The time and need for civilians in cabinet
In view of the royal transition that has transpired, Thailand's interim period since its military coup in May 2014 has now entered a new phase. When the military seized power back then, the Thai public largely put up with what became a military dictatorship, spearheaded by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister and leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). This rough bargain, whereby the military stepped in to be the midwife of the royal transition, has passed. It is time to recalibrate and prepare for a return to popular rule by placing more civilian technocrats in government in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.
Thailand's putsch in 2014 deviated from familiar coup models in the contemporary period. Normally, intra-elite tussles between civilians and generals or among the men in uniform would lead to a coup, followed by a technocratic caretaker cabinet, led by a civilian at the helm, setting up for a new constitution and elections before government corruption set in anew. This coup arrangement was most evident in 1991-92 and 2006-07. The latter coup administration showed less technocratic prowess compared to 1991-92 but it stuck to the election timetable and restoration of democratic rule.
This time, the ruling generals made no technocratic pretence and took no chances when they took over. They have occupied the majority of cabinet portfolios over Gen Prayut's three cabinet line-ups so far. The NCPO was suppressive and authoritarian, detaining hundreds of dissenters and regime critics but the generals invariably released them. But the men in green have not killed people. Apart from keeping violence low, they have kept corruption to a minimum. Sure, there was this and that corruption scandal, such as the shady construction of the Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin. But such a consolidated military cohort in supreme power would have led to rampant and systematic graft in the past.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
In turn, the Thai public has been tolerant and patient. Despite and because of his authoritarian ways, Gen Prayut has even been viewed favourably in polls and casual observations. Sure, there have been rumblings and chatters among critics and detractors calling for democracy at the expense of dictatorship. But these have been patchy and contained rather than large-scale and explosive.
Last August, after a military-appointed committee drafted a pro-military constitution, 59% of the Thai electorate turned up and approved it by 61% in the country's second-ever referendum. Sure, there was no free and open debate about the draft charter. But when people went to vote, they knew they were casting a verdict not just on a document but on the NCPO itself. And the Thai people were willing to let them stay longer.
All of this was premised on a once-in-a-lifetime royal transition after the late King Bhumibol's remarkable 70-year reign. When the day came on Oct 13, few doubted why it had to be Gen Prayut who made the announcement to a grieving nation. At that moment, in the Thai system, it had to be a military man who spoke for the Thai people and the entire nation. No civilian leader from any side of the Thai divide could have had the required gravitas, firm and determined, tinged with grief and sorrow.
But all of that has now come to pass. The Tenth Reign under His Majesty the King is well under way. The previous bargain thus no longer holds.
Gen should tap more capable civilian hands to join the cabinet. Doing so would boost government performance and lend more international legitimacy. A broad section of the international community has been critical of Thailand's coup period but there are many sympathetic ears abroad as well. They knew Thailand has been going through a rare transition, and were willing to suspend judgement and wait. Civilianising the cabinet would show progress to Thailand's friends abroad and pre-empt greater domestic scrutiny going forward. Some at home are beginning to ask why the generals are still so entrenched and dominant in power when the royal transition is behind us.
Military generals are not groomed to run the government. We have had, for example, a four-star former education minister telling foreigners he is qualified because his sisters were school teachers. A quick look at the cabinet list reveals top brass from both military and police running cabinet slots that directly relate to economic performance and little to do with security, peace and order.
The NCPO certainly can maintain control over security-related ministries, such as defence and interior. The generals should not be lording over the rest. It is contradictory and futile to talk big about an innovation-driven "Thailand 4.0" when the ministers in charge of education and economic upgrading were schooled in the police and military academies with career tracks focused on internal and external security.
Even Gen Prayut should be thinking about a civilian successor in order to concentrate on the NCPO and oversee broad security matters. Having more civilians in charge would also give the generals a degree of insulation from Thai politics. There is still at least another year ahead for this NCPO-induced interim government, possibly 18 months or more in view of the royal cremation and coronation that may stretch the election roadmap into the second half of 2018.
But power intoxicates and yields trappings that are difficult to let go. If more generals enter the cabinet, the government will be asking for more trouble and tension in the months ahead. Gen Prayut can show that he is above the fray beyond armed forces camaraderie and reconfigure the cabinet with more impartial civilian technocrats with proven backgrounds.
A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.