Thailand’s Military Settles Into Power

More than a week into the military’s takeover of Thailand, during which martial law soon became a full-blown coup, it seems that Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army commander, believes that only his forces can run the country, and he intends to stay there to do it.

“I think [Prayuth] realizes the magnitude of the challenge. Once he has done a coup, he has no choice but to go all the way,” said an American businessman. “If you were in his position, what would you do? Not an easy position to be in. If he calls elections in three months, Thaksin’s party wins, will the protests start again? It’s really a dismal prospect.”

Certainly, this takeover appears better planned and executed than others in the past. Senior military officials headed by Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong, who now holds the main economic portfolio, have begun quickly sounding out business leaders for advice on operations and finance. There are rumors that the military has been advised to nationalize PTT, the state-owned but publicly listed oil and gas company.

If so, that likely means the military will take over the reins of the economy, for better or worse. The bond market took the coup in stride, with 10-year yields slipping slightly. The business community is looking forward to the military’s ability to put a budget in place after six months of paralysis on the part of the elected and caretaker governments. It remains to be seen if the optimism is well placed.

Political analysts are almost unanimous in saying this coup is like none of the other 11 successful ones that have occurred since 1932. Prayuth seems certain to continue in power well beyond the September 2014 date of his scheduled retirement from military service.

The common wisdom is that King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s time on the planet is nearing its end and that for better or worse the military is going to make sure the succession goes the right way. The longstanding concern is that Thaksin has befriended the king’s likely successor, the feckless Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, including with a gift of an elaborate palace to ensure his affection. When the king dies, the military wants the prince to be a docile figurehead.

Back to the Past?

The prospect of an enduring military occupation is deeply concerning. Prayuth would do well to recall the 1991 coup engineered by his one-time predecessor, Suchinda Kraprayoon. Disenchanted by widespread corruption and enchanted by a delusion that he too could run the country, Suchinda ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan – famously called the “buffet democracy” for the practice of cabinet ministers helping themselves to the spoils. In April 1992, Suchinda eventually got five political parties to install him as prime minister.

The result was considered one of the first social media rebellions ever. Despite a general curfew and widespread military deployment, thousands of citizens took to the streets, communicating through mobile phones. Eventually, in an event known as Black May, the military had enough, opening fire on unarmed students and demonstrators. Hundreds are believed to have died although the exact number was never known. Eventually the king intervened and widespread television coverage of Suchinda and firebrand Chamlong Srimuang, one of the anti-coup leaders, crawling on their knees before the monarch calmed the waters and allowed for a peaceful transition.

There are differences today. It was the middle classes in Bangkok that sought to drive the military out in 1992. Today Bangkok’s residents are overwhelmingly behind the army, many believing a coup was the endgame all along. In the meantime, the poorer classes from the North and Northeast are arrayed against the coup, along with voters in pockets around Bangkok who voted solidly against the royalist Democrat Party.

Too weak to act

Second, the king appears too weak to act and also has not spoken publicly, a well-placed Thai business source told Asia Sentinel, because the palace is no longer sure he has sufficient moral authority, particularly among the disaffected poor, to make his command hold. There are even questions whether he was sufficiently alert and aware to deliver the kingly benediction to the coup, or whether other members of the palace acted in his name. As Asia Sentinel reported on May 26, concern is growing whether the monarchy, studiously built into respectability and reverence for decades by Bhumibol, is now losing its aura of veneration.

In any case, the military’s National Council for Peace and Order is now in charge, having disbanded the Senate as the last remaining governing body, taken over the media and arrested at least 200 politicians, journalists and others. With even-handed authority, it called in both the opposition People’s Democratic Reform Committee, led by the southern warlord Suthep Thaugsuban, and the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” under the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, holding them overnight before releasing them on bail. At that, how even-handed is it really? Suthep is wanted for murder for ordering the military to open fire in May 2010 to clear out Red Shirt protesters from central Bangkok. Some 90 were killed, almost all of them civilians. It is unusual to say the least to grant bail to a suspected murderer.

Prayuth acted astutely to split the Pheu Thai Party’s rural supporters with a government announcement of a three-year program to pay rice farmers the Bt50 billion owed under the former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ill-starred rice subsidy program. When banks cut off loans needed by Yingluck’s government to pay the 800,000 rice farmers he result was angry demonstrations on the part of farmers. Paying them off presumably removes one major source of potential anger at the coup plotters.

The obvious risk is that rather than calming the political situation, the coup will exacerbate it, as Suchinda discovered in 1992. The months of political upheaval, first perceived as the rural poor against the Bangkok elites, have taken on the trappings of a class struggle, with plenty of disenchanted protesters in urban areas as well. The rural residents of the north and eastern sections of the country have received health benefits, education, low-cost loans, enterprise programs and other benefits as a result of programs put in place in 2001 through 2006 by the original Thaksin government. They have seen their political will thwarted a half-dozen times either through military or judicial coups.

Nobody, including perhaps Prayuth himself, knows how long the military will stay in place. Ominously, the general has already announced the establishment of a “reform council” to draw up a new constitution, something Suthep loudly demanded from the time he began to lead the protests last November.

“The key point is whether he will be perceived as impartial, and will be able to convince Thaksin to play a waiting game and come back through elections in two or three years, and in the meantime institute some genuine reforms. If not, then the scenario of insurrection will probably come true,” the American businessman said.

The military has already confiscated stores of weapons of various kinds, displaying them publicly. There are likely to be lots more. The Red Shirts gathered angrily last Monday before the takeover.

The Pheu Thai government astutely did not crackdown on the elitist demonstrations, knowing a harsh response would multiply the protests. The army, convinced it knows best, is not likely to practice equal forbearance, if the past is any prologue, despite pulling off its putsch with a minimum of violence and an efficient show of force. If it doesn’t work, Prayuth can always do what Suchinda did.

After he was driven out of power by outraged protests, Suchinda was named chairman of Telecom Holdings and was awarded an unprecedented concession to install two million telephone lines in Bangkok.