Former army general Prayuth Chan-ocha’s 2014 coup against the besieged Yingluck Shinawatra government, and the 2017 constitution that was forced through prior to the 2019 elections, fulfilled a long-time goal of the Thai military.
The first step in enhancing the military’s influence over Thai politics was the 1932 coup. Seven hundred years of absolute monarchy was ended when King Prajadhipok was coerced to adopt a constitution allowing for a constitutional democracy. The instigators of the 1932 coup were a close-knit group of military officers, civil servants, and members of Thailand’s influential elite circle. Although this dramatic change in the manner of rule was made in the name of the Thai citizenry, only members of the elite circle, were the ones who governed the country until the end of the Twentieth Century. The 1932 coup can be seen as an opportunity taken to further the influence of the military in politics, rather than hand over power to popular civilian rule.
The leaders at the time had visons of grandeur for Thailand, and saw the military’s place in shaping this. The late king Bhumibol Adulyadej and his sister Princess Galyani Vadhana spent their careers trying to keep the ambitious military in check. This is in stark contrast to the present monarch, who very much exercises hands on control of the military today.
Since 1932, there have been 12 successful military coups. These all occurred at times when the military, felt its influence was waning, or wanted to make corrections within the government at the time. Some coups of the Twentieth Century were the result of disagreements between the leadership, and various stakeholder factions.
This grip on power by top echelons of the Thai inner circle was seriously challenged by the popularist politician Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, together with his coalition of non-establishment supporters, coming from outside the capital Bangkok, won a landslide election victory in 2001, where establishment politicians lost their power.
Thaksin’s popularist policies, stricter control over military promotions, and plans for future government reform, led the military leader at the time General Sonthi Boonyararatglin to take over the government while Thaksin was out of the country in New York. Democracy was eventually returned and Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, through a rebuilding of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party, Pheu Thai, won in a landslide.
In June 2014, when Thai military leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the five branches of the armed forces had taken over power to end political instability and reform the country. There was no uprising against the coup, where sections within the country accepted the coup as a necessary evil, due to deep political divisions between political groups in the country.
There was tacit support for Prayuth’s espoused aim to ridding the government of corruption, and to reinstall democracy with clean and stable government. Many pro-establishment quarters saw the military stepping in to reset Thai politics and clean up the ills of the nation, before handing power back to a civilian government, via the ballot box.
Sections of the public started to give praise when the military was seen forcing the police and civil servants to do their jobs properly. Many living inside Bangkok were tired of the street protests, which went on unimpeded for months on end. The Thaksin, and later Yingluck governments were painted as evil and corrupt, and civil politicians generally accused of being motivated by self-interest, rather than serving the national interest.
The reality of the reset sets in
However, it didn’t take long for the harsh realities of the new Junta to felt.
Thailand, once with a reputation as a bastion of free speech and democracy within the region. Since the 2014 coup, freedom of speech has deteriorated, where free debate has been stifled, opposition political parties banned, anti-government activists forced to flee the country or be jailed, people being sent to attitude “adjustment camps”, and some just disappearing.
Soon after gaining power through the coup in July 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) formed an interim government and declared a 10 day curfew, across the country. The Junta demanded groups surrender illegal arms to the authorities. Journalists, who were critical of the interim government and coup, like former Nation reporter, Pravit Rojanaphruk were summoned for “attitude adjustment” on multiple occasions, while a national search went on for members of the “red shirts.” Even pro-establishment politicians were interned around the country for a short period of time.
In the year or so after the coup, the sedition law and regulations under a continuing emergency decree had been used as the basis to arrest activists who had criticised the coup, called for elections, or assisted those arrested with legal representation. Those who reverted to protest through social media made critical remarks on social media of the Junta, were charged under the Computer-Related Crimes Act. There is strong speculation, that some of the big-tech companies assisted the Junta seek out identities and locations of those protesting on social-media.
Several members of the former governing party Pheu Thai, led by former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra were also called in repeatedly for “attitude adjustment”, and intimidated. Several members of the former government were charged with sedition, breaches of the Computer-Related Crimes Act, and Yingluck with a number of her former ministers charged with corruption over a rice buy-back scheme.
In addition, criminal defamation laws were used against people making allegations of corruption against the Junta, prosecuting them for “disseminating false information.” Public assembly laws and emergency decrees banning groups of 5 people or more have been used to stop protests. Thailand’s draconian Lese-majeste law, under Section 112 of the Criminal Code was used against more than 100 people between 2014-19, and recently used against student protestors, imprisoning them without bail, pending trials. Even the Buddhist Sangha was not left untouched. Errant monks were purged and de-frocked by the military and police.
Politics took a back seat in Thai life for a while. The spirit of the red shirt movement had been broken by the Junta, and many key yellow shirts had been given jobs within local, provincial, and central government. The passing away of the immensely popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 led to a year of mourning, which was also an understood to be an unofficial moratorium on politics. Prayuth was able to take advantage of this period of transition of the monarchy, to consolidate the position of the Junta.
The Junta presented a new constitution for the public to approve by referendum, stifling all discussion and debate. The new 2017 constitution was designed to ensure that the military would be able to control the nature of the government, and the judicial system would support continued authoritarian rule. In addition, any elected government would be forced under Section 65 of the constitution to follow a set out national strategy.
The pseudo-democratically elected 500 member lower house of parliament, formed after the March 2109 general election, together with the senate, made up of 250 military appointees, elected Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister.
Prayuth had completed the second phase of the great military dream, the creation of what could be best called a milocracy.
Prayuth’s regime is part of a much larger agenda. Prayuth has worked to protect the position of the Thai establishment. The wide support during the Thaksin period was too threatening to the current traditional establishment. Thanathorn Juangroongruan and his popularist Future Forward Party was also very quickly eradicated from the political scene by Prayuth and the institutional apparatus like the Constitutional Court.
