Prayut government seems bullet-proof
The passage of time shows the government's growing lack of accountability. In fact, the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears the most unaccountable on record because it has been the most incompetent. Myriad charges from policy mismanagement and blatant irregularities to outright constitutional violations have been levied against the government but none have stuck. Although some attribute this phenomenon to Gen Prayut's "Teflon" qualities, a more accurate understanding may well be that his cabinet is somehow bullet-proof. Charges can stick but they cannot penetrate.
An apt starting point is the case of Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives Thamanat Prompow. Just two weeks ago, the Constitutional Court cleared him to continue in cabinet even though he appeared to have violated the 2017 charter for a heroin-smuggling conviction and did jail time in Australia in 1994. The court confirmed that both heroin conviction and imprisonment were at issue but that they did not count because they happened abroad. The definition of convicts counts only on Thai soil under Thai sovereignty.
This landmark court decision turned heads and raised eyebrows in global news headlines because of its far-reaching implications for Thailand's role and standing in the world. Invoking Thai sovereignty and dismissing an Australian court's criminal conviction of a narcotic-charge suspect could set all kinds of precedents and complicate Thailand's international legal obligations. For example, how should Thailand now participate in International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) when criminality abroad may not be admissible and applicable in Thailand?
Despite local outrage and international outcry, nothing happened. A fortnight is all it that it has taken for the Thamanat infamy to fade from the headlines. Thamanat is still standing tall, hovering over Thailand's system of justice and accountability.
To dispel doubts, the Constitutional Court also returned a unanimous 9-0 decision in Thamanat's favour. Last December, the court's identical 9-0 unanimity also cleared Prime Minister Prayut, a former army chief, over the allegation that he had violated the constitution by staying in army housing after retirement. The nine-member bench sided with an army regulation over charter stipulations that are supposed to comprise the supreme law of the land. Last September, the same court also ruled 9-0 that it had no jurisdiction over the Prayut cabinet's incomplete oath of office in contravention of the charter two months earlier.
Equally unforgettable is Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon's legendary case of dubious luxury watches, which a deceased friend was supposed to have gifted him. The case reeked of influence-peddling and downright corruption. Yet the anti-corruption commission, headed by a Prawit loyalist, absolved him.
There are so many instances of wrongdoings, conflicts of interest, and graft that news headlines simply cannot keep up with them. After days and weeks, they are crowded out by yet more of the same. On the other hand, Thailand's traditional print and electronic media, much of it state-owned, have failed to probe and report the truth, lacking research and investigative habits. When the media are shoddy, accountability is hard to come by.
Local journalists, for example, have not reached into the nexus of politicians, power and privilege that were behind Krystal Club Thong Lor's cluster which partly catalysed Thailand's current third wave of Covid-19 infections. When it comes to vaccine management, incompetence and mismanagement abound without accountability all the same.
The latest example is the Corrections Department within the Ministry of Justice. Thousands of prisoners have now been diagnosed with Covid-19 but scrutiny began only when student activist Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, who had been jailed for two months on a lese majeste charge before receiving bail, made public her own virus infection. To this day, there has been no reckoning for ministers and officials who are responsible for looking after the prison population.
The Prayut government's evident impunity on the back of sheer ineptitude and gross mismanagement spells big trouble ahead for Thailand. Because there is no available way to get rid of it in parliament, thanks to the systematic weakening of opposition parties and key accountability decisions in its favour, only extra-parliamentary pressure can be applied. But the student-led reform movement in the streets has lost momentum, and another movement of its kind would need time to build.
It is hard to be fair when comparing the Prayut government compared to its predecessors. Thailand is familiar with dismal governments. Yet there is a benchmark. Only twice have government mismanagement and corruption coincided with economic contraction and widespread hardships -- the current period and 25 years ago.
This is why Gen Prayut will look and feel more and more like Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, also a retired army chief, in the foreseeable future. Gen Chavalit led the New Aspiration Party to election victory and headed a rickety coalition government for one year from November 1996, presiding over the complete mismanagement of Thailand's financial sector, fumbling and bungling all throughout as the Thai economy went from bad to worse.
Gen Chavalit's penultimate feat was the baht devaluation and a devastating economic crisis in 1997-98, when the Thai economy shrank by 2% and 7.6%. Although it was largely pandemic-induced, Gen Prayut's subpar performance last year resulted in a 6.1% contraction with uncertain prospects this year and next.
Under Gen Chavalit, it seemed the worst of times in Thailand, as firms shuttered and workers lost jobs, many retreating to upcountry social safety nets. It was also a time of national humiliation as Thailand had no recourse but to enter an IMF bailout programme under harsh conditions. While similarities around desperation and despair then and now are striking, there are major differences.
Gen Chavalit always respected the Thai people, never badgering and looking down on them, because he was directly elected and beholden to the electorate. In strongman fashion and without a direct connection to voters, Gen Prayut frequently bullies and intimidates those around him, including in public.
When it was time to leave, Gen Chavalit knew it and made way for the second Chuan Leekpai administration in the late 1990s. Gen Prayut shows no sign of leaving even though it is well overdue. After the Chavalit government, Thailand still had bright growth prospects and recovered to exit the IMF programme earlier than scheduled. After the Prayut government, Thailand's future is murky as its old growth model becomes outdated without a clear growth strategy.
History records Gen Chavalit as a poor prime minister but an affable man who tried but failed and left when he should. The same is unlikely for the belligerent and ineffective leadership of Gen Prayut, who has failed but yet yet tries to keep going.
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.