BANGKOK — Junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is enjoying the limelight as he attends an international conference in Italy, his first trip outside of Southeast Asia since seizing power in a coup on 22 May.
Gen. Prayuth is representing Thailand at the 10th annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan from 16-17 October, where has already met for bilateral talks with prominent world leaders such as Japan's Shinzo Abe and China's Li Keshiang.
On 22 May 2014, Gen. Prayuth toppled Thailand’s elected government in a coup d’etat as commander-in-chief of the Thai army. Several months later he was chosen as Prime Minister of the interim government by a rubber stamp parliament stacked with loyal junta allies.
Gen. Prayuth has also retained his position as chairman of the junta's governing body, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which grants him sweeping powers over the country’s political affairs.
Following initial criticism of the coup from several Western nations, Thai authorities have gone to great lengths to portray the military takeover as internationally accepted. The junta is expected to portray Gen. Prayuth's trip to Milan as a proof of his international recognition and legitimacy on the world stage.
Gen. Prayuth told an audience as the Asia-Europe Business Forum (AEBF) earlier today that he is committed to combatting inequality in Thailand and embracing His Majesty the King's teachings on a "self-sufficiency" economy, according to quotes provided by the Office of Prime Minister.
Gen. Prayuth also reportedly pledged to turn Thailand into an agricultural hub in Southeast Asia and become a major exporter of food to the global market.
Although the European Union initially downgraded diplomatic ties with Thailand in the wake of the 22 May coup, Gen. Prayuth was still invited to this year's ASEM summit meeting, which is held every two years in an effort to strengthen ties between Europe and Asia.
Yesterday, the New York-based rights organization Human Rights Watch sent letters to EU foreign ministers, calling on them to put pressure on Gen. Prayuth to improve his human rights record and restore democratic civilian rule.
“General Prayuth should leave Milan with a clear message that Europe’s leaders don’t accept continued military rule in Thailand,” said Brad Adam's, Human Rights Watch's Asia Director. “The Thai junta should understand that there will be no return to business as usual until Thailand returns to democratic civilian rule through free and fair elections.”
Earlier today, state media reported that a group of Thais in Italy presented Gen. Prayuth with flowers to show their support for the coup. However, media reports also indicate that protests against Gen. Prayuth are being planned by anti-coup activists in Milan.