Thailand’s Lapdog Legislature Convenes

Thailand’s post-coup reconstituted parliament, top-heavy on generals and shorn of any democratic opposition , reconvened on Aug. 7 in the latest phase of the carefully orchestrated process to enable the military to run the country for the foreseeable future.

It is clear that Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the dour head of the army who staged Thailand’s 19th coup since 1932, 13 of them successful, expects to be in charge. On July 22 the junta released an interim constitution that contains provisions absolving the military of any future punishment and pointedly says that “importance will be given to basic principles rather than to democracy only.”

Democracy in fact has existed in Thailand only at the sufferance of the military in the 82 years since the original coup. But past coups have never delivered the unprecedented amount of military control that Prayuth has brought to bear. So far, however, the country has mostly acquiesced and any influence of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who ran the country either in person or through surrogates for 13 years, seems to have been stamped out, at least for now.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, who was prime minister and head of the Pheu Thai Party from 2011 elections until the May 22 putsch, has left the country, ostensibly to visit her brother with a promise to return on Aug. 20. The betting is that the 46-year-old Yingluck, who faces multiple charges in Bangkok’s politicized and polarized courts, will stay out of the country. However, she has said she will return.

Although the United States, the European Union, Australia and the UK have continued to call for a return to democracy, Prayuth – and much of the country – have simply ignored them. Prayuth has ruled out elections until at least October 2015, and they are likely to be rigged to keep any Thaksin forces from returning to office.International journalists have faced ugly crowds saying the outside world simply doesn’t understand Thailand and can go to hades

There have been few if any demonstrations and authorities crack down on even minor gestures of defiance – ostentatiously reading George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in public, for instance, or waving the so-called “three finger salute” made popular in the acclaimed series Hunger Games, for instance. One video that went viral showed a young woman who waved her three fingers at police being dragged into a car and hauled away. Even eating sandwiches in certain ways is held to be insurrectionary is cause for stern warnings.

In fact, the degree of control the military has assumed over what previously was a laid-back laissez-faire society is extraordinary, ranging from cleaning up vice to ordering the citizenry to be happy to putting on rallies including glamorous women wearing short camouflage-style dresses and ammunition belt-style dog collars, singing from the backs of military trucks on the capital's streets.

The latest move, on Aug. 5, is to ban a video game that allows players to assume the role of a president of a tropical island, draft a constitution and manage the country with the option of controlling the media and bringing in iron-fisted rule as too lifelike. It has clamped down on the press, the Internet and social media and issued a directive barring any critical reporting or commentary.

The military has assumed control of the economy as well, directing the Board of Investment to move forward with the approval of industrial projects, a top Thai banker told Asia Sentinel. Past applications are expected to be quickly processed, a considerable change from Thailand’s lackadaisical and often-corruption-ridden approach to investor approvals. It is making ambitious infrastructure plans including for an extensive high-speed rail system that would connect with China’s network in Yunnan.

However, the Thai military historically has been easily as corrupt as the politicians, and the chance to get their hands on contracts running into the billions of dollars runs considerable danger of merely giving a new bunch a shot at the spoils. Nor, if history is any judge, are militaries anywhere particularly good at running economies.

“The real story is that this country is now being ruled by one man, Prayuth. He seems to have inexhaustible energy to control everything, and to intend to arrange for his type of stability and order to prevail in this country for a long time to come, whether he remains Prime Minister after the first year or not,” said a western banker. “Long-term, how sustainable is this? Are there really any prospects in the medium future – like five years – for liberal democracy in Thailand? How long can Prayuth continue delivering performance that keeps restiveness under control? And when the natives get restive, how willing will he be to use repression to retain control?”

Although they are quiescent now, the millions of Red Shirt followers and Thaksin allies in the north and northeast of the country appear about to be ignored in any new governmental structure. The royalists and business elites who make up the Bangkok establishment completely believe that Red Shirt resistance is built on Thaksin money, and if that can be shut off, they will go back to rural quietude. But what happens when the Red Shirts face up loss of their franchise is problematical. The junta has sent troops to the area to attempt to pacify it, according to contributor Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Japan-based academic who has had his passport lifted and is now stateless. The junta otherwise appears to be ignoring the disenfranchised. The provisional National Legislative Assembly, to include 200 members, includes 98 seats for the military -- 69 active officers, and 29 inactive or retired ones and seven police officials, giving the security forces an unassailable majority. The civilian minority includes a flock of senators who were in the military before turning to politics

(The military can afford to lose a few generals to legislative service. It has 1,750 flag-rank officers -- admirals or generals -- on active duty to lead 303,000 men and women. By contrast, the US military has 1,000 flag-rank personnel to lead a total military of more than 1.3 million.)

Others in the legislature are technocrats or people with ties to the business community.

The assembly will be charged with picking a new interim prime minister and a 35-member cabinet, assisted by a 250-member reform council to be selected by the junta. Prayuth is universally expected to be the prime minister, at least in the short term.

"The new legislature is reminiscent of structures from military-run Burma, or the Suharto-era parliaments back during the days of military dictatorship in Indonesia,” said a longtime observer in a Bangkok-based NGO. “Given its makeup, it's quite clear that this legislature will be nothing more than a National Council for Peace and Order lapdog, ready to comply with Prayuth's orders. It's a sham democratic structure, befitting the lack of commitment by the military junta to seriously consider popular participation in its so-called "reform" process.

The assembly, he said, “is part of the window dressing designed to obfuscate the reality that it's the military that's calling all the shots as they re-design Thai governance in their own image."