Thailand Junta Not Wearing Well

Six months into Thailand’s latest experiment with military rule, cracks are starting to show, with irritation rising at the lack of widespread reform and the growing realization that the military won’t give up power any time soon.

Discontent appears to be building slowly. It is not widespread, with most urbanites continuing to support the junta, but there appear to be splits behind the scenes between the military and the Privy Council, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s council of advisors, as Prayuth moves to concentrate power, sidelining some of the forces aligned with Prem Tinsulanonda, the 94-year-old former army general who heads the powerful Council and freezing out civilian influence. There is also rising criticism over revelations of the substantial wealth built up by Prayuth and his brother as well as other members of the military.

The criticism is coming from selected areas of society - students and intellectuals, smallholders who have been evicted from forest land by security forces, and civil society that is worried about environmental and humanitarian abuse, according to a longtime political analyst.

“Whatever hopes originally arose for reform are now being abandoned,” a banker with many years of experience in Thailand told Asia Sentinel. “There is lots of tension as people see that this junta is simply going to try to enforce the status quo ante, allowing the establishment to run the country more tightly than before.”

In its attempt to enforce 100 percent quiescence, several sources say, Prayuth and those close to him are showing how unsuited to political office they are. “They don’t know how to handle it, they are over their heads in dealing with modern power and economics, they think Prayuth’s Friday public addresses are the solution to ruling.”

That doesn’t mean there is going to be any serious rebellion any time soon. After 19 previous coups since 1932, 13 of them successful, this time the army set out to make its presence permanent, corralling hundreds of intellectuals, students, journalists and others. But mounting opposition is expected and more acts of defiance. Prayuth, a source said, “is not able to persuade anybody he is serious about reform or has a clear vision of the way forward beyond perpetuation of himself in power.”

The military has tightened the screws so tightly that no significant opposition can be mounted – but nonetheless earlier this week, for instance, five university students wearing T-shirts inscribed with the words “Don’t want coup” were detained after they walked up to the dais in front of Prayuth during a speech in Khon Kaen in the northeastern region of the country. They also delivered the three-fingered salute made famous as a gesture of defiance in the movie series The Hunger Games, an indication that the country’s restive northeast, or Isaan, remains restive.

The students were told they wouldn’t be charged if they recanted, but that they would be booted out of Khon Kaen University, a public institution, if they refused. They refused. In Bangkok, one major movie chain pulled the premier of the latest of the movies, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, as phalanxes of police and the military sought to corral a growing number of students and activists delivering the forbidden salute, which in the movies is a gesture of solidarity for those facing up to the power of a quasi-fascist state. It first appeared in Thailand shortly after the coup in May.

“The students are playing a cat and mouse game over the showing The Hunger Games thing,” a source said. “When the premier of the movie was scheduled, a whole bunch of people showed up. Rows of police and military are trying to keep them under control.”

Beyond those relatively scattered acts of pop-culture defiance, however, there is deepening concern. The economy, as Asia Sentinel reported Thursday, is stubbornly refusing to respond to the end of the political chaos that paralyzed Bangkok for months before the coup that brought Prayuth to power. “There was no reason to believe that the generals could run an economy just because they could run the army,” an activist said in an interview.

Full-year forecast GDP growth is expected to range around 1 percent after years of 6 percent growth built on exports. Tourism, which accounts for 6 percent of GDP, has not rebounded, partly because of the gruesome, unsolved murders of two British backpackers in September.

While Prayuth originally said the military would rule for a year before returning the country to civilian government, that is a vow that nobody believes.

“I do think this military will have to be around much longer than one year,” said a Hong Kong-based Thai businessman with ties to the government. “At that point I think you will start to see [ousted former Prime Minister] Thaksin campaigning for a return. If there is an election people would go for Thaksin; that looks even more look clear.”

All civilian influence has been frozen out of the writing of a new constitution, according to reliable sources in Bangkok who say the 60-year-old Prayuth intends to stay in power for at least three or four years while a system is designed in which a military party is anointed to take over and hold power in perpetuity.

The military “has created a perfect world for them, they control all aspects of the legislative assembly, the constitutional drafting committee. The reform agenda has been subsumed by the ‘Prayuth Maintenance Agenda,’” the source said. “There has been little political housecleaning. That is the reality.”

Much of the law and order reform has been window-dressing. For instance, the arrests of motorcyclists illegally using bicycle paths and other venues along with the motorcycle taxis that throng Bangkok streets have been trumpeted as a cleanup. However, the motorcyclists, sources say, are almost all poor individuals from the northeastern part of the country, the stronghold of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was driven from power in 2006 but remains a powerful political force from exile.

“As discontent builds, will the military crack down more?” asked the longtime banker. “If so, will people put their heads down or become rebellious? If so, will there bloodshed in big way? These are the things that people are beginning to contemplate here. And there is nobody on the horizon like Jokowi [Joko Widodo, the reformist president of Indonesia]. Thaksin and [his sister Yingluck, who served as his surrogate head of government for three years,] even if they could win an open election, which they probably could, are not the answers to Thailand’s predicament.”