Is Thailand's civil society waking up again?
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Is Thailand's civil society waking up again?

It is hard to believe how the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that appeared so strong not so long ago now looks shaky enough to be untenable.

For more than three years from the time it seized power by force in May 2014, the military regime carried the day with ease. There were sporadic noises of dissent but they were not sufficiently sustained and critical to be a threat to government's survival. These civil society noises, together with political parties, are now on rise and may build into a crescendo of opposition to the military government. Thailand's civil society that has been so instrumental in political change and democratisation in the past may be making a comeback after a dormant and divided period if entrenched military rule continues to abuse power at will.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

The saga over the luxury watches worn by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has galvanised civil society and the Thai public more than any other dubious government scheme. Now at 25, the number of exorbitantly priced watches adds up to well over US$1 million. Gen Prawit's explanation that he takes turns with his friends to wear the controversial watches is being seen as a complete cop-out.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), headed by Prawit loyalist Pol Gen Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, has dragged its feet in pursuing the case. Gen Prawit can take as much time as he likes. No one expects the NACC to prosecute this case with the full force of the law. Meanwhile, the government spins this corruption scandal, whereby Gen Prawit is caught on camera wearing undeclared watches with a combined value much higher than the average lifetime salary of army generals, as a kind of conspiracy to rock government stability.

But Gen Prawit's watches scandal is tough to shake off. First, it is self-inflicted. He did not have to wear the watches and he certainly did not have to flash them in the presence of media cameras. Second, these watches are self-evident. Thanks to deft muckraking, various photos of Gen Prawit have been dug up online and the results are damning.

In the past, all kinds of people would have been detained for "attitude adjustment" for taking Gen Prawit to task. But the days of these detentions have more or less ended as the legitimacy of the military government has waned. Gen Prawit has no one to blame but himself, not just for the political trouble he is in but for the longevity of the Prayut government.

At issue now is how long he will last and how he will leave government. The longer he stays, the more government credibility and legitimacy will dwindle. Gen Prawit is a dead man walking on political death row, lacking the legitimacy to say or do anything in government. The best thing he can do for his fraternal military brothers in government, namely Prime Minister Prayut and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda along with others from coup-making days, is to get out voluntarily. Terminating him is just not what this band of military generals, who are in the same boat and have gone through thick and thin together since the coup, do to each other.

Getting rid of Gen Prawit may also become a slippery slope. If he is fired for the watches scandal, public scrutiny may soon focus on other cabinet members and military generals who look rather wealthy, several with luxury watches of their own, not to mention other assets like land ownership and 8- and 9-digit baht bank account holdings that are usually not associated with military service. Letting go of Gen Prawit, in other words, could spell the beginning of the end of the Prayut government, irrespective of the election slated for November this year. But keeping him will also incur costs that may not allow the government to last until poll time.

Among the civil society activists that have challenged the government are Srisuwan Janya and Veera Somkwamkid, secretaries general of the Association to Protect the Thai Constitution and the People's Network Against Corruption, respectively.

Mr Veera, for instance, protested against the previous elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra over the Preah Vihear controversy on the Thai-Cambodian border and ended up in Cambodian jail for months. Separately, these two activists have gone after Gen Prawit with gusto. But other civil society activists are coming to the fore and playing a more prominent role. A thus far anonymous muckraker on Gen Prawit's watches is a Facebook page called CSI LA, which has worked like a deft investigative reporter, digging up irrefutable dirt for which Gen Prawit has no convincing answer.

Another is Thicha Nanakorn, who was once a member of the government-appointed National Reform Steering Committee, but quit over what she described as being a "fish in unsuitable water". She has now started a petition calling for Gen Prawit's removal.

Yet another is ex-national police chief Sereepisut Temeeyaves, who has called out police graft and nepotism. Not a man with a small ego but with a lot of integrity for his track record, Pol Gen Sereepisut has challenged the regime's legitimacy openly without fear. He has been doing this from early on after the coup, and the junta did not call him in for attitude adjustment. More voices of dissent will likely be heard in the coming weeks.

Since the October cremation of the late monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, it has become open season in Thai politics to take the military government to task. At issue now is what happens when Gen Prawit goes and when he leaves. Whether his departure will entice Gen Prayut to carry on and put off the election, or manipulate the political scene to return as post-election leader, is one of the next critical junctures to come.

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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