History not on the side of Gen Prayut

History not on the side of Gen Prayut

A student flashes the three-finger salute as he joins a recent anti-dictatorship rally in Hat Yai, Songkhla. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
A student flashes the three-finger salute as he joins a recent anti-dictatorship rally in Hat Yai, Songkhla. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

In the face of sustained and broad-based student-led street protests demanding his resignation, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha remains defiant and determined to soldier on. He has even admonished his critics and detractors by flatly rejecting resignation and asking "What have I done wrong?" Such a provocative and self-righteous question deserves a frontal answer.

Many have already taken to social media platforms to point out the flaws and ills at many junctures of his misrule over more than six years. The challenge of diagnosing where his administration has gone wrong is where to start.

Starting from the beginning would require having to trace his political rise from the army barracks. While he was involved in military action on the Thai-Cambodian border as the Cold War waned from the early 1980s, Gen Prayut's military career was largely political. He became a favourite of the then-queen and now the Queen Mother, along with Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and Gen Anupong Paojinda. Hailing from the 21st Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division under royal patronage, known as the Queen's Guard, is essentially Gen Prayut's claim to fame because it enabled him to rise to the top of the army, staging the coup in May 2014 and remaining in power as prime minister to this day.

Leaving that aside because of the lack of space, we can also skim the part about how his personal fortune as listed in Wikipedia amounts to two billion baht. Similarly, it can be examined elsewhere how his nephew set up a construction company in a northern army headquarters when Gen Prayut's brother, Gen Preecha Chan-o-cha was commander in chief. And no need here to mention Gen Preecha's appointment to the senate to be paid more than 100,000 baht per month for not showing up for work there.

Much has been said about the ties between Gen Prayut and a certain conglomerate oligarch who bought the premier's family-owned land for a hefty sum involving an off-shore transaction, and the subsequent extension of a state-owned lease to the same oligarch's business to develop the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center without bidding, but this can also be omitted at this time.

Let's stick to Gen Prayut's performance after seizing power. He initially pledged to usher in compromise and reform, putting an end to preceding street protests led by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that "shut down" central Bangkok for more than six months in order to dislodge an elected government at the time. Let's gloss over the fact that Gen Prayut as army commander in chief was in cahoots with the PDRC's leadership to pave the way for the putsch.

Since Gen Prayut has been in office, Thailand has seen neither compromise nor reform. There has been systemic repression and authoritarian tendencies in violation of basic rights and freedoms. Economic mismanagement has been rife. For a while, growth strategies around "Thailand 4.0" and the Eastern Economic Corridor project provided some momentum but these were not pursued in earnest and are now effectively dormant, lacking policy drive. Poor economic performance means Thailand became the laggard in its peer group. That his government's mismanagement has squandered Thailand's economic future is the rationale behind the ongoing protests.

Instead of reform moving forward, for all of his government's incompetence and ineptitude, Gen Prayut conspired with cohorts to perpetuate his rule through manipulation and collusion, setting up a pro-military committee to write the 2017 constitution that is the root cause of Thailand's political ailments today. It was not enough that he ran the Thai economy into nowhere and turned back the clock on Thai politics to the 1980s under military supervision, Gen Prayut also saw to it that he and the military would be in charge indefinitely. They even deluded themselves into safeguarding the old Thai state they grew up with by coming up with the infamous "20-year strategy" to keep Thailand from moving ahead and arriving in the 21st century.

By appointing himself the head of security and economy, Gen Prayut got in way over his head. He thinks that "working harder" is the solution to these shortcomings. As the saying goes, hard-working imbeciles are worse than underperforming talent. Along the way, he does not speak as normal people do to reporters and citizens for whom the prime minister is supposed to serve. Gen Prayut's tough-talking military style routinely comes off as badgering and condescending.

Yet because of the rules his regime rigged, he kept getting away with it. The various bodies and related agencies that were supposed to act as checks and balances became tame and timid, partly because the military government stacked them with proxies while they had the chance. As a result, the vast majority of Thai people have had to put up with a dismal government and subpar economy headed by an unfit leader who seized power by force. There have been no compromises, no reform, and no less corruption and cronyism than in the past.

It was inevitable that Gen Prayut's bluff of not knowing what he is doing while in office would be called but few would have guessed that those who are taking him to task and making him answerable for his political sins and egregious errors are the younger generation aged below 40. Their demand for his departure is apt and overdue. But the student-led protest movement must start to draw up scenarios and alternatives to the post-Prayut Thailand. Knowing what to do next is just as important as getting rid of him.

If Gen Prayut continues to stay in office without budging, it will mean the established centres of power want to stick with him and ride out the storm at all costs, heightening risks of confrontation and potential violence. If he goes, the protesters will have an opportunity to negotiate and come up with a compromise that the other side can live with. The latter outcome is Thailand's best way forward because the status quo is untenable as the force of history is not on the side of those who came to power with and behind Gen Prayut.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.


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