When asked if he will stand in the general election slated, perhaps, for November this year, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha often plays coy. Asked if he’s setting himself up to become an “outsider” prime minister handpicked by the senate, he evades the question.
And each time, the same demeanor: a dismissive wave and headshake, an exasperated sigh. In his mind, he is the noble statesman pestered by the people, when all he really wants to do is retire into a quiet life. Tend the garden, show the grandchildren how to build model submarines, practice tai chi in Lumpini Park and play a mahjong game or two before hitting the sack.
The way he evades and plays coy, it is as if he’s Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, hero of the Roman Republic. Cincinnatus was a soldier and senator called out of retirement to save the republic from civil unrest and the scheming plots of nefarious politicians.
“Save us,” cried the people. “Take power. Become our dictator,” they begged. “Only you can save us.” Once he put the republic back on the right track and returned happiness to Rome, Cincinnatus went back into retirement, not overstaying his welcome by even one day. Why? Because he was noble like that. But sure enough, not long after he was gone, those politicians were up to shenanigans again. So once again, the people cried for him, and once again, Cincinnatus took the dictator’s mandate – grudgingly of course, complete with dismissive waves and headshakes, exasperated sighs and all that.
Obviously, the junta leader is unlikely to know who Cincinnatus was. But if he does, surely, he would see his life playing out in his mind. Naturally, he would have the delusions of grandeur to emulate the life of this Roman dictator extraordinaire. After all, was it not the people that begged for him to launch a coup in the first place? Did the people not cheer for his tanks? Sure, it was a small, minority group. But minor details need not get in the way of grand delusions.
Lots of speculation has been made about the landscape of Thai politics following the upcoming election. One burning question is, of course, what will be the junta leader’s role be? Does he want to continue as prime minister? Allow me to answer this question: of course he does. He truly, deeply, madly does. I’m answering this question with profound certainty, but without a shred of hard evidence beyond a strong understanding of human nature. Power is an aphrodisiac, this we should understand. Man has no greater enemy than his own ego, which we should also understand.
Every week for over three years, the general has held court on prime time television and made himself into a reality TV star. Every Friday, he lectures and scolds the kingdom on everything from politics and the economy to everyday vices and virtues, showing us how think nobly and live righteously. That’s every week for over three years, and still going strong. Think of the tireless energy coupled with profound ego it takes for someone to do this. Any man who’s in love with the sound of his own voice, this writer included, can tell you: The general loves playing the role.
Invited to the White House? He loves it. Invited to global conferences with international leaders? He loves it. Traveling down south and up north, greeted by cheering public? Photo ops with Miss Thailand Universe? Loves it. Look at the way he struts and swaggers. Listen to his know-it-all tone and holier-than-thou voice. He loves it all. He truly does. Power is an aphrodisiac, we know this, that’s why in democracy there are things such as limited terms and voting every four years to safeguard against power running amok.
Do not ever assume political actors make rational decisions. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. That’s why the world is a big, beautiful mess that it is. Political actors are burdened by human nature like everyone else, thus, first and foremost, they act in self-interest, which in turn is dictated by ego. Like anyone else, political actors often make decisions based on that grandest of delusions, an overinflated sense of self-importance.
There is no sweeter nectar, no juicier ambrosia for the junta leader than somehow managing to become an elected prime minister. It would make all his detractors eat crow. It would be righteous vindication. He would shoot his gun into the sky like rocker Sek Loso, yelling for all the stars to hear, “Boo-yah! I told you so!” Barring this scenario, the next best thing is to be handpicked by the senate.
The people of Thailand have had over three years to listen and study the junta leader. More dangerous than even styling himself leader and savior, is the role he takes as the moral compass of the nation, the authority on how to think nobly and live righteously. It is this sort of belief that convinces the junta leader that the country needs him – and will never stop needing him.
That he can’t abandon the country.
It wouldn’t be the first time in Thailand a coup leader was engineered to become prime minister during a time of democracy. In 1991, Gen. Suchinda Kaprayoon ousted the democratically elected government in a military coup. After staging a vote in 1992, five political parties banded together and named the general prime minister. This led to massive public protests that culminated in the “Bloody May” massacre in which soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, killing scores.
So yes, of course, Gen. Prayuth would love to continue as prime minister. A lot of people will help him in this, if for no other reason than it can benefit them. It was just this past Wednesday that the junta leader strode out of a cabinet meeting to announce he was no longer a soldier but a politician. He went on to wax poetic about how Thailand needs a virtuous and ideological political party. See? He teases like a Soi Cowboy go-go dancer.
The only way we might prevent the general from becoming prime minister after the election is through pressure from the public and from high places. Keep his ego in check. Whether from ordinary citizens or people in high places, we all have to make sure to remind the general, each and every day: “Dude, enough is enough.”