Thai Generals’ Legitimacy Continues to Plummet

Despite court action and other repression, youthful opposition continues to gain

By: Jason Johnson

The sinking legitimacy of Thailand’s military-led government has taken another blow with a March 9 report in local media that Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao could be involved with the hoarding of facemasks to sell at inflated prices and to Chinese traders.

The government, headed by former General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been losing altitude for months over a flagging economy, attempts to block a popular democratic movement and other issues including deep, endemic corruption. 

Following the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of opposition, the Future Forward Party on February 21, high-school and university students launched protests across the country in what they and the international community believe reflected a politically-motivated effort by establishment leaders to kill off the threat of the ultra-progressive party.

However, some analysts began to believe that, if sustained, the pro-democracy movement could serve as a vehicle for removing Prayuth and his military allies who have ruled the country since a coup brought down a democratically elected government in 2014. 

Government support has been fading almost by the day in Thailand, not only among the younger generation of Thais who backed the now-dissolved party, which received 6.3 million votes in the 2019 general election, but even among many who threw their support behind Prayuth and his Palang Pracharat Party in last year’s election.

Thammanat, a former army captain, is already one of the most controversial figures in the government and his involvement in the facemask scandal brings into focus stories over the past several years of army officers with their snouts deep in the public trough. He denied any ties to a close aide’s connection with a businessman’s alleged possession of some 200 million facemask units, badly needed as the global Covid-19 pandemic spreads. The businessman had posted on Facebook pictures of himself with Pittinan Rak-iat, an MP of the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), who also serves as Thammanat’s aide, bizarrely pictured with a large stash of boxed masks.

According to Australian court records unearthed by journalists last year, more than 20 years ago the then 27-year-old pleaded guilty to heroin trafficking and spent four years in an Australian prison. He has consistently tried to fend off opposition demands that the conviction makes him ineligible. Thammanat, who also was once charged with murder in Thailand but later acquitted, has never admitted to pleading guilty despite evidence to the contrary, During a censure debate late last monthhe claimed that the 3.2 kilograms of heroin that Australian authorities linked to him back in 1993 was actually “flour.”

The recent news on Thammanat only adds to the ever-mounting criticism of the government for its mishandling of the coronavirus. Both the public and medical professionals have sounded off about a severe shortage of facemasks to help protect against the spread of the virus, and with the already highly discredited and widely ridiculed Thammanat possibly being linked to the businessman has further fueled criticism. 

On March 12, Thai authorities reported 11 new cases of the virus, bringing the official count to 70, which is thought to be low because of the lack of widespread testing. Then on March 13 news broke that a lawyer from the Help Crime Victim Club filed a complaint with police claiming that a group of additional politicians were colluding with 14 private companies to hoard masks from the market.

Adding to the government’s concerns, its coalition partner the Democrat Party, long deemed by its critics for being a lackey of the military-establishment, has even considered withdrawing from the government. A group conversation on the Line social media app was leaked on Facebook and revealed Democrat MPs’ scathing criticism of the government. The newly established online media outlet Thai Enquirer interviewed senior Democrat MP Panich Vikisreth, who said that if Thammanat is not removed, that the party will leave the coalition.

The coalition government only had a razor-thin majority in parliament but that was bolstered by the dissolution of Future Forward. Fifty-five MPs of the now-disbanded party formed a new party called the Move Forward Party, but the real power in the former party’s bid to democratize, demilitarize, and decentralize the country may come from former party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s mobilization efforts. The charismatic leader, a billionaire scion of one of the country’s biggest manufacturing concerns, is looking to press the Thai establishment through a nationwide democracy movement he has called the Future Forward Movement. 

However, Thanathorn, already banned for 10 years from politics, now faces criminal charges that could result in a 10-year prison sentence. This week the Election Commission announced it would pursue criminal charges against the 41-year-old over allegations that he violated electoral laws by holding stock in a media firm while campaigning in last year’s election. If he is convicted, it is likely to set off major convulsions among Thailand’s youth and younger generations of voters.

On March 5 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Thanathorn described the current period as the best chance in recent decades for a broad-scale democratic movement to succeed due to the failures of the Prayuth regime in managing the economy and in maintaining social justice.”

Many current government critics have long suspected that a severely weakened government could set the stage for a military coup led by General Apirat Khongsompong. It is believed that should Apirat, deeply loathed by opposition supporters, stage a coup, he could tear up the current constitution and appoint himself prime minister.

A more likely scenario, according to several sources, is that should the anti-government movement continue to escalate, Prayuth, General Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda, all former army chiefs, could be replaced by an ally of the old establishment. 

Such a scenario might wash well with some old establishment supporters who have increasingly upped the tempo of criticism against Prayuth and Prawit but do not back Thanathorn and the student-led democracy movement. In fact, ever since the 2014 coup, there have been rumors that some loyalists to the old establishment wanted Prayuth and, most particularly, Prawit, out of power but that Prawit’s authority in the military and ties with business elites made him somewhat untouchable.