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'Flawless' Thai army ruler would be good PM: junta colleague

By Panarat Thepgumpanat and Kaweewit Kaewjinda

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai General Prayuth Chan-ocha has run the country flawlessly since he seized power in a military coup in May and would make a good prime minister under a provisional administration to be set up shortly, a junta colleague said on Wednesday.

The military said it intervened to restore order after months of political turmoil as protesters tried to topple the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck was forced to step down on May 7 after being found guilty of abuse of power by the Constitutional Court. The remainder of her cabinet was ousted in the coup two weeks later.

The junta tore up the old constitution and a provisional charter was endorsed by head of state King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Tuesday, allowing the appointment of a parliament, the National Legislative Assembly, which will nominate a new prime minister.

Asked at a news conference whether Prayuth would continue as leader under the interim charter, Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal adviser to the junta, said: "The constitution allows it, but whether he is appointed or not is down to the National Legislative Assembly."

General Paiboon Koomchaya, in charge of legal affairs for the junta, suggested Prayuth could do the job perfectly.

"I don't see he has any flaws in performing his duties. As of now he is already performing the duties of a prime minister. For the past two months, he has been sitting at the head of the table at every meeting and the administration of the country has gone smoothly during these two months," Paiboon said.

Ambika Ahuja, a specialist on Thailand at Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy, believed Prayuth would retain control of the government either as prime minister or defense minister.

Alternatively, she wrote in a note, he could wield influence by staying on as army chief after his scheduled retirement from the army in October while former army chief Prawit Wongsuwan was installed as prime minister.

"Such a move would signify a failure to find a neutral figure to navigate the political conflict and strong distrust of those outside the army," she said.

The upheaval is the latest chapter in almost a decade of conflict pitting Thailand's royalist establishment and Bangkok's middle class against Yingluck's brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and his supporters among the poor. Thaksin's devoted following in the rural north and northeast has ensured that he or parties loyal to him have won every election since 2001. He was toppled in an earlier coup, in 2006.

MARTIAL LAW REMAINS

The military will remain in charge of national security alongside the incoming provisional government and Paiboon said martial law, imposed on May 20, would remain in force.

"It is still necessary for the peace and safety of our country," he said.

Junta adviser Wissanu said the interim constitution would probably be in force for around a year, after which a new constitution would take effect and elections then held under its provisions. Prayuth has said a general election could be held in late 2015. A national reform council is to be set up with a broad remit to draw up political and economic reforms, including the reshaping of national and local government, education, energy policy and other matters. The protesters who undermined Yingluck's government during months of street rallies - and whose leadership is close to the royalist and military establishment - wanted the electoral system to be redrawn to eliminate the influence of Thaksin. Many favored a parliament that was partly or wholly appointed. A committee is to draft a new, permanent constitution under a chairman nominated by the junta. There is no provision for a referendum, unlike in 2007 when the army pushed through a new constitution after toppling Thaksin, and apparently no great desire.

"If the constitution is drafted quickly, we can have a referendum. But if it's slow, we'll have to consider whether it's necessary because a referendum takes time and that will cause further delay for the election," Wissanu said.

Ambika at Eurasia Group said the charter gave the army "effective control of Thailand's constitutional and electoral reform".

It excluded people who had recently been in political parties from becoming prime minister, cabinet members or even members of the provisional parliament, she said, and was likely to "strengthen the role of technocrats, bureaucrats and supporters of the conservative establishment".

(Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana; Writing by Alan Raybould)

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