BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's military government insists the army will not turn against the ruling junta and is warning pro-election civilians to stop trying to split the regime, smear it with corruption allegations or protest in the streets for democracy.


The escalating confrontations threaten Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's purported plan to manipulate a post-election parliament to extend his stay in power which began when he led a bloodless 2014 military coup.


"I am not interested in dragging things out," Mr. Prayuth said on March 30 responding to fears that he would again delay the election because his popularity is falling.


Small, fearless, anti-junta demonstrations meanwhile have again appeared in Bangkok's congested, sweltering streets.


Their latest satirical attack involves wearing paper Pinocchio facemasks resembling Mr. Prayuth with an elongated nose because they do not believe his statements.


They also demand the armed forces stop supporting the regime.


"The army is part of the junta," Defense Minister retired Army Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan said.


The U.S.-trained army "will not separate" from the regime which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, said Mr. Prawit who is also an NCPO member and powerful deputy prime minister.


"It is unlikely that armed forces' commanders would step down from being NCPO members," echoed Air Force Commander Jom Rungsawang.


The NCPO includes the heads of the air force, navy, army and police, plus technocrats, wealthy royalists, conservatives and others.


The two NCPO officials were speaking after hundreds of pro-election students and activists marched on March 24 from Bangkok's prestigious and politically active Thammasat University to the army's headquarters.


They chanted: "Junta, get out!" "Down with the dictators!" "Election this year!"


"Only 100 or so protesters came," Mr. Prawit insisted.


He expressed displeasure at The Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) and Start Up People (SUP) -- the two experienced student-led organizations which led the march.


"What I want to see first is the NCPO in jail," Rangsiman Rome, a DRG leader, told the Bangkok Post in an interview published on April 2.


"You have to realize that this is a broken country. It is not livable," Mr. Rangsiman said.


The two allied groups plan bigger rallies during May, especially on May 22 to mourn the coup's fourth anniversary.


Defense Minister Prawit meanwhile continues to deny wrongdoing for having 22 luxury wristwatches totaling more than $1 million without officially declaring them as assets.


Dubbed by skeptical Thais as "General Bling," he told an ongoing corruption investigation that a now-dead billionaire friend loaned him the wristwatches to wear at public events.


"I am a victim used by the opposite side to hit the prime minister in the leg," Mr. Prawit said on April 1, claiming the wristwatch scandal is a plot to destabilize his lifelong ally Mr. Prayuth.


Pro-election activists and politicians say the allegations of corruption by various junta officials and supporters are symptoms of the military government's hypocrisy and failure.


Mr. Prayuth led the coup when he was army chief, declaring only he could end corruption at the top which plagued elected civilian governments.


"More Thai people are sick and tired of his [Mr. Prayuth's] government than at any time since the military coup in May 2014, but not enough are willing to stand up and stare down the military regime," said the director of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies, Thitinan Pongsudhirak.


"Corruption and graft will lead to crises and more coups. It is a familiar and vicious cycle," Mr. Thitinan said on March 30.


Prime Minister Prayuth "cannot afford to leave the corridors of power too soon, or he could become the subject of vengeful acts by his political opponents, pundits say," the Bangkok Post reported on March 31.


Many Thais assume Mr. Prayuth is conspiring to extend his control after the polls -- planned for February 2019 -- by using a recent law which allows a hung parliament to appoint an unelected person as prime minister.


Stung by the accusation, Mr. Prayuth is warning that the deadly street insurrections which crippled this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation before his putsch could return if pro-democracy protesters continually denounce his regime.


Political chaos could delay the polls indefinitely.


Mr. Prayuth is also concerned that two fugitive civilian prime ministers -- who he helped topple in separate military coups -- are perceived to be immensely popular and their candidates could sweep the polls.


The former prime ministers, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, were recently in Japan on an international tour while dodging separate prison sentences for offences committed during their administrations.


After a 2006 coup against Mr. Thaksin, in which Mr. Prayuth participated, he fled Thailand in 2008 just before a court convicted him of financial conflict of interest and sentenced him to two years in prison.


Ms. Yingluck led a coalition to victory in a 2011 election but was forced out in 2014 by a Constitutional Court two weeks before her remaining colleagues were nullified by Mr. Prayuth's latest coup.


She fled Thailand days before being sentenced to five years in prison for negligence while overseeing rice subsidies.


The siblings' Pheu Thai ("For Thais") party candidates "should be able to lead the party to another landslide victory," Mr. Thaksin said in Japan on March 29, knowing it would rile the regime.


"If you want to believe [Thaksin], feel free to, but I do not," responded Defense Minister Prawit.


Rubbing in their catch-me-if-you-can gallivanting around the world, Mr. Thaksin posed for a smiling selfie with Ms. Yingluck in Japan and arranged for the photo to be posted on his Thailand-based son's Facebook page.