BANGKOK – They were supposed to be in power for the royal transition but they have stayed too long and now want to win an unavoidable election.
Led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the generals who have ruled Thailand since seizing power in May 2014 are now cornered, seemingly at the peak of political power but looking down into an abyss, unwilling to go out without a fight and unable to stay without a popular mandate.
In the interim, Gen Prayut’s junta-led government is likely to manipulate the political landscape to have it both ways, by holding elections and maintaining power thereafter. The more he and his cohorts try to do so, the more risks Thailand will face in this critical year of transition from military government to electoral rule.
It is common knowledge that Thailand’s military government is controlled by a band of three military “brothers”. Together with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda, Gen Prayut spearheads this triumvirate and core of political power. These three generals hail from the same military unit, namely the 21st Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division looking after the eastern border, and once lived in the same house as young military officers, with Gen Prawit playing the role of big brother to the other two.
All three became army chiefs for seven years in total, and reconfigured the army and the Thai military more broadly as they saw fit, placing their loyalists and confidants in key positions up to this day. Their grip on the military gave them complete power when they staged the coup.
But now they are in trouble. Gen Prawit has become the government’s weakest link. The ongoing scandal involving his dubious luxury watches, worth more than US$1m (32.2 million baht), is just the tip of the iceberg. The more his conduct and performance are scrutinised, the more the military’s rot from the inside is exposed.
From unaccountable weapons procurements that feature tanks and submarines to the building of a park that involved kickbacks and allegations of influence-peddling and bribes for police promotions, not to mention maltreatment of army cadets and low-ranking privates, the Thai army has a lot to answer for, both as an armed force and as the power behind a sitting government.
What is interesting is that this rot has been going on for some time. The Rajabhakti Park project, overseen by then-army chief Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, came early in the military government’s rule. Gen Prawit has been wearing watches with mind-boggling prices from the outset. His supervision of the police force, instrumentally assisted by his brother and former national police chief, Police General Patcharawat Wongsuwon, has involved lobbying and influence-peddling from day one.
So has the military government’s appetite for expensive weapons been evident from early on.
But suddenly, the generals are no longer given a free pass and the benefit of the doubt. Now, many have gone as far as questioning why Thai military generals tend to be multimillionaires in dollar terms when their official salaries in baht terms amount to a couple of thousand dollars per month.
The change in political fortunes for the military government stems from the fact that their job was completed with the royal transition and cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej last October. But instead of fading away like they pledged to do when they staged the coup, the ruling generals want to stay in power in one form or another indefinitely through constitutional rigging and placing their supporters in various accountability-promoting agencies, such as the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the latter headed by a police general who used to be Pol Gen Patcharawat’s right-hand man.
Clearly, the pervasive sentiment is that junta legitimacy has overstayed its expiry date. And the junta knows it. Unsurprisingly, Gen Prayut has gone into election mode as a full-fledged politician to be. His recent trips to Suphan Buri, Sukhothai and Nakhon Pathom provinces included meetings with local politicians. The government is now disbursing budgets with an eye for electioneering. More than six billion baht, for example, is now earmarked for Sukhothai. More is to come for other provinces and local provincial patronage networks ahead of the election.
All this means more tension between aspiring civilian leaders from both the Pheu Thai and Democrat parties on the one hand and the top brass who want to cling on to power on the other. It has the smell of the 1991-92 period, when a coup led to a disguised military dictatorship through the polls. But the generals may be cleverer this time. They will rely both on party politics and on lopsided constitutional stipulations, particularly the military-appointed one third of the legislature, to have their way.
The big issue in Thailand is not whether there will be elections — further delays are plausible but unlikely as public pressure for a change of government mounts — but whether the upcoming poll will lead to a new balance among key institutions and protagonists of the land.
The big problem in Thailand is that elections should not be equated with genuine democratic rule.
To usher in a satisfactory and lasting democratic rule, democratic institutions, such as political parties, the constitution, and parliament, must be strengthened to provide effective outlets for an electorate fed up with systematic patronage and corruption by elected representatives over the decades. New talent must be encouraged into the party system. The pro-military constitution, crafted by a junta-appointed committee, requires a complete makeover to be pro-democracy. Justice and the rule of law must be seen as fair and equal, not stacked and uneven in favour of power holders.
More importantly, a culture of accountability and popular demands for rights and freedoms, coupled with responsibility and integrity, needs to be promoted and nurtured. Thai democracy will not arise from holding elections but from the hard and sustained work of instilling values and building institutions and mechanisms to exercise them. The focus for all concerned with Thailand’s way forward should be how to bridge the gap between elections and democracy by minimising corruption and maximising accountability. It is a tall order in this tough year of an inevitable transition.
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Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.