Thai mil­i­tary rulers plan for long term three years after coup

Financial Times USA - - INTERNATIONAL - Michael Peel michael.peel@ ft.com

Thai­land’s rul­ing gen­er­als were sup­posed to quit within 18 months but they seem more firmly en­trenched than ever as they pre­pare to cel­e­brate the third an­niver­sary of their May 2014 coup. A coun­try once among the more demo­cratic in a mostly au­thor­i­tar­ian re­gion is in its long­est spell un­der hard­line mil­i­tary rule for decades and, as the junta flaunts a 20-year “re­form” plan, it seems more and more like the new nor­mal.

The of­fi­cers turned po­lit­i­cal masters of South­east Asia’s sec­ond-largest economy have been buoyed by a wider in­ter­na­tional swing to­wards au­toc­racy. The lat­est vote of con­fi­dence in the junta came in an in­vi­ta­tion to the White House from US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader turned prime min­is­ter.

The May 22 an­niver­sary of the putsch in Bangkok is one of a flurry of land­marks to the en­dur­ing power of mil­i­tary men who — in or out of uni­form — have ruled Thai­land for much of the 85 years since the end of ab­so­lute monar­chy. In May 1992, dozens of pro­test­ers were killed dur­ing a clam­p­down by the mil­i­tary regime. In May 2010, scores more died in an army crack­down.

Elec­tions promised by this junta have been repeatedly de­layed de­spite pledges they would hap­pen by the end of 2015. Polls will now wait un­til after the 12-month mourn­ing for the death in Oc­to­ber of King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej.

The main rea­son given ini­tially was the rewrit­ing of the con­sti­tu­tion, ap­proved in a tightly-con­trolled ref­er­en­dum in Au­gust and then by new monarch King Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn last month. It is a mea­sure of un­re­solved po­lit­i­cal ten­sions that this is the 20th char­ter since 1932. The gen­er­als have used this ver­sion to give them­selves pow­ers — long after they have for­mally stepped down — to choose MPs and even prime min­is­ters. It is part of a two-decade plan in­tended to be legally bind­ing on gov­ern­ments and cov­ers ar­eas from the en­vi­ron­ment to civil ser­vice re­form.

Most com­men­ta­tors are yet to be con­vinced this will ei­ther de­liver good gov­er­nance or re­vive a once hum­ming ex­port economy. The junta’s flag­ship “Thai­land 4.0” pro­pos­als for growth of­fer few con­crete ideas for deal­ing with prob­lems such as an age­ing pop­u­la­tion, in­creas­ing regional man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pe­ti­tion and the grad­ual ob­so­les­cence of flag­ship prod­ucts such as hard disc drives. Eco­nomic growth may have ticked up to its high­est quar­terly rate for four years in the first three months of this year, but the coun­try is still a regional lag­gard, in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on tourism and gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

The sense of malaise has not yet ma­te­ri­alised into a short-term threat to the author­ity of the gen­er­als, who have cracked down hard on their more se­vere crit­ics. Scores have been charged un­der the coun­try’s dra­co­nian lèse ma­jesté and com­puter crime laws. Lit­tle is heard from the politi­cians who gov­erned just a few years ago. A sign of their weak­ness is that some of the most pointed crit­i­cism of Gen Prayuth lately has come from Neti­wit Chotiphat­phaisal, an out­spo­ken 20-year-old stu­dent leader.

A more un­pre­dictable di­men­sion for the junta is the ar­rival of the new king and the next phase in the mil­i­tary­monar­chy al­liance that has long un­der­pinned the power of both. The gen­er­als clashed with Face­book this week as they stepped up ef­forts to scrub the Thai in­ter­net of com­men­tary and images that were po­ten­tially em­bar­rass­ing to the monarch. But the king has also been flex­ing his mus­cles in­de­pen­dently, bring­ing var­i­ous roy­ally-linked in­sti­tu­tions un­der his di­rect con­trol and se­cur­ing late changes to the con­sti­tu­tion that in­crease his author­ity.

The junta’s third birth­day is un­likely to be greeted with much more than iso­lated protests. But nei­ther will there be great joy in a coun­try whose po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic fu­ture looks no clearer than when the gen­er­als yet again took power.

The junta’s flag­ship ‘Thai­land 4.0’ pro­pos­als for growth of­fer few con­crete ideas

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