BANGKOK, Thailand -- Coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha ended his
five-year-long junta and took over the defense ministry when his new
government was sworn in on July 16, nearly four months after an
election to reaffirm him as prime minister.

President Trump's support during Prime Minister Prayuth's military-led
regime is expected to continue amid Thailand's increasing closeness
with neighboring China which supplies diplomatic, economic and
military support.

The U.S., a treaty ally, trains Thailand's military which remains
under Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, son of a 1991 coup leader
former supreme commander Sunthorn Kongsompong.

"After the coup in Thailand, we severed a significant amount of
mil-to-mil [military-to-military] engagement," said Army Command Sgt.
Maj. Eric Curran. "We lost a lot of traction."

Some new Thai military captains have "no desire to come to the United
States. They want to go train in Russia and China.  That's one of the
impacts we notice on the ground level," he said according to Army

"I am so happy Prayuth won. I hope they end those who are against
him," said a Thai executive.

Asking not to be named, he described his fantasy of pro-democracy
candidates being fed to "hungry baby crocodiles."

Others were less supportive of Mr. Prayuth's first election after he
seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup as army commander-in-chief by
toppling a popular civilian government.

"Now Thailand has moved from a military government to a civil-military
authoritarian rule under disguised and manipulated electoral
legitimacy," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Bangkok's
influential Institute of Security and International Studies.

Wearing identical white uniforms, the staunchly royalist Mr. Prayuth
and 35 cabinet members began their new administration after being
sworn in on July 16 by King Maha Vajiralongkorn in the Dusit Palace, a
requirement under Thailand's constitutional monarchy.

In addition to the prime ministry, Mr. Prayuth also became defense
minister after relieving the previous elderly holder, Prawit
Wongsuwon, because of ill health. Mr. Prawit retained his post as one
of several deputy prime ministers.

The powerful interior ministry, which also controls Thailand's police,
remained under retired Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda
who supported Mr. Prayuth's 2014 coup and a 2006 military putsch.

Foreign Minister Don Pramundwinai also retained his post.

The new health minister is Bhumjai Thai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul.

He campaigned on promises to allow each household to grow six
marijuana plants and sell the crop to the government for its recently
legalized medical marijuana industry. Mr. Anutin also became a deputy
prime minister.

Mr. Prayuth's most immediate challenge will be ruling this
Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation without his dreaded Section
44 law which gave him absolute powers and immunity from prosecution.

Now that his junta has ended and he leads a new Palang Pracharat
party, that law also expired.

His new government however kept other feared tools against opponents,
including continuation of Mr. Prayuth's infamously Orwellian "attitude
adjustment" punishment.

That includes being taken to a military camp where dissidents are
convinced to stop speaking or acting against the government.

Mr. Prayuth's newest enemy is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He leads
the recently created youth-backed, Internet-savvy Future Forward

The 40-year-old scion of wealthy industrialists wants to stop the
military's role in politics, slash their escalating budget, and end
the draft.

Mr. Thanathorn was warmly received by many diplomats, academics and
others. He became darling of the opposition's diverse parties and
their surprise nominee for prime minister.

His supporters insist he will not flee the country after recently
being charged with "sedition" because he allegedly gave a protest
leader an "escape" ride in his vehicle.  If convicted, Mr. Thanathorn
faces up to nine years imprisonment.

He is also accused of election violations involving his previous media
investments, and could lose his House seat.

Mr. Thanathorn denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

"Regime supporters have been resorting to witch-hunting...often
accusing opponents of being disloyal to the monarchy and chastising
them to 'go live in another country if you're not happy with
Thailand'," wrote Bangkok Post columnist Wasant Techawongtham.

Meanwhile, both Mr. Prayuth and Mr. Thanathorn face cases in the
Constitutional Court, which could disqualify them from power.

More than 100 opposition Parliament members petitioned the court to
declare Mr. Prayuth unfit as a prime ministerial candidate because he
was simultaneously a "state official" in the junta's ruling and
now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order.

Mr. Thanathorn and his Future Forward party Secretary-General Piyabutr
Saengkanokkul are fighting in the court against allegations that they
attempted to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.  The two denied
those charges.

The court allowed Mr. Prayuth to remain in power while he contests his
case but barred Mr. Thanathorn from taking his Parliament seat because
of the separate case involving an alleged financial conflict of

The polls on March 24 allowed only the House of Representative's 500
seats to be elected.

Mr. Prayuth's junta appointed the 250-seat Senate, including 101 army
and police senior officers.

Mr. Prayuth's brother, Mr. Prawit's brother, and the brother of Deputy
Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam are among those 101. The head of the
army, navy, air force and national police were also appointed

On June 6, by combining elected pro-Prayuth candidates in the House
and adding the Senate seats, Mr. Prayuth won 500 while Mr. Thanathorn
scored 244.

Mr. Prayuth's four-year term may be cut short by rivalries within his
coalition and resistance to his policies by opposition House members.

"Even though the new government can be established, it might not be
able to stay in power for a long time, given the cohesiveness of the
newly established 19-party coalition government," said World Bank
Senior Economist for Thailand Kiatipong Ariyapruchya.

"It's a key risk factor for the Thai economic outlook."

Thailand's top forensic investigator, appointed Senator Porntip
Rojanasunan, used her knowledge of fatal diseases and corpses while
supporting Mr. Prayuth on her Facebook page:

"Good governance will drive the country forward. Any finger which is
bad must not be saved. If the situation is left unchecked, the disease
will spread to the other fingers which may lead to death."


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting
from Asia since 1978.

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.