The military regime of former army commander Prayut Chan-o-cha and his junta turn three today. Champagne and birthday cake aren’t on the menu. The main achievement in 2014 of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) was to stop the street protests and occasionally deadly violence of clashing political beliefs. Three years on, that is still the regime’s top accomplishment. Gen Prayut promised to address and solve root problems but has made no progress in either.
The regime has a roadmap, which it never has shared in detail. In general, the prime minister has said and shown that the map leads to a place where elections are held and politics resumes. While he has described his destination in similar terms over three years, his timeline has proved slippery. On seizing power, he spoke of elections in 2015, then in 2016. Last year’s referendum on the new constitution was to enable a general election in 2017.
“Unforeseen circumstances” make it clear there will be no attempt at a democratic process until the military is well into its fifth year. Even at that, Gen Prayut still refuses to give even a target date for the dissolution of the junta. Indeed, the current roadmap specifically delays elections until at least late next year. This vague and unconfirmed timeline to return power to Thai people is the exact opposite of the 2014 promise to return happiness.
Shutting down the 2014 street violence was no minor accomplishment. There is no question the military takeover has saved lives. The violence of the final days of the Bangkok Shutdown and competing red-shirt rallies left blood across Bangkok and locations up-country. Yet here is the rub. The second promise by Gen Prayut and the military was to create national reconciliation. By any measure, and despite the fantastic claims of both government and army, this has failed. The third promise, of economic revival, has yet to be fulfilled, with sluggish recovery. The region’s poorest economic performer now is slipping into unemployment through terrible education choices.
It will take a book to describe just why the country is as politically divided today as it was three years ago. Certainly there was too much hype and too little effort. A unity and reconciliation sub-committee of 96 generals, reporting to the minister of defence, at no point attempted to actually reconcile anyone, even their chief witnesses. The months of testimony, evidence collation and, at some point, a report only proves that the committee is overloaded with too many generals who may feel no need to be reconciled.
The reconciliation effort also showed the regime’s greatest error, which is military-style, top-down orders. There is certainly a time for national leadership. The very act of illegally seizing power from a constitutional government requires a special kind of bravery, although not one that appeals to all. The government, in uniform or civilian, must have policies. But the current regime’s stubborn insistence on paternalism in everything has brought unnecessary pain and, in fact, truly massive errors.
There are some who support use of Gen Prayut’s autocratic Section 44 powers which yielded some success in difficult areas like human trafficking and Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. But Gen Prayut’s order for coal-fired electricity in Krabi and Songkhla province, without any attention to local needs, have cost him respect. Worse, the regime’s recent decision to go ahead with the submarine purchase deal with China has also hurt the regime’s popularity.
Even if Gen Prayut gives up power in 18 months, an unlikely scenario, he can leave a memorable legacy. He should use his remaining time at the top better than he has the last three years.