Thailand’s Government a Junta by Any Other Name

Thailand’s new military-cum-civilian government under Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, which had been sworn in on July 16, is an unholy alliance of 7 political parties, many of them supporting the government with little more than mercenary intent.

The government is due to present its policy manifesto to the parliament on July 25 as the first step in administering the country.

After five years of semi-authoritarian rule by Prayuth’s military government, which can be credited for the suppression of democracy and violation of fundamental rights and liberty, Prayuth publicly declared upon the termination of his first tenure that “Thailand is now fully a democratic country with a constitutional monarchy and with a Parliament whose members are elected.”

He also proclaimed that the county would henceforth function as a normal democracy as all problems would be addressed based on a democratic system with no use of special powers.

For most Thais and discerning foreign pundits, Prayuth’s remark was reminiscent of 2017 when he trumpeted that he had a “democratic heart.”

That was followed by the arrest of student activists and the harassment of critics. In an effort to appease rights groups and foreign governments, he declared his country was 99 percent democratic. But as the facts bear out, his past five-year rule was anything but democratic.

With more than 100 days having passed since the general election, Prayuth has only now managed to form a coalition government of seven political parties, but only after intense political horse trading, excessive post-election manipulation in the apportioning lower house seats, and the offering of bribes equivalent to tens of millions of US dollars to MPs known as the “political cobras” to switch sides. His cabinet, duly sworn in, has incorporated key members of the defunct military junta that seized power from the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014.

Post-election Thailand is neither a fully democratic country nor even a hybrid democracy. This new government is in fact a continuation of a semi-authoritarian regime under a democratic guise and under the same prime minister who has neither understood nor shown any respect for democracy.

During Prayuth’s past five years, he shut down hundreds of thousands of websites, closed many television channels, reneged on his many pledges to hold elections, jailed and persecuted anyone who criticized his rule, harassed a French expatriate for singing a parody mocking him, suppressed liberty and freedom of speech and press, herded those who opposed his regime for “attitude adjustment” and sent security agents to visit the homes of outspoken dissidents to discourage them from engaging in political activity.

That Prayuth has abandoned his military uniform in favor of a civilian suit does not mean that he has lost his propensity to resort to his authoritarian habits.

Although the junta or its euphemism “The National Council for Peace and Order” has officially ceased to exist upon the formation of a new government, it is practically still very much intact. Its arbitrary power to detain dissidents or to send them for “attitude adjustment,” another euphemism for political indoctrination, is being transferred to the existing Internal Security Operations Command chaired by the prime minister. Many executive orders issued under Article 44 of the Interim Constitution of 2014 (special powers) have not been abrogated and still have the force of law.

Moreover, the state apparatus and the constitutionally safeguarded institutions such as the Counter Corruption Commission and the Election Commission which had served the junta well are still made subservient to the new government. The mechanism established to carry out junta directives is still intact and at the disposal of the new government.

In Prayuth’s televised address, he alluded to the Parliament, whose members were elected, and his past success in many areas such as the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave a year ago, the credit of which he should have shared with the British and Australian divers who risked their own lives in the rescue operation.

He could not mention that it was his success in stacking the deck and rigging the election that won him a second term, not a popular mandate. Nor did he mention the junta-sponsored constitution that was supposed to make it impossible for him to lose. Yet, when the votes were counted, his pro-military Palang Pracharat lost to the pro-democracy Pheu Thai Party which won 136 lower house seats against Palang Pracharat’s 115.

Miraculously, Palang Pracharat’s loss in the lower house didn’t cost Prayuth the premiership because the junta had preciously stacked the senate with 250 junta appointees who gave a nod for Prayuth en masse in a joint parliamentary sitting.

However, to secure a majority in the lower house, Prayuth still needed more than 250 seats he was short of. At the behest of the junta, the Election Commission changed the rules for apportioning seats after the vote and awarded 11 tiny parties one seat each, lifting the Palang Pracharat-led coalition to a 254-seat majority.

The result is a fragile coalition of 19 parties which afford Prayuth a slim majority in the lower house.

The opposition bench in the parliament led by Pheu Thai will be relentless in its scrutiny of the government, its policy, and its individual cabinet members, some with questionable backgrounds. It will call for constitutional amendments to rectify many of the undemocratic features of the military-crafted constitution. It can submit a motion for no-confidence vote to topple the government, a notion vehemently opposed by Prayuth.

For the newly formed government, resuscitating the faltering economy will be more difficult than rigging the election. The government will be hard pressed in trying to explain dismal GDP growth, a dip in export performance, the worsening government fiscal position, burgeoning public debt, and the overall lack of consumer and investor confidence.

Since the coalition partners have a purely mercenary purpose in supporting the government, disgruntled MPs have the potential tocross over the aisle and turn the majority on its head. This could mean an exit for Prayuth should this happen in a no-confidence vote. However, the government can wield its potent weapon in the senate to stay in power.

Another drawback for the 19-party coalition is how to synthesize all the campaign policies of each party into an acceptable and workable government. In an unholy alliance, too many cooks can also spoil the broth.

Whether the new government Prayuth can gain international respectability and acceptability depends on the international certification that there has indeed been a restoration of civilian democratic rule. The inescapable fact is that there was a grossly rigged election, vote manipulation, and the application of a 2-tiered justice system in which an opposing party was dissolved while other parties were slapped with dubious criminal charges.

The general perception is that Prayuth’s confirmation as prime minister was less an exercise in democracy than a continuation of his dictatorial regime.

Given the floundering economy and a weak coalition government, Prayuth is unlikely to succeed in moving the country forward, although he can still cling on to power on the strength of the military-crafted constitution.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.