Thailand Coup Turns 1, Brass Stay Put

Thailand will mark a bleak anniversary on Friday, May 22, the date in 2014 that Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha brought down a democratically elected government for good. In the intervening year, the military has tightened its grip on Thailand and appears to have little intention of loosening it.

The country is likely to remain in the military’s clutches for an unknown number of additional years. The common wisdom is that nobody is going to take any chances until after King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies and his 70-year reign, the longest of any monarch’s in the world, is over.

Bhumibol’s 62-year-old son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince, is almost certain to take over. Because Vajiralongkorn is regarded as a loose cannon, none of the courtiers who surround the unimaginably rich palace want to see him succeed his father without someone to keep track of him, lest he renew his previous relationship with Thaksin Shinawatra, the Dubai-exiled former prime minister. The military and Prayuth will see to that.

Beyond the questions over the succession, however, there is the bigger question of how Bangkok’s bankers and other elites will handle the frustrated political consciousness of people in rural areas that Thaksin sparked. The May 22 coup snuffed that. Any hope to see Thailand’s democracy moved forward has been destroyed for now.

Run-up to a morass

The backdrop to the coup was disheartening. In the six months prior to Prayuth’s takeover, there basically had been no functioning government, in large part because Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinwatra, his surrogate prime minister, committed a grave tactical error in attempting to push through an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin of corruption charges leveled against him in 2008 that caused him to flee sentencing, as well as providing amnesty to those involved in the bloody May 2010 crackdown on Red Shirt protesters that led to 96 deaths.

That opened the door for a southern Thailand warlord named Suthep Thaugsuban to bring tens of thousands of well-financed protesters to the streets of Bangkok in an unceasing, increasingly violent protest backed by the royalists and the business community to end democratic rule.

Although some Bangkok observers believe the protest could have persisted for months, perhaps even years, ending in bloodshed as it had in 2010, the protests had dwindled to a flock of paid supporters in Lumpini Park when Prayuth shut the place down.

Certainly Bhumibol was in no condition to drive a resolution of the situation as he had in earlier political stalemates, particularly in 1992 when he forced the dueling combatants to crawl into his presence in the palace and call it quits.

The military since 1932 with its first coup, ending the absolute monarchy, has regarded itself as ultimately responsible for the security and order of the country. But Prayuth, as the saying goes, is a different kettle of fish. He has cracked down more severely and more completely than any military leader in the past 19 coups. He has admirers, with some observers saying he is acknowledging that the country is confronted by egregious corruption, cruelty and incompetence and has sought to push fundamental reforms that venal elected political leaders are both unwilling and unable to accomplish.

Prayuth sacked 45 officials last week, alleging they were corrupt. But so far his sackings appear to have been aimed at the for administration of the Pheu Thai party. The chief target is Yingluck herself, charged with criminal negligence over a disastrous rice subsidy scheme that cost the country US$15 billion. Yingluck went to court on May 19, proclaiming her innocence. While a guilty conviction, which carries a 10-year sentence, could spell the end of her family’s dominance of the political process, it also risks energizing their rural supporters.

The courts have also said they would accept cases against the Pheu Thai commerce minister, the deputy commerce minister and the former head of the Department of Foreign trade. Likewise, the sackings of at least 20 top police last November, including the head of the Criminal Investigation Division, Thailand’s FBI, had nothing to do with reform but rather about getting rid of allies and relatives of the former consort to Vajiralongkorn. There have been no prosecutions of Suthep Thaugsuban and his allies who carried out months of illegal demonstrations in 2013-2014, nor of those behind the bloody crackdown in 2010 that took so many lives.

Reforms left wanting

Some reforms have been carried out or are in the works for implementation. But they pale against what the military considers its main reform – a constitution that to all intents and purposes makes sure the Bangkok elites and the military will continue to control the country far into the future.

But there has been no reform of the most fundamental institutions of the country. The police remain venal and dysfunctional. The judiciary is tainted and – as the selective cases against Yingluck and other Pheu Thai officials show – in a country where there are virtually no honest politicians, the courts continue to prosecute for political rather than judicial reasons. The bloated, corrupt bureaucracy needs to be decentralized.

The land title system is absurd and a great source of corruption. The education system is hopeless, ranking at the bottom of eight Asean nations, and 54th of 56 nations in English language proficiency. Instead, Prayuth is demanding that the curriculum include teaching 12 “core values” of “Thainess,” most of which deal with subservience to the crown, the elites and the military.

The military does not understand the country’s deeper problems. Prayuth’s vision is static and backward-looking, which is starting to reflect in a struggling economy, which fell to a three-year low in 2014. Private investment and private consumption have both contracted s consumers and businesses have remained cautious about the future. Exports have contracted, reflecting faltering international demand. It faces a European Union trade ban over illegal fishing.

“A few years ago there was hope that the rising political consciousness of people in rural areas would have led to democratization,” a Thai political scientist told Asia Sentinel, “that the old powers would begin to realize the changing reality of Thai society and adjust themselves to democratic rule. But no, they don't and that brought us to the current situation.”

Yellow shirt thugs

But no coup would have been possible without the masses of middle class professionals in Bangkok who loaned their support, tacit or overt, to Suthep and his Yellow Shirt thugs.

“They have been haunted by the ghost of Thaksin and are happy to use any means to get rid of the Shinawatra clan,” said the political scientist. “Their narrow-minded attitude toward their own fellow countrymen in rural areas remains unchanged. I blame this on the Democrats and the mainstream media for misleading or blinding the mass. The middle class will be exploited by the old powers again if the Shinawatra faction begins to grow again.

But the deep corruption and autocratic behavior of Thaksin and his allies, with their priority to protect their own business interests, and to take backhanders for virtually every government service and contract, made them an inviting target. The promise in which the Thaksin administration was born in 2001, with a wide range of social programs, loans and rural development that won the telecommunications billionaire the deep affection of the rural masses, was squandered. They are considered to have exploited the Red Shirts for their own political and economic gain. They are also a liability of Thai democracy.