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Exclusive: Thailand PM Prayuth Chan-ocha on Turning to China Over the U.S.

12 minute read

On June 1, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan Ocha sat down for an exclusive interview with TIME in Bangkok’s Government House. It’s just over four years since Prayuth, 64, launched a coup d’etat following six months of street protests against the elected government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The demonstrations had claimed at least 28 lives and left more than 700 injured when Prayuth seized control May 22, 2014—Thailand’s 12th putsch since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Read more: Thailand’s leader promised to restore democracy. Instead he’s tightening his grip

For over a decade, Thailand has been wracked by color-coded street protests aimed at paralyzing instruments of the state. Since coming to power, Prayuth has promulgated a new military-drafted constitution that aims to solver the festering divisions by installing the military as a permanent powerbroker. It allows for an unelected Prime Minister and a 250-member upper house entirely appointed by the military. The 500-strong lower house would be chosen by a new electoral mechanism likely to produce a weak coalition government, giving the generals final say on key policy decisions.

Thailand's Prime minister Time Magazine Asia cover 180702
Adam Ferguson for TIME

Prayuth spoke to TIME’s Charlie Campbell and Feliz Solomon through an interpreter. The below extracts have been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: You had a long career in the military and now you’re in politics. How have you handled the transition?

Prayuth: Before I became the head of the government, when I was Commander in Chief of the Army, I strove to gain knowledge away from military affairs. The armed forces are also important for country development, not only for country defense. As stated in the constitution, the major role of military consist of defending the country, maintaining internal security, and also developing the country; for example providing assistance to government official and authority to solve problems such as natural disasters.

Under your leadership, Thailand has passed a new constitution. Why do you believe this document will return the nation to stable, representative democracy?

The constitution should build confidence internationally. Furthermore, it was passed by a referendum with 60% support; more than 16 million people took part. I believe this constitution is legitimate as it has been approved by public. This constitution provides several solutions such as encouraging public cooperation, countering corruption, preventing conflicts of interests. It has all necessary mechanisms. I do not want any more conflicts arise.

Supporters of the Shinawatra family say that the constitution is designed to silence their voice. Do you not worry that troubles will return after elections?

I think it is quite normal to feel worried about this, as this is considered a transition to new political era of Thailand and Thai democracy. We have been doing this for over 80 years, nothing changed. Concerning conflicts over the constitution, people do not really pay serious attention to organic laws. I suppose you would not find these kind of problems in developed countries. But in this case, our country is still in the transition, we need to be patient and raise more awareness, understanding and cooperation. You know there can always be obstacles during transitions.

And, regarding the violation of the laws, there is only one group or a couple of groups of people who keep on doing that. They try to manipulate the laws to cause conflicts and public nuisances in the country.

Do you regret your decision to seize power?

It was the most difficult decision I ever made in my life. It took more than six months for me to make the decision. It was not that I made decision in advance, [but] I could not allow any further damage to be done to my country. There had been enough casualties already at the time I made the decision. I tried to do my best to fix all the problems. I listened to all parties, listened to public opinions on social media, and also listened to government officials in order to gather information from all angles and apply them to administer my work with careful consideration.

This is what I want you to understand about how I took this position. Personally, I never wanted to obtain power this way, never imagine becoming the prime minister like this. [The nation] was at the brink of destruction, and I could never let that happen.

Are you not tempted to maintain the current system of government. Or are you committed to democracy?

Everything can be better than before, especially when we completely have an international standard democracy and elected government with ethical governance — an honest government with good governance, which fully dedicate to the country. All of these can be further developed by the next government, consecutively government after government with regards to what I have laid the foundation for them. But if everyone went back to do the same like what happened before I took charge of the government, it would all go back to the same old problems. This is what I am worried about. Therefore during these four years I might have to exercise some power such as using some special acts of law in order to remain the stability and security, otherwise it might go back to chaos.

Thailand has been in the middle-income trap since the third industrial revolution, as we have used light and heavy machinery for more than 40 years, yet have not progressed much further. Now the world is coming to the fourth industrial revolution, therefore we are implementing our Thailand 4.0 policy to gear up the country towards a higher income zone. There are many measures to administer this policy; for instance, the Eastern Economic Corridor, which boosting investment in three eastern seaboard provinces, focusing on research and development, smart cities and digital operations to make it grow in accordance with world development and technology.

How important is Chinese investment and good relations with Beijing for Thailand’s prosperity going forward?

The friendship between Thailand and China has been over thousands of years, and with USA for around 200 years, and we remain these ties between our fellow countries until now. China is the number one partner of Thailand, along with other countries in the second and third place like the U.S. and others. They are all good friends to Thailand. Thailand is a small country, so we need to properly balance politics and foreign affairs with all fellow countries.

Do you believe the Thai-U.S. alliance has weakened in recent years?

I suppose the U.S. is somewhat busy with its own issues, so there seems to be some distance between the U.S. and ASEAN. As far as my discussion with President Trump, they might possibly pay more attention to ASEAN. I have learned that even though he has never been to Thailand, he has read and knows about Thailand, saying that Thailand has beautiful nature, tasty food, nice and kind people, is known as the Land of Smiles, and he would like to visit one day. The government also supports Thai people to increase investment in the U.S.; for instance in the energy sector, like in Ohio. There has been a lot of money put into that, hundreds of million of dollars, and it will grow further. In addition, we also have a plan to develop trading like more purchasing and exchanging of goods, such as aircraft and things like that.

