TOKYO -- Thailand will work to eradicate corruption and narrow the political divides that led to the coup last May before returning to civilian rule, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Feb. 9.
Prayuth said in an interview with The Nikkei that pork-barrel spending by populist governments skewed past election results. He cited former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's rice subsidies, which resulted in a 600 billion baht ($18 billion) loss for the government, as an example of vote-buying tactics.
The new constitution, which is being drafted by a committee appointed by the military government, will likely prohibit populist election promises and impose heavy penalties on corruption.
"After the 2006 coup, an interim government simply replaced (then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's) administration and held elections," he said. "None of the existing problems were solved."
Election reforms were attempted by the military after a 2006 coup. They failed to eliminate the influence of the Thaksin faction, which had a strong following among rural farmers and the poor. The pro-Thaksin camp won both the 2007 and 2011 general elections in landslides.
Prayuth led last year's coup amid rising tensions between camps for and against Thaksin's faction. "Opposing camps would have just killed each other" if the military had not intervened, he said.
About 10 million people in Thailand strongly oppose Thaksin, and about the same amount are big supporters of his faction, Prayuth estimates. The other around 48 million citizens are more neutral. "It's my duty to restore national unity by repairing social divisions as a fair arbitrator," he said.
Thaksin's supporters are growing dissatisfied with legal proceedings involving ousted leader Yingluck. Prosecutors announced they would be pressing charges right before she was impeached in January for failing to end rice subsidies.
The subsidy program is widely seen to have been a breeding ground for corruption. A recent probe discovered that some subsidized rice went missing, or was switched for lower-quality varieties.
"If the people are suffering, the military must help them," Prayuth said. "That's part of the Thai military's code."
Moving forward on political reforms and national reconciliation is the junta's priority, and a general election will be held as early as the end of this year, Prayuth said. The military will step away from politics once a civilian government is reinstalled, he added.
"The army has its proper role as a government agency, so don't worry," Prayuth said, while not ruling out the possibility of future interventions. "Thailand is different from other countries. If something cannot be solved [by the government], the military will solve it."
Thailand has seen 19 military coups in its modern history.
Prayuth also sought to dispel concerns that Beijing is cozying up to the junta. "Thailand seeks to balance relations [with other countries], especially Japan and China," he said.
His trip to Tokyo on Feb. 8-10 was the first official visit to an advanced country other than to attend international conferences. The visit is aimed at "encouraging greater cooperation and investment so we can pass on Thailand's special relationship with Japan to the next democratic government," Prayuth said.
Japan accounts for 60% of total direct foreign investment in Thailand. China is also angling for stronger ties with the provisional government through investment promises and other offers.