Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was caught out on Monday at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok when Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha congratulated New Zealand on our success in producing sheep placenta cream. But Ardern had seemingly not heard of this under-rated, value-add product!
So, who is the Thai Prime Minister, who also serves as Thailand's Defence Minister, and head of the Royal Thai Police? And what should New Zealand media know about him?
He likes to write pop songs
After the then-army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha staged the May 22nd, 2014 coup d’état against the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, he penned the song “Return Happiness to Thailand.” He sought to reassure Thai people with lyrics such as “We offer to guard and protect you with our hearts.” In 2018, he released another song “Diamond Heart” just in time for Valentine’s Day, but to limited acclaim. Prayut released his 10th song in 2019, inspired by the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn and titled “Thai is Thai March.”
He’s a military man
Before he entered into politics full-time, the 65-year old Prayut was a life-long military man. He began his military career, and rose through the ranks, of the esteemed Queen’s Guard unit of the Royal Thai Army. He was deputy army chief during the 2010 political protests that brought Bangkok to a standstill and were ultimately ended by a military crackdown that remains deeply controversial. That same year, Prayut became Commander in Chief of the army. After the 2014 coup, Prayut established the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) with himself as its head.
He has a challenging relationship with Thailand’s media
The NCPO put strict regulations on journalism, and Freedom House has classified Thailand as ‘Not Free’. Since coming to power, Prayut has had fraught interactions with Thai and international media. In 2014, he was caught on camera throwing a banana peel at a cameraman’s head after being asked to face the camera. In 2015, he again became annoyed with media, telling journalists he would “probably just execute” those who didn’t “report the truth”. Another time, Prayut walked away from a press conference, telling reporters to instead ask questions of a life-size cardboard mock-up of himself.
He’s dealt with a fair share of scandals
Prayut recently came under fire for omitting key phrases during his oath of office. The controversy concerns his failure to say the part of the oath in which he was supposed to swear allegiance to the constitution. But it’s the first time he’s had to ride out scandal. Previously, his government became embroiled in what came to be known as “Watchgate,” after eagle-eyed social media sleuths exposed Prayut and his deputy, General Prawit Wonsuwon, for wearing a collection of luxury watches despite being career soldiers and basing the legitimacy of the government on the need to wipe out corruption. The scandal was thought to be beyond yet another delay of the long-awaited post-coup election.
He has a slim majority
Prayut’s government is led by the Phalang Pracharat party in coalition with an unwieldy 18 different parties, most of them small in size. Despite the high number of parties, the coalition only holds a tiny majority in Thailand’s lower house of just 254 seats out of 500. That majority might be put to the test because one of the ministers helping to hold the coalition together, Thammanat Prompao, has been outed for spending four years in a Sydney jail in the 19902 for his role in trafficking 3.2kgs of heroin into Australia.