Tensions will mount as regime holds on
After the most recent cabinet reshuffle produced the fifth line-up of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government, it is clear the military intends to stay in power for the long term in one form or another. The reshuffle provided a more civilian look but let there be no doubt that Thailand still has a military government, led by generals who seized power more than three and a half years ago. As the top brass perpetuates its rule and puts off the election as long as they can, political tensions will mount as civilian-led forces agitate for a share of power and a return to popular rule.
Not long ago, it seemed Gen Prayut's government could do little wrong. From now until a change of administration, much of what it does will be seen as dubious. It is likely Thailand will soon be mired in yet another round of political conflict between civilian and military leaders.
The main reason behind the Prayut government's inexorable political descent is that it has passed its sell-by date. This was a government that claimed power based on royal assent on top of a manipulated street confrontation among civilians in the run-up to the May 2014 coup. Once it took power, its source of legitimacy was royal endorsement in the waning months of the reign of the previous monarch, a glorious 70-year era under the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
For some time -- and history will likely see it as such -- the Thai people tolerated and gave the benefit of the doubt to Gen Prayut's fraternal band of brothers from the high command to take over the government directly and occupy most of the cabinet portfolios because the royal transition was imminent. Along the way, in August 2016, more than 59% of the electorate turned out to support a constitution, which the military effectively arranged through a committee it had set up, by more than a 61% margin. At the same referendum, 58% of votes cast agreed to let both the popularly elected lower house and the military-appointed senate choose the next post-election prime minister, a cue for a general to return to the helm.
But now that the royal transition from October 2016 has well gone by, with a most moving and fitting cremation of the late King last October, the Prayut government suddenly looks and feels different. The royal assent that enabled it to assume and stay in power is no longer the same with the end of the 9th reign.
Its performance in government is mixed at best. Economic growth has stayed in the 3% range but corruption scandals have been on the rise. Policy directions and economic upgrading behind "Thailand 4.0" and the Eastern Economic Corridor as the new platform for economic expansion are sound but have arrived late. If these policy schemes had been implemented from the first year of military government, the economy may have been faring much better.
On the other hand, the military-led government has locked future governments into what they see as Thailand's way forward over the next 20 years. This 20-year plan now looks like a usurpation and abuse of power. Who are these generals to be deciding Thailand's future without asking the Thai people? They have essentially militarised the Thai state and society, and privileged military corporate interests over the public interest.
As inspired by the military regime, the 2017 constitution will produce little but gridlock. If the military can get its man into the premiership, the generals will not have much legislative latitude. Civilian representatives, on the other hand, will be answerable to military-influenced agencies mandated by the charter, particularly the Constitutional Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. In its well-intentioned aim to keep corrupt politicians at bay, the 2017 charter has shifted power and authority to the extra-parliamentary agencies and to the military, which can be just as unscrupulous and abusive.
Thai politics thus appears utterly murky heading up to and after the poll, which is loosely set for late next year. However, after Gen Prayut's several election postponements, another poll delay would not be surprising as the military fears what comes thereafter, despite having crafted the rules to keep elected representatives down and empowered the brass to pick the 250-member senate.
The latest cabinet reshuffle is designed to boost government performance and spur growth indicators as the election looms. Yet there are still too many generals, driven by loyalty and fraternity, particularly the three tight-knit former army chiefs, Generals Prayut, Prawit Wongsuwon and Anupong Paojinda. The civilian technocrats overseeing the economy, mostly under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, are welcome but there should have been more of them. In fact, these technocrats should have had much more authority at a much earlier stage. Now they look like having been too few and having come too late.
It would be unsurprising if the Prayut government now goes into a campaign mode of sorts, visiting provincial areas and handing out more subsidies and largesse with an eye to returning to post-election power. It is also likely to put aside a firm election date until it feels more secure and popular. Its aim to stay in power will pose a dilemma for Thailand. The more the Prayut government tries to hang on to power, the less popular it will become.
These generals have made a mess of their coup by not following the first principle of military strategy of setting out a clear objective with an equally clear exit strategy. That objective and exit plan should have been to secure the royal transition and to hand back power to the Thai people. Now the generals will likely have to pay for it, and Thailand may be dragged into another political tailspin in the process.
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.