Thai military rulers plan for long term three years after coup
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