While the military junta buries democracy, the Thai state is failing

Silencing dissent: Thai police officers secure the area after the military junta prevented former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from holding a press conference after her impeachment. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

Growing edginess on both sides of Thai politics about the performance of the military government is proving to be quite justified. The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has made clear the centrality of the regime’s ambition to rid Thai politics of the Shinawatra family’s influence.

These moves also remind the business community and others who supported the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that while the military government and the NLA have been prosecuting the vendetta against the ousted Pheu Thai Party and the Shinawatra family, they lack the fundamentally more urgent expertise and politico-economic understanding to manage the economy and the nation.

By far the most dramatic event in the three-month life of the NLA has been the decision to debate the “impeachments” of deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the former speaker of the House of Representatives and former president of the Senate, and the subsequent impeachment of Yingluck. The two men had presided over the parliament’s decision to change the then-constitution to make the Senate fully elected, which the Constitutional Court later deemed unconstitutional behaviour. The motions to impeach them fell short of the votes required.

The speaker had also presided over a bill to extend an amnesty to miscreant politicians, which would have included exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The bill was passed under highly irregular circumstances. It was subsequently rejected by the Senate.

The point of the “impeachment” of Yingluck Shinawatra was to keep the Shinawatra family out of Thai politics.

There are also likely to be “impeachments” of some 200 former Pheu Thai MPs for supporting the constitutional change. Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang has argued, as well, that actual impeachments may become more common in Thai parliaments if a proposal being considered by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) is adopted.

Public patience is wearing thin

The anti-government ‘red shirts’ are lying low, but even some coup supporters are quietly critical of the regime. EPA/Narong Sangnak

The “impeachment” and criminal proceedings about to be launched against Yingluck Shinawatra by the National Anti-Corruption Commission have thrown down a gauntlet at the feet of the Pheu Thai Party and its allied “red shirts”. To date, they have made no move to pick it up. The Thaksinist opposition is clearly choosing to keep its powder dry.

Two small pipe bombs were detonated outside the Paragon shopping mall on February 1. However, this might have been an army ploy to enable the government to defend continuation of martial law rather than a response by Yingluck supporters. “This case shows that we still need martial law,” the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said.

There is little doubt that the government would be quick to use the provisions of continuing martial law – the suspension of civil rights, including the right to assemble in groups of more than five people – to suppress any dissent from the red corner. However, dissension is also emerging within the yellow corner. That is more problematic for the government.

High-profile commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak has observed:

The military authorities may project a business-as-usual image but the reality is increasingly marked by suppressed scepticism, tension and opposition.

… if there is going to be outright opposition to the military government, it is likely to come from the pro-coup coalition, particularly the former People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and its precursor the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

Such forces are also likely to oppose any proposal, already being bruited about, for the creation of a military party to provide the military with a permanent and direct role in parliament and perhaps in government.

Regime’s record of achievement is slim

Thitinan points out that the National Council for Peace and Order (the NCPO or ruling junta) is attempting to govern the country “directly as opposed to delegating to technocrats and policy professionals”.

It would not be at all surprising if even coup supporters within the state bureaucracy were to become disillusioned with the NCPO. In the development of new policies and institutions neither the NLA nor the National Reform Council (NRC) has achieved much to date.

A much-publicised deal with the Chinese government to embark on a major modernisation of the State Railway of Thailand is a progression of plans made and initiatives begun by previous governments. Water management works, especially for flood mitigation in the delta of the Chao Phraya river, were planned by previous governments and are still delayed. The military government’s proposals for tax reform are contentious (of course). No replacement scheme to subsidise rice farmers – or any other agricultural price subsidy schemes, such as for rubber – has been implemented.

For its part, the third arm of the current system of government, the CDC, has proposed constitutional changes such as:

  • the direct election of a prime minister and the (possibly occasional) appointment of a prime minister from outside the majority party in the parliament and possibly outside the parliament;
  • the adoption of the German system of electing a parliament.

The Bangkok Post has reported that these proposals have left the people underwhelmed.

A nation in need of good governance

The picture in Thailand at the moment is of a government lacking the capacities to govern and to enlist the co-operation (as opposed to militarily enforced compliance) of the people. That is, the Thai state is arguably close to failing.

One should add to that the diminishing authority of the palace and the Sangha. The palace is without the engaged presence of the king and lacks popular support for the most obvious successor to the throne on the death of the king.

In regard to the sangha, very senior Buddhist clergy have been involved in sexual transgressions, rape and embezzlement. This has brought the Sangha into disrepute among Thailand’s Buddhist majority.

In other words, a large part of the structure of authority is in question. To top it all off, the NCPO has abandoned previous undertakings to hold an election by October 2015. The junta insists no elections will be held for at least another 12 months.