Has Thailand's Junta Overcome the Protests?

Come fly with me, come fly with me do tra la

On November 8, shortly after midnight, Thai Airways Flight TG924, a Boeing 777, was widely reported lifting off from Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport carrying King Maha Vajiralongkorn and a huge entourage of 250 retainers, concubines, and staff bound for Munich, Germany.

It was the first time the king had apparently felt secure enough to leave his troubled kingdom since he arrived from his Bavarian redoubt – where he lived in happier days -- in October of 2020 as a rising student protest, a growing economic crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic made his departure back for Germany politically unpalatable to his subjects.

“I think he just waited to get Covid under control and was able to fly,” said a senior political analyst with a major university who declined to be identified. “He can always send his orders from abroad. Whether he is inside or outside the country, it doesn’t change the power of the constitutional court. But yes, his power seems more secure.”

The question is whether the king’s departure can be viewed as a harbinger that the junta that has run the country since a 2014 coup that ousted a democratically elected government has things under control.

“Things may be looking good for him as seen by (junta leader and prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s) confidence that he can keep the reins on power for another 20 years,” a former top-ranked government figure said. “Students’ protests have not been able to galvanize the masses who, despite their opposition to the regime, have chosen to remain dormant and get on with business as usual whilst struggling to cope with Covid. So far, I don’t see any ground-breaking development on the political front.”

There are plenty of signs of trouble despite the fact that Vajiralongkorn intends to return, probably only for a single day, in late November to change the apparel of the revered Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace, then fly out again.

In late October, thousands of students took to the streets in what has become a generational divide as young Thais, still smarting over the court-ordered dissolution of the Future Forward Party as well as a substandard education system, used the opportunity of the post-Covid opening to register their anger with a government that is not only repressive but deeply corrupt as well as seemingly incompetent, having botched not only the pandemic response but the larger economy.

For the first time in history, protesters have begun to challenge the royalty, refusing to stand in movie theatres when the royal anthem is played despite dire threats of the use of the lèse-majesté law. It appears Vajiralongkorn’s personal excesses have spurred a demand that the power of the royalty be circumscribed and subordinated to a new and genuinely democratic constitution, unlike the one the military promulgated in 2015 to protect itself from prosecution in the event it is driven from power.

Earlier this month, a 35-year-old Thai was charged with the law, which carries a 15-year sentence, for removing a picture of Vajiralongkorn from a public display. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who formed the now-defunct Future Forward Party, has been charged with two cases of royal defamation for questioning the government’s decision to award a major vaccine-manufacturing contract to a small pharmaceutical company with ties to Vajiralongkorn that by all accounts badly botched the production. He faces the possibility of 30 years in prison as each case carries a separate 15-year penalty.

As Asia Sentinel reported on November 13, the coronavirus, which has taken the lives of more than 20,000 and sickened more than 2 million, has permanently dented the tourism industry, which provides 20 percent of GDP and employs nearly 4.5 million people. GDP was forecast by the World Bank to grow by an anemic 1 percent in 2021 after having shrunk by 6.5 percent in 2020. But now that forecast is endangered by controls reintroduced to thwart the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Reuters quoted economists projecting a 2.5 percent slide for 2021.

Nonetheless, the king apparently believes that the country’s lèse-majesté law, arguably the world’s most stringent, and the legal apparatus can keep things under control. 

Calls for a general election, which would have been necessary if Prayuth had failed the confidence vote, now can be put off till 2023, when the constitution calls for them and may not happen if Prayuth can remain on top in the internal party struggle. Elections, since the junta took power, have been painfully complicated, with constitutional changes to engineer victory for the government that has little to do with a rational electoral process.

If indeed he remains on top, that doesn’t paint a very encouraging picture. Protesters, who have continued with small-scale demonstrations in student neighborhoods, often clashing with police, say they have little to lose. The October 31 demonstration in Bangkok centered on the repeal of Section 112 of the constitution, the so-called lèse-majesté law, which empowers any Thai citizen to lodge a complaint against his or her fellow countryman, with criminal penalties to follow. A 60-year-old former civil servant was sentenced to 42 years in prison in January for sharing a recording deemed to be critical of the king.

Despite the country’s position as an electronics and car manufacturing powerhouse, it faces intractable social problems that belie its benign image. According to the World Bank, the top 1 percent of the population holds an estimated 58 percent of the country's total wealth, one of the world’s highest levels of economic inequality.

“Sources of inequality are many, ranging from intergenerational inequality when rich-poor gaps transmit from generation to generation, disparities in education (both quality and completion rates), uneven access to skills needed to achieve higher incomes, unequal access to credit, and legal discrimination,” according to the bank’s report. “Inequality is also reflected in social exclusion of marginalized groups such as migrants, domestic workers, LGBTI, persons with disabilities and ethnic minority groups; and it is the source of many structural problems in Thai society including human trafficking, crime, corruption, and social and political instability.”

The previously elected Pheu Thai government set out to make dramatic changes in those problems with social programs that gave a political voice to the impoverished peoples of the northeast region of the country. Bangkok’s elites reacted viscerally to that idea, largely backing the military’s drive to put an end to the government. The military and their allies made use of the royalty, driving reverence of the previous king, the beloved Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was succeeded by his son Vajiralongkorn, who hardly deserves the same kind of veneration. But the military and Thailand appear stuck with him, the Bavarian resident that he is.

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