Fed up power base forces PM to repent
It must have taken an exceptionally strong force to make a feisty character like Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha flinch.
What is more remarkable is the strong-minded prime minister did not just recoil but that he apologised, deeply, three times in a row.
The words he chose to use, krab khor aphai, conveyed not just regret but expressing it in a most respectful way, as if he would prostrate himself in front of the person to show how sorry he was.
Last week, Gen Prayut took people by surprise when he made a U-turn and told the remaining board members of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) to get back to work.
The premier also said that seven board members who were earlier removed by a special order under Section 44 of the interim charter for alleged conflict of interest have not been punished. They would be eligible to serve as board members again as the selection process begins to fill the vacant seats.
Several civic and NGOs criticised the government for its Jan 5 purge of ThaiHealth executives and freezing of its 1.6-billion-baht budget pending an inquiry into the allegations.
The strongest reproach, however, was from senior doctor Prawase Wasi, considered the brains behind ThaiHealth.
The social critic said the military government's move to dismiss Thai Health's seven board members and accuse them of corruption was a "strategic mistake" that will dissatisfy a wide range of people.
Another could be a Facebook post by former health minister Mongkol na Songkhla who said he had made a grave mistake in joining protests to oust the Yingluck government.
"The situation now is much worse but we do not have an opportunity to go out and protest because of fear of military power," said Dr Mongkol, who admitted the purge at ThaiHealth was one of the reasons behind his disappointment.
Gen Prayut apparently tried to repair the damage from his flip-flop by clarifying later that he was not reinstating the sacked board members.
He said the dismissals were final and his new order was only meant to allow the remaining board members to carry out their duties to allow organisations that rely on ThaiHealth funding to resume their work.
Even so, the ThaiHealth fiasco has exposed the military regime's weakness. Right-wing conservatism may be the only force prevailing in the country right now. But under the same ideal, there are still shades of difference.
The military regime may have based its power on a coalition of conservative forces that seeks to maintain certain social orders that suit their interests. The truth, however, remains that this is a coalition of expediency.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and its supporters are, after all, friends of convenience. They may seem like a formidable force that can maintain tight rule but the ThaiHealth saga has shown the united front of right-wing conservatism will last only as long as their interests remain aligned.
It is ironic, and deeply sad, that there is no real force in the country, be they political parties, leading figures or organisations, that can mount a serious challenge to the military dictatorship which at the end of the day may be curbed only by its own undoing. The lack of spirit to fight totalitarianism does not bode well for Thailand after the military regime, if such a scenario ever happens.
The bickering at ThaiHealth has shown the only force that can make Gen Prayut flinch, that will stand any chance to rock the regime that has kept such a tight grip on the country, is the coalition of right-wing conservative groups that set conditions for the coup to happen and has served as its support base.
But as the conflict over ThaiHealth has also brought to light, differences within the same conservative agenda can sometimes be more hostile than those from so-called opposite political poles.
The regime and its supporters all claim they are here to do good things for the nation, to push much-needed reform. When ideals are put into practice, however, the reality has emerged that "good things" carry different meanings to the NCPO and its supporters. Where the regime sees possible conflicts of interest, top experts and doctors at ThaiHealth see flexibility and the power of networking that will help foster equality among Thais in ways the government can never do.
As the military regime proceeds further to do what it perceives as "good things" for the country, more conflicts are likely to emerge from within its coalition of convenience.
Will a show of contrition and apologies be enough to keep it together next time?
Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.