Thai army’s firm hold on levers of power won’t win it legitimacy

Thai coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is consolidating power but playing his cards close to his chest, giving few if any signs of a return to democratic rule. EPA/Azhar Rahim

Thailand is an increasingly edgy place six months after a coup removed its elected government. Protagonists on the side of the curtailment of democracy fear the elaborated military regime will stuff up. Those on the side reaffirming democracy fear the regime has no commitment to democracy. Public discourse is being stifled, opposition to military rule suppressed.

The new organs of governance are represented as being capable of bringing about reform and reconciliation. It is hard to see how they can do anything other than reflect their being the creatures of the military.

In the meantime, almost nothing the junta has done, especially in infrastructure development, economic policy and international relations, was not either initiated or endorsed by the government that was ended by the May 2014 coup. Spending on defence, which grew under Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, has accelerated.

Military appoints its own

Six months ago today (November 20), a Thai army junta declared martial law and soon took control of the government.

The junta – formally the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO – has established three new organs of governance, alongside the cabinet (“the government”). These are the National Legislative Assembly (NLA of 200 members), the National Reform Council (NRC of 250 members) and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC of 36 members). Of the NLA’s membership, it has been widely observed that it is heavily skewed in favour of serving and retired military officers.

The 36 people who will draft the new constitution are drawn from the NRC (20), the NLA (five), cabinet (five) and the NCPO (five plus the CDC chairman). The selection of the last 11 was announced in November. The CDC will be advised by the NRC as a whole and will tender its draft constitution to that body.

In the background of the panoply of new governance bodies is Section 44 of the interim constitution. This gives the NCPO chief sweeping authority enabling him to:

… exercise the powers of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to promote reform and unity, and to prevent and suppress threats to national security, the royal institution and the economy.

The head of the NCPO is General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army chief led the military takeover in May. He is also prime minister.

The NRC membership was drawn from more than 7000 nominations. Of these, 77 members were nominated by the provinces and the NCPO selected the rest, supposedly to provide expertise in one or other of 11 policy areas. These are: law and justice; local administration; national administration; politics; education; the economy; energy; public health and the environment; the mass media; social affairs; and a special category to deal with “other issues”.

Experts or not, the 173 NRC members selected by the junta from among previous members of parliament, professionals, academics, retired bureaucrats and the like are distinctly yellow in hue. The previous Pheu Thai government and its “red shirt” supporters effectively have been ignored.

Ironically, the NRC will find it difficult to convene consultative meetings of the public because of the ban on meetings under martial law. Responding to the selected membership of the NRC, NGOs have come together to organise “people’s reform”.

The military-dominated National Legislative Assembly is still considering impeachment of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

The new organs of governance are supposed to be committed to reconciliation. Yet early on, and amid a good deal of publicity, the NLA decided to consider impeaching, in camera, the president of the Senate and speaker of the House in the term of the last elected government.

It has been reported, however, that these moves lack overwhelming support in the NLA, as the impeachments could only proceed under the 2007 constitution, which was revoked at the time of the coup. The NLA is also considering impeaching the previous prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Happily cracking down on dissent

Immediately after the coup, the army urged happiness and reconciliation among the people. In recent weeks, Prayuth has been warning the yellow and red shirt protagonists of earlier this year (the People’s Democratic Reform Committee and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) to be happy and conciliatory – to cease agitation and confrontation – or else. He reminded political movements of the military government’s powers.

Prayuth has also threatened to tighten the application of Criminal Law 112 concerning lese majeste (offending the king). Martial law and its provisions, including the prohibition of assemblies of more than five people, remains in place. Censorship of the press is no joke, nor is the suppression of dissent against the NCPO. Even academic discussions of policy within universities have been disrupted.

A respected commentator from Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudirak, claimed recently that the military is being re-politicised. He argues that the 2nd Infantry Division of the 1st Army (one of four divisions of the army) has achieved political supremacy with the appointment of three of its generals to the most senior cabinet positions: Defence, Interior and Prime Minister.

According to Thitinan, the re-politicisation began under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra and the 2nd Infantry Division began its rise after the coup of 2006 as Thaksin’s “meddling” was wound back. The recent ascendancy of the 2nd Infantry Division has finally reversed the achievement of then-prime minister Chuan Leekpai in de-politicising the army in the late 1990s. Thitinan’s argument is alarming.

Thais face highly uncertain future

The junta is keeping its cards well hidden. It is reluctant to commit to a date for elections.

Thais are again praying for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose re-admission to hospital has deepened intrigue around the royal succession. EPA/Narong Sangnak

The junta is also not disclosing any view on the royal succession – the issue of who will succeed King Bhumipol Adulyadej. He may die any day. There is even less public speculation generally about the succession than is usual.

Especially in view of a re-politicisation of the army, it is certain that the junta is clear about what it wants in the succession, but what it wants is not being bruited about. While it is frequently claimed that Thaksin has wanted to see the Crown Prince installed as monarch, the army may not favour that outcome at all.

Protests have been held recently against projects proposed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The army has been very much in evidence at these protests, ostensibly to keep the peace but seeming to be intent on quelling protest.

The Thai people are palpably on edge. The army is solidly in control, yet there is supposed to be a process of debate and reform underway in organs of governance that are the army’s creatures.

In a society with vast inequalities – more dramatic than elsewhere in Asia except for China – nothing short of egalitarian reforms of wealth and income distribution will prevent a renewed alienation of the majority of Thais and expressions of their resentment.