BANGKOK: In his dark suit, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha cut an incongruous figure guiding a rice tractor across a muddy paddy field in front of cameras and watching villagers.
The prime minister’s latest photo opportunity won applause from farmers watching in straw hats and his visit to Suphan Buri on Monday brought a call from a local political bigwig for him to stay in power for another decade.
Political activities in Thailand have been suspended since Prayuth’s 2014 coup, but Thai politicians are asking whether what looks like campaigning is exactly what it seems.
The trips to the countryside, a new Facebook account and a chorus of political groups offering support are raising suspicions of a plan to keep Prayuth in power even if long-promised elections happen next year.
“It’s not beyond expectations that he is out campaigning in the provinces to prepare to become prime minister again,” said Chaturon Chaisang, a leader of the Pheu Thai party, which under various names has won every election for a generation.
Since August, Prayuth has visited six provinces, including places traditionally considered important battlegrounds for elections. Such trips with his cabinet will now be monthly.
In the previous three years, he had only taken two such trips outside Bangkok.
“I am not here to make people love me, but I want everyone to love the country,” Prayuth, 63, told farmers in Suphan Buri, 100 km north of Bangkok.
Said 60-year-old farmer Samruay Tongpratet: “If the prime minister can truly help the poor then he can stay as long as he wants.”
Prayuth’s office declined to comment on any plan to keep him in power. Politics will not resume until well after the cremation next month of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October, and the subsequent coronation of his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
In the meantime, Prayuth has the field to himself.
“That’s why he needed to hold these mobile cabinet meetings in the provinces, act more like a politician, hold rallies, and meet the people,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, noting the signs that Prayuth wants to stay longer. — Reuters