Army-backed regime pulls poll disguises
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Army-backed regime pulls poll disguises

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, accompanied by army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong, back right, presides over the opening of disaster management exercises in Lop Buri last month. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, accompanied by army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong, back right, presides over the opening of disaster management exercises in Lop Buri last month. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)

At issue in the looming election is less about Thailand's return to democratic rule and more about the country's slide into long-term military-authoritarianism with democratic disguises. The most recent military seizure of power on May 22, 2014, appears increasingly like a coup to remake all coups. However the votes are decided, the army-backed junta under the National Council for Peace and Order, spearheaded by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, intends to stay for the long haul.

Either uprooting the junta and its army or putting up with its retention of post-election power is likely lead to unavoidable tension and confrontation. The junta will not go away without a fight as much as the majority of Thai people are unlikely to tolerate its indefinite power.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

First, it is crucial to differentiate between army and military. In the ongoing cut-and-thrust of Thai politics, the navy and air force have not been as politicised as the army and the police. The navy and air force chiefs, appointed last October from army and air force families, have stayed out of the fray, at least so far. So when the role of the military in politics is discussed, it refers more to the army rather than the entire armed forces. The police force, however, is politicised because it is supervised and overseen by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, a former army chief like Prime Minister Prayut and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda.

To be sure, the army has ramped up its political role to no end. The army chief, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, has alluded to civilian politicians and critics as nak phaendin or "scum of the motherland". He recently admonished challengers and critics not to overstep "boundaries", and convened 796 army commanders across battalions, regiments, divisions, and army circles in a show of force for an oath of allegiance to a statue of King Rama V. When an army lieutenant-colonel was called out for harassment by Seriruamthai Party leader and former national police chief, Pol Gen Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, Gen Apirat gave the younger officer a commendation.

The Apirat-led army appears firmly behind the junta under Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Gen Anupong. The latter three generals were fast-tracked to the top as army chiefs for most of the volatile period in Thai politics from 2005. Gen Prawit first took up the position in 2004-05, followed by unusually long stints under Gen Anupong (2007-10) and Gen Prayut (2010-2014).

All three hailed from the 21st Regiment under the Queen's patronage, known as the "Queen's Guard" from the 2nd Infantry Division (popularly known as the "Eastern Tigers"), with jurisdiction over the Thai-Cambodian border. The exception for the army chief post, in 2005-2007, was Gen Sondhi Boonyaratglin, who climbed the ladder from the Special Warfare Division in Lop Buri province and subsequently led the September 2006 putsch.

Gen Apirat is no exception. Even though he comes from the 11th Infantry Regiment of the traditional bastion of coup-making in the 1st Infantry Division, Gen Apirat has shown loyalty to the three Queen's Guard generals over the past 14 years, and their patronage and support have benefited his career mobility in the army.

This army-backed junta now appears to be the most powerful force in Thailand above and beyond any other entity. When the dissolved Thai Raksa Chart Party forwarded Princess Ubolratana as its prime minister candidate on Feb 8, for example, Palang Pracharath also nominated Gen Prayut as a competitor just minutes later.

Perhaps the Thai army sees its role now as the self-appointed guardian of the state. In past decades under the last reign, the army was always subservient to the monarch in a symbiotic monarchy-military relationship because of the late King's immense moral authority and widespread popularity. This symbiosis may be different today.

Just when it looks the strongest, the army-backed junta may feel insecure about its future role and interests. Over the past 14 years, it has cooperated with one side of the Thai divide but this side lost every time there was an election.

This time, the army-backed junta is taking a direct role and contesting the general election under the Palang Pracharath and allied parties, with Gen Prayut as candidate for prime minister.

If the NCPO feels more insecure about losing the election, its army backers may become more active and muscular in the electoral processes. Already, army personnel have been following key civilian politicians in a stalking fashion, as Pol Gen Sereepisuth exposed. Heavier army handiwork cannot be discounted in the final lead-up to and during the polling, especially in the absence of impartial observers.

The junta's plan is clear. It will rely on the appointed Senate and pro-junta electoral vehicles, along with "swing" parties such as the Democrats and Bhumjaithai, to retake the premiership and form a government.

At the same time, it will rely on politicised agencies, such as the Election Commission, Constitutional Court, and National Anti-Corruption Commission, most of whose officials were appointed during junta rule, to keep the anti-junta parties at bay with constituency reruns and vote fraud that could lead to further party dissolutions and bans on MPs.

Already, Pheu Thai is facing charges and scrutiny for being linked to Thaksin Shinawatra and the Thai Raksa Chart Party, whereas the Future Forward Party is up against new charges concerning the shifting of votes from Thai Raksa Chart.

The pro-junta side also has faced charges of electoral infractions but they are usually left unprosecuted. For example, as a state employee, Gen Prayut was not allowed to run for prime minister. His status was suddenly changed to "public figure".

The Palang Pracharath Party is accused of accepting illegal campaign donations for three million baht per table at a fundraising dinner, partly bought by state agencies, which is against the law. But the EC cleared the charge for not involving foreign donors, consistent with the anti-corruption agency that earlier cleared Deputy Prime Minister Prawit for owning luxury watches that he insisted belonged to a deceased friend.

All kinds of charges are out there. Those that are prosecuted vigorously are likely to go against the anti-junta parties to keep them off balance and enable the government to rule. Whether this coup can rewrite and redo previous coups by putting an army-backed junta in office under democratic disguises for the long term will depend on the kind of power plays that underpin the demise of the Thai Raksa Chart Party.

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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