Organized street protests by establishment loyalists aimed at destabilizing popularly elected Yingluck government, and the democratic movement as a whole, was a strong indication that a milocracy was planned all along. The formal objective of Suthep Thaugsuban’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) was to have the democratically elected Yingluck government leave office and be replaced with an elite group of establishment technocrats.
Thai military officers attend the Chulachomklao Military Academy before they are promoted to the rank of general. It’s within the walls of this institution, that military officers must show a strong loyalty to safeguard and defend the nation’s traditional power structure from threats, which include democracy, liberalism, modernity, and challenges to the concept of Thainess. There is a strong comradery among alumni within the nation’s top military officers who overtly share a strict moral code which includes; religious devotion (Buddhism), non-drinking, non-gambling, no body marks like tattoos, no adultery, and the importance of the Thai language and customs. The army believes it is the natural protector of the view they have of what Thailand should be.
The Thai military, particularly, the army had always seen itself as the body, which should rule, or at least, strongly influence the rule of Thailand. The army has repeatedly led coups against governments which was felt to act against the interests of the military. Until Thaksin became prime minister, the military had controlled its own appointments of high-ranking positions within the armed forces, without any serious scrutiny.
Seen in this light, the 1976 Thammasat massacre, and the shooting of unarmed protestors with live fire in 2010, were actions deemed necessary to protect the status quo of the establishment.
Is the Covid Pandemic the Unpinning of the Prayuth Regime?
Over his seven years as prime minister, Prayuth was able to rise about a number of scandals. Uncle Tu, as he is known, successfully projected himself as the protector of Thainess, among the older population. To loyalist groups, he has been able to paint student protestors as anti-monarchist, vandals, wanting to destroy the establishment, which Prayuth is protecting. Limited polling in Thailand indicated, that many thought Prayuth was the only suitable candidate from prime minister, because of his experience.
However, the outbreak of Covid from VVIP entertainment complexes and brothels in Bangkok, just before Songkran, in April, focused much discontent upon Prayuth and his government. News broke that some members of his cabinet were patrons in these establishments and had contracted Covid-19 from their patronage.
Thailand’s initial success story of fighting the Covid pandemic rubbed off well on Prayuth, until just recently. However, with rising case numbers to between 2-3,000 per day, with the death rate increasing, some panic and anger on the part of the public has set in. The perception of government’s success and integrity in handling the pandemic, quickly turned sour. The local press described the government as being led by generals, drug dealers, decadent VVIPs, and marijuana growers.
Prayuth would have been mindful of the economic issues related to putting on heavy restrictions just prior to the Songkran holidays, when people travel across the country to their hometowns. Declaring a was a decision he wouldn’t make. The irony was that there were public pleas for Prayuth to call a snap lockdown, which he didn’t heed, be it stubbiness, or the belief the new outbreak could be kept under control, even with the mass travelling.
This led to a steep rise in case numbers across the country. Prayuth, actually had a lot of public support for a lockdown, and was heavily criticized for allowing the holiday to go ahead.
On April 27, Prayuth’s cabinet handed all powers to handle the pandemic over to himself personally, making him totally responsible for the management of the outbreak. As cases and deaths continue to rise, Prayuth’s goodwill and popularity is falling as fast as the numbers are accumulating.
What Prayuth may have failed to see, is that political leaders who have dished out hard restrictions and lockdowns across the world, have generally increased in popularity electorally. A large percentage of Thais, with almost continual media exposure to the dangers of the pandemic, are living in fear. Prayuth’s management of this third wave, has been criticised as being hesitant, ad hoc, unresponsive, and callous. The former army general has politically made the mistake of not showing strength at a time when people wished him to be strong.
The covid break out in the state prisons, after student activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul upon her release after 59 days in prison on remand, on bail informed her Facebook followers, that she had contracted the virus. This forced the authorities to disclose that in excess of 3,000 cases have been diagnosed so far within the prison system. This led to outrage on social media and news comment sections. Well known blogger Richard Barrow speculated that authorities were only forced to disclose the outbreak, after the student protest leader made it public. Six weeks after Songkran, health experts are claiming that up to 5 percent of Bangkok’s population may have contracted covid-19.
Prayuth, criticised for a slow rollout of vaccinations, and accused of ‘vaccine cronyism’, by controlling imports through the CP Group, was prepared to wait until Siam Bioscience, owned by a subsidiary of the Crown Property Bureau, is ready to roll out the locally manufactured AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. Priority had initially gone to vaccinating people in the proposed “sandbox” tourism areas, planned to re-open to international tourism on 1st July. However, over the last couple of days, the vaccination program has been massively stepped up, becoming the government’s prime strategy in getting this current covid outbreak under control.
The Songkran decision has been Prayuth’s biggest mistake. Now the vaccination drive, might be Prayuth’s last political card he can play in his own personal survival. With the students of the streets, because of the pandemic, a “Let’s move countries” Facebook group, recently formed now has more than one million members who have given up on the Thai political system, and declare they would rather leave Thailand, than stay in the country with the current level of corruption, mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption of the government. Prayuth could have got away with the hypocrisy and lack of integrity of his ministers.
Prayuth’s milocracy faces a period of uncertainty. There is fear within the Thai community, and blame is being projected onto Prayuth for what has happened. Many people within the Thai conservative middleclass are disappointed with the hypocrisy within the government. Saving Thailand from pandemic disaster will require a lot of hard work, and some luck. The economy is taking the hit that Prayuth was actually trying to avoid before Songkran. Finally, there is conjecture about the health of the monarch himself, who is reported to be in hospital ICU with covid like symptoms.
This will be a major test of Prayuth’s milocracy.