “kingmaker.”

A full house of 36,000 at the “Thunder Castle” stadium in Buriram turned out to greet Prayuth — an unprecedented reception for the leader, whose popularity is sliding among the Bangkok middle class.

The public adulation is to be interpreted as sign of a deal with Newin, who steers his Bhumjaithai party from behind the scenes.

“Prayuth has become the ultimate hypocrite,” said Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based expert on the kingdom’s politics.

After endless politician-bashing, “now Prayuth and the [junta] are using many of these same corrupt politicians to build a political party,” he said.

Prayuth denies he his on the campaign trail, with political activity banned by his regime, but there are few doubts he is out to complete his mission of scuttling the Shinawatras’ election machine.

The clan have won all general elections since 2001, relying on their popular appeal in the rural north and northeast.

Prayuth toppled the government of former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinatwara, Thaksin’s younger sister. She has joined her brother in self-exile after being convicted of criminal negligence.

Their Pheu Thai party is weakened without the siblings’ star power and Prayuth is seeking to overrun them at elections with the support of provincial bosses — and the mid-sized parties and vote banks they carry.

What Newin might get for backing Prayuth remains unknown, but his counterparts in Chonburi Province already appear to have been rewarded.

Two brothers from the Kunplome clan, who dominate the eastern seaboard, were made Cabinet-level advisers last month.

Their family is headed by elderly Somchai, called the “Godfather of Chonburi,” who was released early from jail in December last year after serving a fraction of a 28-year prison sentence for masterminding the murder of a local politician.

Prayuth has repeatedly denied the occurrence of any horse trading, but his meetings continue to raise eyebrows, including a golf outing with another influential clique — the Pheu Thai-linked Sasomsap brothers in Nakhon Pathom.

A few years ago, they were targeted by a crackdown on “influential figures,” and police raids found scores of guns at their homes.

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