Royal transition explains military's grip

Royal transition explains military's grip

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha presides over a ceremonial rite last month to prepare for the royal cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha presides over a ceremonial rite last month to prepare for the royal cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

Hindsight will look back at Thailand's prolonged political interregnum after the military coup on 22 May 2014 with perplexity and astonishment. It will be remembered as a time of junta rule in a country that had overthrown military dictatorships repeatedly in 1973 and 1992. This time, the self-styled strongman from the barracks was Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who would end up in office for longer than most elected leaders before him. There will be many questions and criticisms of Gen Prayut's tenure and rule but undergirding them will be his unrivalled role a year ago today, on 13 Oct 2016, with the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The consequent royal transition is likely to be viewed in posterity as the principal reason why the Thai people have had to put up with Gen Prayut.

With the proliferation of social media and spread of information, underpinned by Thailand's intense enmeshment with the outside world in the 21st century, it is puzzling how a military dictatorship could be sustained so effectively.

True, Gen Prayut and his fraternal top brass in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have guns and tanks to intimidate and coerce. In their first year in power, the ruling generals detained hundreds of dissenters and opponents for "attitude adjustment". They even put some of those who disagreed on trial in military court. They also came up with their own laws in an interim charter, including the draconian absolutist Section 44. And they have used and manipulated other instruments and agencies of the state to keep people in check and dissent suppressed.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. This article is the second in a series appearing on Fridays this month focusing on the royal cremation and the ninth reign.

To be sure, dozens of Thais are languishing in jail during junta rule. One young man, a student with his own strong views, has been jailed for re-posting a social media message that appeared on more than two thousand other pages. The junta also has banned political parties from organising, and has generally violated all kinds of human rights and civil liberties all along.

In addition, the generals have not been immune to corruption allegations. A former army chief, now in cabinet, arranged for a park to be constructed with dubious procurement conditions. Gen Prayut's nephew and brother, the latter also a general, became embroiled in another construction outfit based in the barracks, involving favourable government procurement. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon is infamous for chartering a transcontinental flight that looked like a concurrent junket. Gen Prayut himself, when he began his tenure, sold family land to one of Thailand's richest moguls in an offshore deal that is just waiting to be muckraked.

Yet the Thai people have been characteristically tolerant. Many of us have overlooked the bogus pretext of the putsch. It was argued that we had to have a coup because the streets of Bangkok were immobilised by colour-coded protests, and that the lack of peace and stability could not be allowed to go on any longer. But the military aided and abetted the street protesters from late 2013 until coup time. The sitting government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra kind of asked for and deserved it after introducing a blanket amnesty bill for its own benefit, and was then unable to overcome the protests when they happened. It was a pathetic government that had an opportunity to take Thailand forward but instead became opportunistic.

But let's not forget the NCPO was not an honest broker when it seized power. All we can say is the corruption surrounding the generals probably costs less and is less sophisticated than that of politicians from all banners. Moreover, Thailand's military dictatorship under Gen Prayut is relatively "soft" and nuanced, hard in some places but responsive and constructive in others. Compared to Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen presides over the greatest robbery of democracy in Southeast Asia as the opposing Cambodian National Rescue Party is being dissolved, the Thai junta pales on the dictatorship barometer. Juxtaposed next to President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody drugs war, the Thai military regime has not killed its own people in a similar vein.

To appreciate how Gen Prayut and his cohorts could seize power and keep it with relative ease, we need to recognise the late King Bhumibol's final twilight. The royal succession was imminent by coup time, and the Thai people collectively kind of knew the special and specific circumstances this entailed. Power had to be in the hands of the military, as it had to ultimately perform a midwife role. Unsurprisingly, ousted elected politicians may have complained about and deplored the coup but none wanted to retake power during the coup period. They knew that after seven decades of the reign in the way that the Thai socio-political system was set up around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy, it had to be the generals overseeing this once-in-a-lifetime transition.

If there was any true justification for the coup and for Gen Prayut to spearhead it, the most poignant moment to see it was in the evening of 13 Oct last year. There had been rumours and fake news for days and weeks, each time turning out untrue -- until that fateful afternoon when the news of King Bhumibol's passing went round and round. Still the Thai people indulged in collective denial that somehow the inevitable would be put off yet again.

It was not so. When Gen Prayut took the podium in a nationally televised address, looking solemn and serious at once, we kind of knew it had to be him to make the announcement of the King's passing. It had to be a military man, who grew up in the Thai system from the Cold War, who came of age at the height of Thailand's fight against communism in the 1970s, seeing action on the Cambodian border against the Vietnamese in the 1980s, serving both the King and Queen and the people in the process with devotion and loyalty.

When Gen Prayut spoke for the nation, he meant it. Fighting back tears, in seven short minutes, he said what had to be said, and directed us Thais to two main tasks, the succession and the cremation after a year's mourning. Had it been Yingluck, who is not known for her eloquence, she might have stumbled during the speech. Had it been Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is fluid and flawless in speechmaking, it would have lacked the soul of the nation.

It had to be Gen Prayut, the strongman dictator and self-appointed premier. He is an earnest man, purposeful and well-intentioned, with flaws and shortcomings. The problem for him and his junta is the interregnum has lasted too long, and they have made a political mess of it. The succession has transpired successfully, and soon it will be the cremation. Gen Prayut will be remembered for his profound and unique role in seeing Thailand through this transition but staying on longer than his expiry date will incur personal risks. No one will feel this more acutely than him.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow 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.

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