Wed, May 27, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The growing pains limiting Thailand’s democratic aspirations

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak

One year after Thailand’s 12th military coup in its 83 years under constitutional rule and as the controversial trial for criminal negligence of former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra gets under way, the country’s future is perilously uncertain.

In the months ahead, the military-enforced calm is set to coexist with growing anxiety about what will follow Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s nearly seven-decade-long reign. Will compromise and mutual accommodation — extremely rare in recent years — enable Thailand to reshape a contested political order underpinned by an elite-driven, monarchy-centered hierarchy to better reflects the principles of electoral democracy?

Three key factors have defined Thai politics over the past year. First, unlike tried and tested post-coup arrangements from the past, the junta that seized power in May last year, the National Council for Peace and Order, chose to rule directly, with coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha assuming the prime ministry, rather than appointing a recognized and capable figure to the position.

Four-star generals also fill top ministerial positions, from commerce and transport to labor and education. Even the minister of foreign affairs is a general, rather than a career diplomat. The government’s few technocrats, including the deputy prime minister and the finance minister, are holdovers from the previous coup government of 2006 and 2007 who complain that they lack authority.

This approach has produced an incoherent economic strategy and vague, sluggishly implemented policy targets. However, it is unlikely to change. Thailand’s new military leaders view themselves as a kind of cleanup crew, tasked with eradicating corruption, keeping politicians in line and restoring the old order, underpinned by a symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy, with the bureaucracy handling day-to-day governance.

To be sure, Thailand’s military rulers do not reject responsiveness to public demands or deny the imperatives of adapting to globalization. Instead, they hope to establish a form of electoral rule that can function within a political order based on traditional Thai institutions and customs. Their goal is to take the nation a few steps back and sideways, with the goal of moving forward in a completely different direction.

For now, this means promoting conventional conservative values like discipline, deference, duty and sacrifice. Civil servants have been prodded to wear customary khaki uniforms and women encouraged to don traditional dresses. Even the fabled floating markets in Bangkok’s canals are back, on Prayuth’s orders.

At the same time, the junta’s agenda entails measures to control the direction of Thai politics — in particular, by marginalizing opponents, especially politicians tied to the influential Shinawatra family. Indeed, the second major factor shaping the post-coup interregnum was the impeachment of Yingluck, the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by the military in 2006 and remains abroad in self-imposed exile. Yingluck has been barred from politics for five years.

The dilemma for the junta is that Thaksin’s supporters — who are plentiful enough to have enabled his parties to win every election since 2001 — have been marginalized as well, with little say in the face of martial law and Prayuth’s absolute rule. Though they have remained quiet since the coup, they undoubtedly plan to re-enter the fray as new political opportunities emerge. In any case, they will have to be reckoned with down the road, when a new political order is brokered.

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