What will democracy in Thailand look like?

Starting from the constitution, what’s suitable for Thailand is to establish effective public engagement and cooperation with the people, through appropriate process. In addition to freedom and human-rights, it has to be under the law, and not violate the law and other people’s rights. Even though it is considered s democratic right to have freedom, that freedom should not be abused to violate other people’s rights. There is a line between human rights and violation of laws, this is very important. We cannot only care for the majority and then neglect the minority like Thai democracy before.

You mentioned human-rights. We recently spoke with peaceful democracy protesters who had been arrested. Should Thai people be allowed to attend peaceful demonstrations?

We provide channels for them to put forward their requests [to demonstrate]. We also listen to them, take their demands into account. [But] if we allowed them to demonstrate freely, it might become too difficult to move forward to democracy. I want to bring us to democracy, I want to achieve that and settle the election. You know, we have to carefully examine these kids’ movement, and if we really understand them. We never want to use legal measures against them. We have been rather lenient. There were many times that we did not arrest them, and even released them, allowing them to go [free]. And I think they know that we are not being as strict as we should to them. It is like this because we look at them as kids, as children.

So are you a believer in human-rights?

Concerning human-rights, we have to understand that there is a group of people who try to raise this issue to distort the image of the country in the global view. We all know which group in particular, but I rather not point out who they are. We had better focus on defining what a “violation of human-rights” means: an abuse of authority by officials, being unnecessarily violent, assaulting them physically. My government has never approved these and punish officials [that do] to prevent such abuse happening. On the contrary, what about when those activists violate other people’s rights, cause public disturbances, block the traffic and making it difficult for other people to function their business and daily routine?

You grew up in Korat. Why did you first decide to join the military?

First things first, I grew up in a military family, in a military base so I saw the disciplined lifestyle, their strength, endurance and patience. Back then when I was young, patriotism was all about joining the army, fighting in the frontline for your country, and I was impressed by that. Then I told myself that I had to dedicate my life for my homeland and the monarchy. This I always had in mind as a young boy; I never wanted to be anything else, just wanted to be a soldier. But I never imagined becoming Army Commander in Chief, let alone being the prime minister.

But you enjoy writing songs. Did you ever consider becoming a professional singer?

I love listening to music, and know many songs, both Thai and international, but I do not think I can sing very well. One thing that I have practiced since I was very young is reading and writing poetry. It is in my veins as a Thai; you know, Thai people love anything poetic and rhyming. And writing, composing, it requires a spirit and a soul to write, to compose nicely rhyming and coherent prose and poetry. Reading books is very important to help me write. Writing songs — though my songs may not be that beautiful, they are a way to help me express my thoughts and communicate with the people. As I mentioned before, Thai people love poetry.

Here, in Government House, there is a wall with the portraits of all former prime ministers. Are you looking forward to your retirement, when your portrait will also be there?

I will just go home, back to my family. I need to spend more time with my family as I have lived my life working for the Army for 40 years, but I only have more opportunities to stay with them during my last 10 years of work. It was not until my children graduated from college that I could really stay with them, because I had been posted upcountry for the first 30 years of my working life. I just returned to live in Bangkok when I became Army Commander, just within the last decade. I still owe my family big time. I would like to pay them back for this, take them on the vacation that I never had the chance do before. It was always my wife who took care of these things. During these four years, they also had to endure difficulties, sacrifices in their personal life, they cannot really more around freely, as they have to take very strict safety precautions. My family is very important to me, just like other Thai family.

So you will definitely be retiring after the election in February?

This is still the matter for the future. I cannot tell you exactly what I will do, where I will be. This depends on the situation and the people, I have no control over this. It will be down to the democratic mechanism, the constitution, the election and so on. We cannot really forecast in advance.

You grew up in Isaan [Thailand’s northeastern regain where the Shinawatra family is popular]. Do you retain an Isaan identity?

Well, not really. My father is from Bangkok, my mother is from the Northeast, I am a military officer in Royal Thai Army who have been working for the country, for the country’s people for 40 years. And now I am the Prime Minister, just that, the Prime Minister for the whole country, not just for the North only, or the Northeast only, not only for any specific region, but for everyone and all the country, for all 77 provinces. I have to accomplish my mission, do the best in my job, this is my identity.

Do you believe you will be able to solve Thailand’s divided society?

To return the happiness, restore peace, and reconciliation to country doesn’t solely depend on me. It involves many parties and the willingness of Thai people, too. We need to foster engagement and cooperation from all parties, the people, the politicians. However, there are still some parties, some people who keep stirring up trouble and generate conflicts among society. That is why we have to maintain order, but we still cannot use excessively violent measures, cannot abuse our authority. This is what concerns me, and I always consider all aspects of my work carefully, systematically plan the measure and procedures to move forward to better security and sustainability of the country.

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Write to Charlie Campbell/Bangkok at charlie.campbell@time.com