New cabinet puts power grab on display
As if to remind the Thai public of what the past five years of military-authoritarian rule has been all about, the first post-election cabinet under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha now represents the full manifestation of what was no less than a power grab.
Cliques and columns who wanted power took to the streets and laid the conditions for Gen Prayut to stage a coup. In turn, Gen Prayut then led a lacklustre coup-appointed government and saw to it that a constitution was written to ensure longer-term rule. Now Thailand has moved from a military government to a civil-military authoritarian rule under disguised and manipulated electoral legitimacy. Moving beyond this lot of government leaders is likely to bring about more political instability and heightened risks.
But this time, there is no more pretence about the Prayut-led junta's promise to stay for a "short time" and to undertake political reform, broker a national compromise, and tackle corruption. Each category has come up hollow after five years. Political changes have been reactionary, not progressive. Thailand's political divisions have deepened because one side has come out on top and had its way without due regard for the other side. Corruption and graft haven't gone away in view of unaccountable weapons procurements, rising military expenditure, conflicts of interest among the power holders, not to mention those infamous watches worn by Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon.
It was argued, with substantiation and persuasion that the ousted and elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra was beset by graft with the rice-pledging policy and lacking in legitimacy because of the amnesty bill. But the organisers of the street protests under the People's Democratic Reform Committee from October 2013 that led to the coup in May 2014 were not in it for altruistic reasons. Had they dislodged an elected government due to corruption and abuse of power and then stepped aside to let the Thai people have their say in a new election, this would have been understandable and even recognised. But protest leaders along with their military allies merely wanted to seize power for themselves. They have shrewdly manipulated and manoeuvred their way to the top.
Now we can see them in the new cabinet line-up. A clutch of protest leaders are ensconced in the ministries of education, digital economy and society, labour, and transport. The new education minister is particularly interesting because his immediate family is in the business of international education. Other PDRC firebrands, who are still with the Democrat Party, also have done well in this round of cabinet appointments.
Deputy ministers of the agriculture portfolio are controversial because one has been implicated in narcotics crime in a foreign country and the other is a relative of another shady and "influential" figure. These unsavoury individuals are provincial patrons and power brokers, and apparent fixers and trouble-shooters for the military regime, which still has a big say in how the show is run in Thai politics.
Perversely, many names in the cabinet line-up used to work under elected governments aligned to deposed and self-exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Two of the deputy prime ministers fall under this category. A quick check online will reveal that more than a third of the current cabinet worked under Thaksin and his proxy prime ministers. It is difficult to claim that this government is qualitatively different than previously overthrown administrations because the same cabinet names keep coming up.
Out of all the portfolios, the ministry of foreign affairs is Thailand's face to the outside world. Yet the same minister, who previously denied Thailand had a human rights problem and who went out of his way to rationalise the coup and kowtow to the military regime, stays in the post.
Perhaps Thailand as Asean chair needs an experienced pair of hands to handle crucial diplomatic processes but this country has plenty of foreign affairs talent. Supporters and sycophants will make excuses in favour but Thailand could have done better with a seasoned but fresh pair of hands. A number of ministers who served the military government have also been retained. Among them is the new finance minister who was embroiled in a bank scandal harking back to an earlier Thaksin administration more than a decade ago.
New allies who have been enticed to join the ruling Palang Pracharath Party have been given choice portfolios, particularly Suriya Jungroongruangkit. Yet this is the same person who was transport minister under a Thaksin government that was so deeply mired in corruption allegations over the CTX airport X-ray scanners that it was nearly brought down.
Gens Prayut, Prawit and Gen Anupong Paochinda still control the interior and defence ministries. Evidently, their grip on security in the country is as firm as before. Thailand has now moved into a new phase of civilianised authoritarian rule with some power sharing. The military still lurks in the background with powers that infringe on basic freedoms.
As the uninspiring cabinet line-up gears up to announce policies that have uncanny echoes of the Thaksin "populist" era, what is tantamount to a power grab will become even more conspicuous.
The once-vaunted notion that there are good and bad people who want to run Thailand is a farce. They are all the same people. Let's not forget that, and let's aim for the same set of rules that are fair and square for everyone.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University and the Sir Howard Kippenberger Chair at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.