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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's TPP stance on the line as ex-general heads ruling party

Prime minister under pressure to dump economic reformers in cabinet reshuffle

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, front center, is flanked by fellow ex-general Prawit Wongsuwan to the left and economic Somkid Jatusripitak to the right in July 2019. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

BANGKOK -- The tug-of-war between Thailand's economic reformers and hard-liners took a new turn over the weekend with the rise of a former army chief to head of the biggest party in the nation's ruling coalition.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who served as commander in chief until 2005, became leader of the Palang Pracharat Party in Saturday's party election.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was a junior officer to Prawit during their army days, is now expected to reshuffle his cabinet as soon as next month. That move will be closely watched for signs of whether skeptics of Thailand joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact gain an upper hand.

Prawit replaced Uttama Savanayana, Thailand's finance minister, an academic recruited in an effort to dilute the party's military overtones. The outcome follows a revolt within Palang against the previous leadership. 

Prayuth, leader of the military coup that rose to power in May 2014, maintained his hold on the prime minister's seat following the 2019 general election by putting together a ruling coalition out of roughly 20 parties. Central among them is Palang, a pro-military party that supports Prayuth, himself a former army chief.

But Prayuth rankled conservatives in Palang by naming the academic Somkid Jatusripitak as a deputy prime minister and economic czar. Uttama, who as finance minister has sway over the budget, is a proponent of Somkid's economic ideas, as is the energy minister and other cabinet members in positions to distribute lucrative contracts.

Unhappy with cabinet appointments and other decisions, 18 senior Palang officials resigned in protest early this month, triggering Saturday's party election.

Prawit wields considerable influence in the administration as the head of security forces. With Prawit at the top of Palang, the military will hold more sway in the government.

Prawit stirred controversy in 2018 after two tourist boats carrying Chinese tourists sank in a storm, killing more than 40. He blamed the tragedy on Chinese operators, calling it a case of "Chinese harming Chinese." The general has also been accused of hiding assets.

With Prawit gaining control of Palang, observers see higher odds of the Somkid faction being swept out in a cabinet reshuffle. Somkid has pushed for the opening of Thailand's economy and expressed support for joining the TPP, whose 11 members include Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

In February, Somkid told Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan's point man on the trade pact, that Thailand was poised to make a decision on joining in April. But the debate has stalled due to resistance by protectionists.

Prayuth launched a special committee in the lower house dedicated to weighing the TPP issue. But a sudden change in his government's economic policy team could sap momentum for joining the trade agreement.

Somkid also oversees development of the Eastern Economic Corridor, a strategic zone geared toward drawing foreign investment and promoting next-generation industries. At the same time, Thailand faces an 8% economic contraction this year. A cabinet reshuffle could disrupt economic policy and slow down a recovery.

The cabinet should not be opened to people without ideas on how to steer the economy, or unable to take practical steps, Somkid said in an interview on Wednesday.

Prayuth's coalition government will approach its one-year anniversary on July 16. Although the administration has received praise for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, critics have called the emergency declaration a ploy by the government to maintain its hold on power. The rise of a retired general to the top of the ruling party has heightened concerns that democracy will take a back seat to strongman governance.

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