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By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

The general who led a military coup in Thailand three months ago took on the civilian mantle of prime minister Thursday when the legislators he appointed nominated him as sole candidate and voted overwhelmingly to make him government chief.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha had said after the May 22 military coup that the junta’s objective was to restore civilian democratic rule as soon as feasible, suggesting that new elections might be possible as soon as next year.

But by handing the reins of executive authority to Prayuth, his fellow officers in the National Assembly appeared to be signaling a longer phase of military rule even with the new prime minister’s declared intent to retire from the army next month.

All but three of the assembly’s 194 members voted to give Prayuth control of the government and the right to appoint a 35-member Cabinet. The appointment is contingent on approval of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but as the coup was applauded by royalists and the Bangkok elite, the king’s endorsement was a foregone conclusion.

A BBC report from Bangkok, the capital, called the vote to cast a cloak of legitimacy over Prayuth’s leadership “the kind of rushed acclamation favored by dictatorships and communist parties of old.”

Prayuth, 60, said in brief remarks to the Bangkok Post that he hadn’t sought the role of head of government but accepted it because “I only want the country to move forward.”

The deeply conservative general now has virtually absolute power, with command of the powerful military and the authority to impose curfews, stifle political opposition and cut funding for the populist programs undertaken by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, before her.

Thailand has been wracked by political turmoil since a 2006 coup deposed Thaksin and charged him with corruption, prompting him to flee to exile in the United Arab Emirates.

Yingluck was elected to succeed him when democracy was purportedly restored with a 2011 election, but she was confronted with constant opposition by politicians aligned with the Bangkok business elite. Massive protests in Bangkok for much of the year preceding the coup ignited occasional violence and disrupted transportation and government services.

Prayuth cast the coup as necessary to restore order and security in a country dependent on international trade and tourism, but the overthrow of elected leadership — the 12th since Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932 — was encouraged by the conservative political opposition that saw Yingluck’s subsidies to farmers in the impoverished north as pandering to secure votes.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand states on its website that the country relies on tourism for only 7 percent of its $200 billion gross domestic product. But foreign visits have dropped by at least 20 percent since the coup, threatening an important source of stability and employment.

AFP Photo/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

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