June 27, 2014 7:00 am JST

Hard-driving Thai coup leader shows soft side for Japanese business

TORU TAKAHASHI, Nikkei staff writer

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha

BANGKOK -- News that the military had seized power didn't much surprise the head of Toyota Motor Thailand as he rode back from a factory outside the capital on May 22.

     Kyoichi Tanada began figuring out how to deal with the situation as soon as he arrived at the company's office in central Bangkok. At 6:20 p.m., a little more than an hour after coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the takeover, the country was put under an overnight curfew. Tanada immediately decided to cancel the night shift at the automaker's factories.

     Many employees were already heading to work for a 7:30 p.m. start. Several thousand ended up staying the night at the factories.

     A little more than a month on from Thailand's military coup, The Nikkei has pieced together how some of the roughly 4,000 Japanese companies doing business there fared in the immediate aftermath, based on accounts from some Japanese executives.

     The general's declaration floored Kazunori Sakata, the president of the Thai arm of travel agency JTB. The company had more than 100 tour groups in the country, in such places as Chiang Mai and Phuket. Sakata told staffers to get in touch with every single one of the tourists. When contacted, many of the vacationers knew nothing of the coup nor the curfew. By the time everyone had been accounted for, morning had broken in Bangkok.

     That day, at a regularly scheduled get-together, the president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok couldn't help but take issue with a comment from a Thai participant that the coup would serve as "a good reset button" for the country.

     "Wait a minute," countered Hisamichi Koga, whose day job is president of trading house Marubeni's Thai headquarters. "This is very bad for Thailand's outward image."

     Late that night, Koga got a phone call saying that Prayuth wanted a meeting with the Chamber. The date was May 25. The place, the Army Club that had been the scene of the coup three days earlier.

     When the day arrived, Koga and the rest of the nine-member delegation from the business lobby sat down face-to-face with the general and 11 other top military brass. Prayuth broke the ice by saying he loved Japan, its people and its food.

     Koga eschewed a written statement and delivered the Chamber's message out loud. He expressed concern over the turn of events, as well as hope for a return to civilian government and a resumption of approval for inbound investment. Prayuth took notes and responded to each point in turn.

     Despite his reputation as the hardest of the military's hardliners, he showed he could lend an ear to Japanese companies, which account for 60% of foreign direct investment in Thailand. The meeting lasted an hour -- far longer than scheduled.

 

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