Reality sets in three years after the coup

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears contemplative after his weekly workout. His government faces public undermining of the three-year programme to achieve political stability and social calm. (Photo by Thanarak Khunton)

Three years after it seized power in Thailand’s 13th successful coup in 85 years, the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears embattled. Growing popular grievances have focused on Thailand’s economic doldrums, persistent corruption, intractable polarisation, and a problematic roadmap to return to democratic rule. In addition, a string of mysterious bomb blasts in Bangkok with murky implications has recently undermined the political stability and social calm that the National Council for Peace and Order was supposed to be good at achieving.

Three years is a long time in politics in any country. For Thailand, it is remarkable that a coup government has lasted this long — and is on course to stay in office longer than past elected governments — despite a lacklustre performance. Equally remarkable was the Thai public’s overall acceptance and tolerance of the military government, allowing the ruling generals substantial latitude to run the country as they saw fit.

This latitude was rooted in the hidden and overarching rationale of the putsch. Thailand’s latest coup was seen and felt in public perceptions as necessary to secure the throne and to oversee the royal succession. For Thailand’s most important transition in seven decades, the military was seen as the only and rightful midwife in this profound, once-in-a-lifetime process. Like it or not, this was the way the Thai system was set up through the Cold War.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

This is why public reactions to the coup were broadly supportive in the initial phase. True, many were sick and tired of the endless street protests in Bangkok that neutered the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. A lot of people were also incensed by the blanket amnesty the Yingluck government initiated in October 2013 to exonerate the political wrongdoings of various protagonists including her self-exiled brother Thaksin Shinawatra. Many others were also opposed to the rice-pledging scheme that went against market mechanisms. But subconsciously people knew that the royal transition was on the way and the military had to be there to see it through.

This is also why the public bought into the myth that the military staged the coup to put a stop to street protests and social conflict that brought Thailand’s governance and government to a halt, even though the generals were partial to the anti-government demonstrators. The generals even aided the protests by setting up checkpoints and bunkers to provide security around key protest sites. The generals were never impartial and were very much in the thick of things yet the Thai public largely cut them slack.

When the time came for the military’s manufactured constitution to enter a referendum in August last year, the Thai voters turned out by 59% and passed it by a 61% margin, even though they knew it ensured military supervision of Thai politics for years to come. Again, as long as the royal transition was imminent, the military had its way.

All this took place before the passing on Oct 13 last year of the late monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But now that the military government’s role in the succession has transpired, as King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne on Dec 1 last year, the generals’ continuing role has increasingly come into question. The Prayut government now faces mounting pressure to give answers it cannot provide after its expiry date.

Its main claim to legitimacy has proved hollow. The government was supposed to come in to eradicate corruption but it has been entangled with nepotism and conflicts of interest. The prime minister’s nephew and brother, also a four-star general, have been embroiled in dubious procurement projects. Other generals have also been caught up in corruption scandals.

This military regime was also supposed to be cleaner than elected predecessors but this has not been the case. Members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) have been unwilling to disclose their assets. They want to be so-called “good people” without public accountability. Moreover, many members of the NLA and those of the National Reform Steering Assembly receive multiple salaries, from their day job as well as their additional roles within the military regime.

Apart from corruption and integrity, the government has come up short on the reforms Thailand needs. In such sectors as energy and communications, the military’s corporate interests and political control have become intrusive. Among the very few areas of policy progress are the government’s effort against human trafficking and labour smuggling. Another is the broad aims of “Thailand 4.0” and the Eastern Economic Corridor. These could be Thailand’s new growth nodes for the next decade but they may have arrived too late to be effective. The NCPO generals should have appointed more technocrats and delegated more authority to them.

Finally, the government’s compromise campaign is all but moribund. It was announced with fanfare earlier this year but has gone nowhere. Thailand is as polarised as ever. Part of the problem was the government’s lack of genuine intentions. Some of the generals were also party to the political conflict over the past decade as to preclude their role as honest broker.

The best way forward for the government is to come up with an exit plan, perhaps by forming a party and run in the election. The longer it stays in office, the more difficult and daunting it will be to leave in one piece.