The current month marks the 3rd anniversary of military rule in Thailand. The military government has postponed holding elections several times and have now pushed back any election to next year. Political parties have been hounded by the military government and the interim parliamentary body, installed by the military has not been able to finalize the Election Bill. These trends lead to growing scepticism about the military government’s intention of holding election even in 2019.
The Army in Thailand has always been well entrenched in the country’s polity. There have been over 20 coups, major and minor, since 1932, when the country switched to constitutional monarchy. Democracy has always had an uneasy and unpredictable history in Thailand. Like many of his predecessors, the current head of government, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former Chief of the Army, is preparing for a career in politics. He may be joined in this move by other senior Generals who are in powerful positions in the government.
The military government has tried the usual modus operandi of drafting a new Constitution which legitimizes the military’s role in government and gives more powers to unelected bureaucratic institutions packed with nominated personnel. Under this Constitution, Thailand’s 20th, since the military abolished an absolute monarchy in 1932, the Senate’s composition would check the powers of elected lawmakers and give the military a veto over national policies. The new Constitution, running over 195 pages, gives overwhelming powers to the ruling military junta to handpick almost all of the 250 Senators for the next five years. Six seats will be reserved for senior military and security officials. Any future PM need not be elected and any future elected government will have to function as per the “National Strategy Plan” or face impeachment. This military dictated Thai Constitution of 2017, was promulgated on April 6, 2017. The extent of control by the military junta is evident – 143 seats out of 250 parliamentary seats, 12 military officers in a Cabinet of 36. More than half of the 13 members of the Privy Council, a body which advises the King, are former military officers.
Despite the military government delaying elections, pressure is slowly mounting. Street demonstrations have been more frequent, though the military government has dismissed them as insignificant. The military government’s dilatory tactics regarding holding elections leave Thailand’s political parties between a rock and a hard place. The popular Puea Thai Party which won the last election and formed the government was ousted by the coup in May 2014. Then PM Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, was hounded and convicted in a case of corruption and removed from office before the May Coup. She fled from Thailand and is in exile, like her brother Thaksin who too was convicted in a corruption case.
It is universally acknowledged that Thailand’s politics is greased by corruption and the military and politicians all have their hands in the public till. Thai politicians do not enjoy a high standing in eyes of the Thai people. This is not surprising, since most are corrupt and venal, whether in or out of power; and therein lies the rub. Democracy is associated with these politicians and has, therefore, jaundiced the view of democracy in the eyes of the Thai people, many among them weary of the chaos and disruption that Thai politics had brought to the streets of Bangkok in 2010. Hence, the Monarchy, the business elite and the military have often worked in tandem to undermine democracy in Thailand, in favour of stability and peace. This pattern of collaboration continues.
One of Thailand’s most respected academic and strategic thinker, Thitinan Pongsudhirak from the prestigious Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, has commented that “more Thai people are sick and tired of his government than at any time since the military coup in May 2014, but not enough are willing to stand up and stare down the military regime…..corruption and graft will lead to crises and more coups. It is a familiar and vicious cycle”. The people of Thailand appear to have become inured to military coups and many are resigned to another military government which promises elections but clings to power as long as possible.
Yet there is a gradual build-up of public resentment, with political activists holding demonstrations and demanding removal of an influential senior General in the government who has been seen in public wearing a wrist watch worth USD 1 million. The military government’s boastful claim about fighting corruption has fallen flat. The belief that graft is deeply endemic in the military government is widespread. Anti-corruption campaign by the military government has largely been targeted against politicians of the Puea Thai which was ousted in the May 2014 coup.
One fundamental reason why the Thai military junta has been able to brazen it out, is the changing geo-political scenario, engendered by the rise of China. Under President Trump, the USA has toned down criticism of the coup and engaged the military junta. China has always been ready to do business with Thailand regardless of the nature of government in power and the USA which has a longstanding “non-NATO Alliance” relationship going back to the early days of the Cold War, is trying to recover ground lost to China. The Thai business elite and its supporters are generally pro-Chinese and this has helped China to make deep inroads into the Thai economy. Over 9 million Chinese tourists arrivals in Thailand make them the largest group of tourists, comprising 25% of all tourist arrivals, contributing over 28% of tourist revenue. The need to counter China’s influence motivates both India and the USA
India too has taken a soft line on the Thai military junta for the same reason that have also underpinned India’s relations with Myanmar. The tri-lateral highway project between India-Myanmar-Thailand is an important project which is expected to bring economic benefits to India’s north-eastern states. Thailand’s economy, the second largest among ASEAN countries and the 8th largest in Asia, has bounced back in the last 3 years. This has bolstered the military junta’s claims to have provided stability and facilitated economic growth. The Thai business elite and the middle class would rather have stability and economic growth than the rambunctious nature of democracy. India has good trading and investment ties with Thailand and remains mindful of Thailand’s role in the regional grouping BIMSTEC and the “Act East Policy”.
This commentary originally appeared in Assam Tribune
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