Biggest threat to regime is its own thick skin

Biggest threat to regime is its own thick skin

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been squandering popularity with political and economic policies, especially the secret submarine purchase at a time the economy remains in the doldrums.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been squandering popularity with political and economic policies, especially the secret submarine purchase at a time the economy remains in the doldrums.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) may have been hit hard by the multiple blowback from the pickup truck rule debacle, the secretive submarine deal and the repressive media bill, but what could do the regime in is its political insensitivity.

It's undeniable that the three measures which were rolled out one after the other were not the smartest political moves. What is more hurtful is that the folly behind the policy decisions is the callousness of the regime that made them.

Governments may be swayed by unpopular policies but it is being out of touch with the people that brings them down.

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra certainly underestimated public resentment towards the "tax-free" sale of shares in Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings in February 2006, a move which led to him dissolving parliament a month later and being ousted in a coup later that year.

His sister, former PM Yingluck, followed in his same erroneous footsteps by ignoring the fierce outcry from many sectors over her ill-conceived rice-pledging scheme which weighed heavily on her government and brought it down with a string of expensive court cases in tow.

The junta may have got away with its father-knows-best mentality when it imposed the seat-belt rule without considering its full implications. It became muddled about what to do with people who ride in the bed of pickup trucks, a popular practice among rural folk.

The regime recovered and rolled back the order immediately after it suffered a fierce public backlash. Its naivety and lack of insight into people's way of life and wellbeing (or lack thereof) was forgiven with the excuse of showing good intentions.

The decision to buy three submarines from China at a cost of 36 billion baht, however, has struck the regime much harder. The sneaky way the regime sought to approve the deal, giving the nod on April 18 without breathing a word to the public until it was forced to do so after news about it leaked a week later, raised doubts over whether the purchase could be justified.

With the economy still in the doldrums, the regime's decision to buy such expensive war machines without a clear explanation of how useful, or necessary, they are is a sure way to provoke public anger.

The situation makes for comical imagery. It's as if the regime has decided to fire a torpedo without realising it is radiating heat itself and becoming the only clear target of its own making.

But that is not enough. What is turning scepticism and growing irritation into rage is the couldn't-care-less attitude belying the submarine decision.

The answer by Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon when asked by the media about the purchase -- that the press need not know about the deal -- reinforces the regime's image as being elitist and above the rules.

While the regime continues to keep mum about the submarines -- over why it selected the Yuan model from China, what the specific details about the procurement are and what the weaponry will do for the country that has seen no war in decades -- the messages it is sending to the public are they have no right to know how their money is being spent or that they are too dim-witted to understand.

These are dangerous weapons the regime is aiming at itself.

Unlike the pickup truck rule which the regime managed a turnaround, albeit clumsily, the submarine deal looks set to be the junta's nemesis weighing down on its credibility with its questionability and immense unpopularity.

The regime's move to include controversial clauses -- before dropping them yesterday -- in its media bill such as requiring the media to obtain licences from authorities or face penalties cemented its oppressive mentality being out of sync with the modern world.

In an era where news and information is running largely free, control is the least effective means to manipulate your agenda, even for a state, unless you are extremely rich, powerful, smart and in control of the most advanced communication technology.

The military regime has none of the above. It was forced to roll back on the relatively minor seat-belt order and appears likely now to back down on the media licensing requirement.

Unfortunately, the three submarines are still visible and weigh heavily on its back. Will the secretive deal sink the regime under the unbearable weight of public disapproval?

The junta may want to go back and check how the mighty Thaksin regime capsized after the Temasek deal.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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