BANGKOK, Thailand -- One year after becoming an elected civilian prime
minister, military coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is tightening
security links with the Pentagon, increasing financial deals with
China, and enjoying applause for containing COVID-19 at 58 dead with
no transmissions in two months.

Prime Minister Prayuth's political enemies meanwhile suffered the past
year being ousted from a lopsided, junta-stacked parliament or
struggling in disarray.

Smoldering protests are starting to resume against his change from a
2014 bloodless coup leader to being sworn in on July 16, 2019 after
his coalition won a parliamentary election and packed the Senate with

But his opponents are muzzled by Mr. Prayuth's recent Emergency Decree
restricting free speech and assembly, which he claims is needed to
contain COVID-19.

A politicized and weapons-hungry military, Thailand's need for
investments, and its strategic territorial access in Southeast Asia
attract both the U.S. and China which perceive him as a willing

"Since Trump took office in 2017, Thailand has begun to tilt back
toward the United States, buying more U.S. weapons systems and
participating in more joint exercises with U.S. soldiers in 2019 and
2020," said Paul Chambers, an American lecturer on Southeast Asian
affairs at Thailand's Naresuan University.

On July 9-10, Mr. Prayuth permitted U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen.
James McConville to lead the first foreign delegation to Thailand
after most other international arrivals were blocked to prevent fresh
coronavirus cases infecting the country.

The arrival of Gen. McConville's delegation prompted critics to demand
the six Americans obey the 14-day mandatory quarantine that other
foreigners and Thais endure when arriving.

In response, officials issued photos of Thai medical staff, wearing
hazmat suits, cautiously approaching Gen. McConville's left nostril
with a swab stick when he arrived.

He later appeared wearing a face mask while meeting similarly masked
Prime Minister Prayuth, Army Commander in Chief Gen. Apirat
Kongsompong and other Thais.

"Our two nations typically have hundreds of military trainings and
events each year, and we are working in unison with the Royal Thai
Government to ensure that all of our training scenarios will be done
with the utmost care with regards to the pandemic,” Gen. McConville

Mr. Prayuth's biggest vulnerability is Thailand's crippled economy,
reeling from virus-related shut downs.

He promised to spend billions of dollars to rescue farmers,
entrepreneurs and tourism, and asked Thai and international investors
to help.

"China has been more eager to invest in, and trade with, Thailand than
the U.S. has," Mr. Chambers said. "Beijing is seeking to extend a
high-speed train through Thailand and even build a canal through
Thailand's Isthmus of Kra.

"Such activity has won Beijing increasing numbers of Thai business
friends and military connections," Mr. Chambers said.

"While he [Prayuth] is certainly pragmatic in his dealings with the
U.S. having happily visited the White House in late 2017, his far more
numerous and meaningful interactions with China are underscored by an
ideological affinity and attraction," Benjamin Zawacki, author of the
book "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China,"
said in an interview.

"Authoritarianism, state supremacy, patriarchy, control," are Prime
Minister Prayuth's priorities, Mr. Zawacki said.

Paul Quaglia, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer who
now manages a Hong Kong-based political risk consulting firm, said in
an interview:

"The core of this government -- like the core of the previous [Prayuth
junta] government -- is composed of three retired military generals,
all of whom served as army chiefs: Prayuth, [Deputy Prime Minister]
Prawit and [Interior Minister] Anupong Paochinda.

"They are brothers-in-arms and consult with each other on important
decisions," Mr. Quaglia said.

Mr. Prayuth's stability depends on military support, influential and
wealthy royalists, and investors hoping a burst of government spending
will sooth virus-related economic losses.

"The government is essentially a Bangkok phenomena, crated for Bangkok
consumption and the periphery as passive audience," David Streckfuss,
American author of the book "Truth on Trial in Thailand," said in an

"There is literally no hope for any important change emanating from
Bangkok. The only question is how long the periphery -- and
particularly the north and northeast -- will allow themselves to be
coerced into a begrudging consent," Mr. Streckfuss said.

Recent political and legal victories are also keeping Mr. Prayuth's
government afloat.

"In January 2020, Thailand's Constitutional Court -- which the junta
had previously stocked with junta-loyal judges -- dissolved the Future
Forward Party (FFP), perhaps Prayuth's most powerful parliamentary
[enemy]," Mr. Chambers said.

"It was also helpful for Prayuth that FFP's leader Thanathorn
Juangroongruangkit, charismatic and anti-military, was forced out of
politics by the court" for violating election laws, he said.

Mr. Thanathorn and his FFP lost their 80 seats in parliament.

Mr. Prayuth meanwhile is widely hailed because "Thailand's performance
regarding the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the best in the
world," former foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an