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March 28, 2017

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Thai PM stacks cabinet with soldiers

BANGKOK -- Thailand's coup leader and newly appointed premier Prayuth Chan-Ocha on Sunday received royal endorsement for a cabinet stacked with soldiers, as the military extended its reach into the kingdom's politics.

Nearly a third of the 32-strong cabinet are senior military officers. Among them are Prayuth's close allies and key players in the recent years of political turbulence, including generals involved in the bloody 2010 crackdown on "Red Shirt" activists.

Former and serving generals will head the defense, justice, foreign affairs and commerce ministries, while an air marshal will take the top post at the transport department.

The civilian portion of the cabinet includes longstanding allies of the military, such as Sommai Pasri who will lead the finance ministry — where he was deputy minister following the nation's last coup in 2006.

"His majesty has endorsed the cabinet members," put forward by Prayuth, according to a royal decree released late Sunday.

Last week revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, formally endorsed Prayuth as premier.

Prayuth's predecessor as army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, was appointed interior minister — responsible for internal security.

Thailand's junta has muzzled dissent since seizing power in May. The appointment of Anupong, who played a key role in the crackdown on Red Shirts protesting in Bangkok four years ago, is likely to be seen as a sign of a continuing tough line on political opponents.

Another close ally, retired General Prawit Wongsuwan, returns to the defence ministry which he headed under the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, which was humbled at the polls by Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011.

Prayuth says he was forced to take power after months of protests against Yingluck's elected government left nearly 30 people dead and hundreds more wounded, paralysing policy-making, cramping the economy and frightening off tourists.

He has ruled out holding new elections before October 2015, despite international appeals for a return to democracy, vowing first to oversee reforms said to be aimed at cleaning up politics and society.

Opponents of the government overthrown by the army want those reforms to target billionaire exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family including sister Yingluck — whom they accuse of corruption and crony capitalism.

Shinawatra loyalists have been purged from key ministries, provincial governments, state industries and the police.

But critics have questioned whether a cabinet of military heavyweights can heal the nation's deep political rupture.

Figures such as Anupong and General Dapong Ratanasuwan — who is the new environment and natural resources minister — are reviled by the Thaksin-loyalist Red Shirts for their roles in the 2010 crackdown which left scores dead in Bangkok.

Thaksin draws support from the rural north and northeast and Bangkok's middle and working classes, who praise him for having recognized their changing social and economic aspirations.

Prayuth's reliance on soldiers in his cabinet may draw Thais "to unite" and "ironically ... help to breathe new life into support for Thaksin," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

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