The unique position of the Thai Prime Minister who, while elected by parliament as PM is neither an MP nor the leader of a political party, makes his role all the more challenging especially as the country faces multiple crises. This week’s controversy brought international news coverage and coincided with the second time the PMs’ Covid-19 jab was cancelled in as many weeks.
The Thai PM apologised on Friday for a bizarre incident during the week when he sprayed the media pack at Government House. For many, it’s just another sign of General Prayut Chan ocha’s offbeat sense of humour. It may also be a sign of the political pressure the 66-year-old is under from forces within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party and the challenges facing him in the top job.
Thailand’s 66-year-old Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, on Friday, issued an apology for spraying reporters at a press briefing session during the week with an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
The incident was widely reported on international news media outlets coming as the Thai head of government also made the news for cancelling his 2nd appointment to take the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
Coverage of the PM’s quirky personality across the world, something some Thais secretly admire
The incident provoked coverage of the PM’s quirky style such as when, in early 2018, he told inquisitive reporters to address their questions to a cardboard cut out of himself at Government House and walked off with his aides.
In the run-up to the March 2019 General Election which led to his election as Prime Minister under a new constitution following the 2014 coup, many Thais expressed approval of the Prime Minister’s sense of humour and offhand way with the press seeing it as part of the former army chief’s reputation for being a strong leader.
Gaffe by the PM after the murder of two UK backpackers in 2014 for which he also apologised
There have also been several gaffes by General Prayut such as in the aftermath of the murder of the two UK backpackers David Miller and Hannah Witheridge on Ko Tao in September 2014 in which Ms Witheridge was raped.
Days after the incident, the PM asked if foreign women visiting Thailand should wear bikinis?
‘This has always been a problem. They think our country is beautiful and safe and they can do whatever they want, wear bikinis wherever they like. I’m asking if they wear bikinis in Thailand, will they be safe? Only if they are not beautiful,’ he told a shocked press corps.
The PM later also apologized for these remarks or any misunderstanding that may have been caused by them.
Thai women are like ‘toffee or candy’
He followed the same theme, in 2016, when he pondered the question of how Thai women should dress for the country’s Songkran holidays? He described them as toffees and candies that need to be suitably wrapped and packaged.
‘During Songkran, I ask that women wear proper clothes, Thai style, so they would look good and civilized,’ he enthused.
He then went on to say that he personally saw women being like ‘toffee or candy’ which people generally don’t like to eat if left unwrapped for too long.
He said that nicely wrapped toffee or candy could still be desirable even if left on the shelf for a long time.
Government leader under pressure after three ministers jailed last month for the 2013/2014 protests
This week’s outburst from the Prime Minister comes as he faces a delicate balance following the jailing of three cabinet ministers, members of his government, last month after they were found guilty on criminal charges connected with the 2013/2014 Yellow Shirt street protests organised by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) which toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
These protests precipatated the 2014 coup led by General Prayut.
Political pressure within the ruling Palang Pracharat Party puts the Prime Minister in an awkward position
The cabinet vacancies and vying for the coveted positions have further exposed a power struggle with the Palang Pracharat Party which is led by the Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan who along with Minister of the Interior Anupong Paochinda and the PM are the triumvirate of former army chiefs behind the 2014 coup and still understood to be the most powerful players in the current government.
The strain in the relationship is that MPs within the Palang Pracharat Party are now pushing for more power to be afforded to elected MPs in parliament while the Prime Minister, General Prayut, is known to have more confidence in outsiders with proven qualifications and capability.
This movement has begun to indirectly target the Prime Minister’s prerogatives and influence over cabinet appointments.
General Prayut has indicated that there will be ‘no outsiders’ in the proposed cabinet reshuffle which is expected to be limited in scope and to happen at the beginning of April.
His current position has been constrained by political realities.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan in a stronger position as head of the ruling political party
This has put Deputy Prime Minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, who was thought to be retiring for many years due to ill health, in a strong position as the leader of the political party now in power.
However, the relationship between the Prime Minister and his deputy is thought to be a long one that stretches back to their days as army officers serving together.
The rise, steady progress and success of the Palang Pracharat Party which won a significant by-election in Nakhon Si Thammarat over the weekend when it defeated the Democrat Party in a former stronghold is often overlooked by political commentators covering Thailand who tend to see the political picture in the kingdom through the lens of the street protest movement in Bangkok.
Thai PM’s position is uniquely challenging
The unique position of General Prayut as a constitutionally elected Prime Minister who is not a member of parliament working under Thailand’s strict constitutional oversight provisions is worth considering.
He is also the leader of a large coalition government that comprised of 19 political parties when formed, without being even a party leader.
This requires a delicate balancing act especially when he has oversight over a country facing an unprecedented crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and weekly street protests.
Different understanding of the function of the media or press but a not unfriendly relationship
Even on Friday, as the PM apologised to the press for the spraying incident, the apology ended on a somewhat sour note.
It is understood some reporters in the press posse at Government House were not offended by the incident, treating it as a joke, while others were.
The Thai leader has often expressed disappointment at the media’s behaviour.
General Prayut seems, at times, to have an understanding or be working under the impression that the media, like the Royal Thai Army or other arms of the state, has an unwritten duty to benignly uphold the country’s interests rather than accepting it as just being there to report facts and events as they happen, as objectively and honestly as possible.
PM’s relationship with the media is better than other world leaders despite his unpredictable behaviour
The press corps, despite the Thai leader’s idiosyncratic behaviour, have enjoyed open access to the government leader perhaps more than the media working in many other countries including those in the west.
General Prayut, in the course of last year, appeared to reach out to the media and promised a more open relationship and respect for the fourth estate. He even toured a number of media offices to meet with senior editors and journalists.
Scolded media again after the apology and stormed off
On Friday, he told reporters he had been ‘too familiar’ with them referring to the corps as ‘you lot’ and said he did not mean any harm.
However, when questioned further on the incident, he went on the offensive and asked who among them was responsible for the publication of the footage across the world.
‘Who was responsible for spreading the story then?’ he demanded. ‘I was having a bit of fun and I won’t be doing that again. Jop (Period).’
He then stormed off.