5 years backwards under military rule
- 24 May 2019 at 04:00
- WRITER: THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon led the junta to seize power in 2014. While their primary pledges have failed to materialise, they are still seeking to retain their grip on power. Bangkok Post photo
Now that five years have elapsed since Thailand's last military coup, it is an opportune juncture to take stock of where the country is heading. When it seized power in May 2014, the military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, initially had legitimacy from royal ascent and broad approval from its restoration of stability and order after more than half a year of street protests in Bangkok by the People's Democratic Reform Committee that was intent on overthrowing the Pheu Thai government.
In the wake of their putsch, NCPO leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who became prime minister up to this day, made three primary pledges to eradicate corruption, usher in political reform, and promote national reconciliation. Not only has the NCPO-backed and Prayut-led government failed in all three categories, but its dismal performance and warped intentions have taken Thailand's political system back into a problematic past, where the junta intends to stay for the long haul in the 21st century against the collective preference of the Thai people for a more open political space and civilian-led representative leadership.
It may be difficult to imagine today that the Thai people gave the benefit of the doubt to Gen Prayut and his military cohorts in the beginning. Thailand's 13th successful coup since 1932 had put an end to debilitating demonstrations against the Yingluck Shinawatra government's amnesty bill in late-October 2013. Spearheaded by the PDRC, this Bangkok-based social movement rejected the amnesty because it would have exonerated and whitewashed Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's exiled brother who had been ousted in an earlier coup in September 2006.
At the outset, the PDRC was joined by people from myriad walks of life against a parliamentary ploy to pass a controversial legislation late into the night for narrow political gain. Once Yingluck withdrew the bill and backed off, the PDRC demanded a Lower House dissolution. When this demand was met and a new poll was called, the PDRC rejected it and called for "reform before election". It paved the way for the NCPO's coup.
Much of Bangkok and most of Thailand were relieved that the street protests that had made the country ungovernable came to an end. The NCPO rode the wave of this public sigh of relief, suppressing a few pockets of dissent outright and detaining hundreds of critics and opponents for "attitude adjustment". The ruling generals took over government, became cabinet ministers, promised to stay "not too long", and started a constitution-drafting process that restarted Thailand's cycle of coups, constitutions and elections.
Early on, the junta generals went after corruption, particularly schemes associated with Yingluck's divisive rice-pledging policy. A "super-board" of experts was set up to clean up the state-enterprise sector. Court cases against allegedly corrupt politicians were expedited. Thousands of Cambodian workers were deported as a signal to Prime Minister Hun Sen for having taken sides with Thaksin previously. Gen Prayut took on a martial strongman role like a blast from the past. For a while, it looked benevolent. By August 2016, the junta managed to marshal the constitution, drafted by its appointed committee, through a referendum with 59% voter turnout and 61% in favour, including a five-year temporary clause allowing the military-appointed senate to join in selecting the prime minister and to hold veto power over the Lower House on constitutional amendments.
Perhaps the inflection point where junta popularity turned south was when the universally respected King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed on Oct 13, 2016. News flows prior to that juncture were overall favourable to the junta. It was as if the junta was allowed its putsch and its rule because of the royal transition. Criticisms and dissent became more common and widespread thereafter. The ruling generals themselves also did not have a lot of results to show for being in power. Instead, allegations of corruption, cronyism and nepotism against the NCPO became more overt and frequent.
The most glaring case of irregular wealth was Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon's multimillion ownership of more than two dozen luxury watches. But Gen Prayut also sold a plot of land belonging to his family in an offshore transaction to the head of a major Thai conglomerate group. This conglomerate and other big business entities have been granted this and that concession and government-related deals on attractive terms throughout these junta years.
While the junta's anti-corruption crusade has not gone anywhere, the generals themselves have been accused of budget irregularities, especially in areas involving weapons procurement, such as the unaccountable purchase of Chinese submarines. If more light is shed and more parliamentary accountability and public scrutiny are allowed, perhaps more shady and unscrupulous undertakings among the generals and their associates would be uncovered.
When it comes to reform, the NCPO has made political changes in the opposite direction in a backward motion. This junta government is not about reform going into the future but a reaction reverting to the past, intent on preserving its power, prestige and privileges over competing socio-political forces and the Thai public. The constitution is the NCPO's mainstay because it weakens the political parties in the Lower House and keeps the junta powerful through its appointed senate.
Junta-appointed agencies, such as the Election Commission, Constitutional Court and anti-corruption commission, also seem to lend a hand. Somehow anti-junta individuals and political parties are prosecuted for this and that charge regularly, while the pro-junta sides get an easy constitutional ride. As 2020 approaches, Thailand's political system is firmly back in the latter 20th century.
Thailand's polarisation and divisions have not narrowed but remained, even widened along new cleavages. It used to be that the established centres of power took Thaksin and his party machine to task, underpinned by the putsches in 2006 and 2014 and the judicial dissolution of a Thaksin-aligned party that upended its coalition government in December 2008. But now that Thaksin has become more marginalised, after years in exile while three of his associated parties were dissolved and his royal decorations withdrawn, "new Thaksins" are being identified and targeted, particularly Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the brand-new and youngish Future Forward Party, whose MPs are aged 44 on average.
So the old fault line of those who support and reject Thaksin remains, whereas newer divisions between military and civilian leadership and between the older generation of politicians and generals and younger voices who want a more forward-looking Thailand in the 21st century have come to the fore.
We Thai people also have much to answer for in putting up with a military regime that has turned back the clock of progress. Thais have famously overthrown direct and indirect military dictatorships in 1973 and 1992. This time, the current military regime is trying to get away with not just a putsch but post-election rule. Rarely has the resolve of the people of this land been put to this kind of litmus test between a more open, pluralistic society and disguised military-authoritarian rule, buttressed manipulative rules and referees.
After five years, it is time to set the record straight. The NCPO once claimed the moral high ground above elected representatives as though the generals were Thailand's saviours. Many put up with this bogus claim knowing that the ruling generals were complicit in the PDRC-led street protests owing to an imminent once-in-a-lifetime kind of national transition. But now we can see that no one is morally superior to anyone else, that all are merely in pursuit of power and interest for their own benefit. Until all stakeholders and protagonists in Thai politics are allowed and enabled to be equal on a more level playing field, Thailand is unlikely to regain the semblance of peace and stability it has long been searching for.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.