Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha raised his voice on several occasions Thursday as he faced scrutiny from opposition lawmakers for the first time, while delivering his new government’s policy plans that include restoring peace in the insurgency-hit Deep South and solving economic problems.
Prayuth, the former junta chief, faced questions in parliament as soon as he began reading from his 40-page statement that included his 12 major policies on a variety of issues, such as economic growth, drugs and corruption.
“The government is determined to help people ease their economic problems [nationwide], as well as solve drug problems and create peace in the southern border,” Prayuth said, referring to the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South region that borders Malaysia.
A summary of his government’s policy plan, which was released earlier this week, said the government’s top priority was to protect the king and the royal family.
The 65-year-old Prayuth, a former army general who seized power in a 2014 coup, served for five years as an unchallenged junta leader before calling for last March’s general election, which opposition leaders allege was engineered to keep the military in control.
While speaking to the parliamentarians, Prayuth, who is known for his short temper, faced a challenge from a member of the opposition Pheu Thai party, who told him to stick to reading the policy document and not provide extra comments.
But the prime minister generally retained his composure, despite repeated interruptions from opposition lawmakers who asked him to tone down his voice.
Officials sent out the policy document to all lawmakers last week for their study before Thursday’s parliamentary debate.
Pheu Thai party leader Sompong Amornvivat said he had no confidence that the policies would solve national issues.
Sompong cited a lack of trust in Prayuth’s leadership and in his economic advisers, saying they included the same people “who had failed over the past five years.”
Lt. Gen. Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, deputy leader of the opposition Future Forward Party, said during the debate that officials should understand the issues in the Deep South provinces.
“The human rights issue is the most important.” Pongsakorn said. “Using military force is unreasonable."
Prayuth responded by saying that the government had adopted measures to handle rights issues.
“Whenever people are arrested, we give justice to them,” he said. “The problem today doesn’t come from the state. The state doesn’t shoot first, the soldier doesn’t want to shoot first. If people didn’t get shot first, they won’t open fire.”
Thailand’s Deep South includes Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces, as well as four districts in Songkhla province, where shadowy separatist rebels are engaged in a decades-old insurgency campaign that has killed almost 7,000 people since it reignited in early 2004, according to rights groups that monitor the region.
Since 2015, Thailand under Prayuth’s leadership has engaged with MARA Patani, a panel of negotiators representing southern Thai rebels groups and factions, in Malaysia-brokered talks aimed at ending the conflict, but the talks have stalled and yielded no breakthrough.
Concerns raised about human rights
A day before Prayuth issued his government’s policy, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the former army general of starting his second term “with the same blanket disregard for human rights that characterized his first term.”
“His policy statement contains no language whatsoever addressing the serious problems under repressive military rule since the 2014 coup,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement Wednesday.
He said copies of the statement that had been submitted to parliamentarians on July 19 did not discuss human rights issues.
“Whatever hopes that the new government would bring about human rights reforms and advance democratic, civilian rule suffered a serious setback with the failure to include any commitments in the policy statement,” Adams said.
Titipol Phakdeewanich dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews that he found nothing new in Prayuth’s policies, but he was not surprised.
“The policy that focuses on the military stability rather than human security is not suitable for the country’s development in the modernized world,” he said.
Mookta Makae, a Pattani resident, said villagers were not hopeful that the government’s policies would solve the violence and other issues in the area.
“Human rights abuses would still continue,” he said.