Thailand's political charade exposed
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Thailand's political charade exposed


Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha campaigns as PM candidate for the United Thai Nation Party in Bangkok on Jan 9, ahead of the general election tentatively scheduled for this year. (Photo: Reuters)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha campaigns as PM candidate for the United Thai Nation Party in Bangkok on Jan 9, ahead of the general election tentatively scheduled for this year. (Photo: Reuters)

On the face of it, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha for eight years, has touted himself as "an outsider" who was above the political fray, seizing power in a military coup and taking top office to help Thailand in its hour of need amid debilitating protests and polarisation in 2013-14. Now that the general has thrown his hat in the ring under the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party locally known as "Ruam Thai Sang Chart" to contest the upcoming election, the charade is over.

Gen Prayut has been part and parcel of the royalist-conservative movement behind the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) to take over government from the outset.

When the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in late October 2013 introduced a blanket amnesty that would have whitewashed and cleared the way for her exiled brother and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to come back, it ignited widespread protests from many walks of life, lining up behind the PDRC, spearheaded by Suthep Thaugsuban, an erstwhile Democrat Party stalwart. This anti-Thaksin mass movement initially gained swift and substantial traction in Bangkok. It brought Thai politics to a standstill with paralysing street demonstrations, and prevented a snap election from being held in December 2013.

As the protests wore on, the PDRC increasingly took matters into its own hands. It launched campaigns for more than six months, such as "Bangkok Shutdown," to boot out the Yingluck government at all costs. Unable to govern because of the protests, compounded by unfavourable judicial decisions and army acquiescence, the Yingluck government became a sitting duck.

As conditions ripened for a military intervention to break the manufactured deadlock, Gen Prayut as army commander stepped in and took over on May 22, 2014.

The putsch was billed as "saving the nation" from further damage, a sacrifice of sorts by the military, with a pledge that the coup period would not last long. Evidently, the reality was otherwise. The military government stayed for the long haul, and ensured its indefinite role in power by seeing to it that a new constitution be drafted to codify its rule through an appointed senate and other mechanisms to marginalise and keep political parties weak and scattered. This effort was abetted by other agencies, such as the election and anti-corruption commissions as well as the Constitutional Court, which dissolved the anti-coup Future Forward Party.

It was a fix all along but many observers chose to live with blindness and apathy rather than facing up to and exposing this decade-long open secret that the PDRC and Gen Prayut were in cahoots from the very beginning. Indeed, PDRC leader Suthep admitted as much in media interviews soon after the putsch in June 2014, specifically that he and Gen Prayut had been in talks since 2010 about taking over and reorganising Thailand to get rid of corruption and reuniting the country beyond colour-coded divisions.

By election time in March 2019, the PDRC's core organisers converted their movement into the Action Coalition for Thailand (ACT) Party, and contested the poll. It won just five seats out of 500 but remained disproportionately influential in politics.

Mr Suthep entered the monkhood in July 2014, vowing to retire from politics. Yet another open secret and an inconvenient truth is that he had been involved with the ACT Party all along. This party was Gen Prayut's main backer but it had too few MPs to make a difference.

This is partly why Gen Prayut had to rely on the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) to back him as prime minister. Yet the prime minister still carried himself above politics by not officially joining the ruling party.

The latest rift between him and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who eventually had to bite the bullet and take charge as leader of the PPRP, is less a personal feud and more of resentment among the party's rank-and-file towards Gen Prayut. For some of the party, Gen Prayut has gained benefits from PPRP support, yet did not look after its MPs.

The wedge between Gen Prayut and the PPRP's rank-and-file widened and became unworkable. Enter the UTN Party. It comprises the core members and main backers of the PDRC movement, including party leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga and secretary-general Akanat Promphan, along with a faction aligned with Mr Suthep that had split from the Democrat Party. In plain sight, the UTN is just the successor and reincarnation of the ACT.

What is different about the UTN as compared to the ACT is that Gen Prayut is now a fully fledged member and probable choice on the party's nominated slate for prime minister. The party was launched on Jan 9, which bears a numerical symbol, with much fanfare. However, its voter support and fan base appear limited so far. UTN also will face the challenge of electoral cannibalism with the PPRP as both parties vie for pro-establishment and royalist-conservative constituents.

But at least two truths are now clear without camouflage. The longstanding alliance between Gen Prayut and Mr Suthep going back to the PDRC's movement in 2013-14 has resulted in the UTN's formation and the incumbent premier's membership in it.

No longer hiding behind the bushes, Gen Prayut is not some high and mighty soldier taking power and sacrificing for the country. Now we can see that he has long been a politician just like all other politicians.

Moreover, the UTN is the most visible and ardent flag carrier of the royalist-conservative establishment.

Although the most recent poll numbers suggest the UTN would be hard-pressed to win 25 out of the 500 MP seats up for grabs -- a critical threshold to nominate a prime minister candidate in parliament -- somehow it is still the party to watch.

Somehow the post-election premiership still appears to be Gen Prayut's to lose, even though his popularity has been plummeting over an altogether nine-year tenure.

It would not be surprising if the murky politics of concoction and contrivance, of making things happen as Thailand's powers-that-be go along, ends up deciding the final post-poll outcome.

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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