Is Thai Strongman Prayuth’s Power Slipping?

The aura of invincibility of Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order, a euphemism for what is in fact a junta, was somewhat shattered on May 24 when a firebrand monk, Phra Buddha Issara, the junta’s close ally, was arrested belatedly by police commandos from the Crime Suppression Division in the wee hours of the morning of May 24 and was subsequently defrocked.

This is a country where arrests of friends can have an ominous meaning. The monk is known for his notoriety in terrorizing and ‘shutting down’ Bangkok during 2013-2014 as a prelude to the military coup that brought down the Yingluck Shinawatra government and ushered in the current Prayuth model.

During Buddha Issara’s reign of terror, the Thai public was greeted by images and news coverage on television screens depicting the activist monk commanding a gun-wielding mob on a rampage in Bangkok, closing main highways, extorting money, torturing undercover police, obstructing elections and harassing government officials and the people who stood on his way.

Not surprisingly, the charges leveled against the monk are open-ended, some of which are extortion of money, stealing firearms and counterfeiting a royal emblem, which can carry a jail term of 20 years.

The arrest brings to the forefront the alleged cozy association between Prayuth and Buddha Issara. Moreover, the arrest of his most respected monk and ally constitutes a serious challenge to the junta’s heretofore absolute authority. They had no part in the spectacular raid and arrest.

Moreover, a new twist in the otherwise predictable politics as usual is the issuance of a subpoena by the Criminal Court for Prayuth and five other defendants to appear in court in a case filed by a pro-democracy group of 15 persons. Such legal action has been unprecedented and unthinkable since Prayuth assumed absolute power.

Already reeling from the blows, the junta’s fortunes took another sinister turn with the annual rotation and reshuffling of the army, with the spotlight on the appointment of the 1st Army Area commander and the 1st Infantry Division commander. The 1st Infantry Division, which also doubles as the royal guard of the king, is indispensable for the initial success of any attempted coup since it is based in Bangkok and familiar with the terrain.

The new commander of the 1st Infantry Division and, to some extent, the army commander-in-chief, are not necessarily answerable to Prayuth under the present circumstances. Prayuth can no longer exercise his prerogative to engage the 1st Infantry Division or the army chief to suit his own agenda.

It is not certain how Prayuth can weather these political blows. But having survived an unprecedented four years at the helm, he may have the resourcefulness to parley all those punches by doing a rope-a-dope and emerge unscathed. Barring any popular uprising or any unseen variables, he may be expected to maintain his grip on power for now by relying on article 44 of the interim constitution, which gives him absolute power to give any order deemed necessary to "strengthen public unity and harmony" or to prevent any act that undermines public peace. He also has his die-hard militarists and elitists, the existing political apparatus and the so-called ‘judicial activism’ that have served him all too well.

In all, Prayuth’s welcome may be wearing thin. The Asian Development Bank forecasts 2018 growth at a relatively anemic 3.6 percent, behind every other country in Southeast Asia except for Singapore, whose economy is now regarded as mature.

After staging the 2014 coup d’etat –Thailand’s 11th successful one out of 18 – Prayuth set out to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of his predecessor, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, by concentrating his power as both Prime Minister and leader of the military.

Sonthi eight years before toppled the government of Thaksin Shinawatra in a military coup but is regarded by the militarists and elitist establishment to have made a fatal mistake by relinquishing his power too soon in permitting a general election the following year after the coup.

Thaksin’s surrogate political party returned with a vengeance to win the election and to govern the country again. For the militarists and their semi-fascist allies, Sonthi’s coup was all for nothing.

After months of manufactured turmoil, that created the opportunity to seize power from the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Prayuth wasted no time unleashing his ‘detoxification’ campaign to eradicate the last vestige of Thaksin’s influence from the Thai political scene by employing the full force of his extraordinary powers and so-called “judicial activism,” which simply means a distorted judicial system.

The junta’s appointed legislative body, the National Legislative Council, dutifully rubber-stamped all of the junta’s directives while other ad hoc bodies such as constitution-drafting and political reform committees had to come up with a viable scheme to prevent the recurrence of Thaksin’s electoral victories and to guarantee junta’s stranglehold on power for a foreseeable future, regardless of whether or not the election takes place.

In a country where constitutions can be torn up with ease and impunity by the militarists with an acquiescence of the semi-fascist elitist establishment -- as they have done 20 times since 1933 – a constitution is never meant to be the supreme law of the land but a carefully crafted (and disposable) document designed to legitimatize the military hold on power.

It is also meant to placate the international community with a semblance of democracy and to normalize the regime’s relation with foreign governments and bring it to the pre-coup level.

While the junta tries to project its image as reformer, anti-graft crusader and honest arbiter, the public has come to have a completely different perception. After four years of absolute rule, the much-celebrated reform, be it political or administrative or whatever, is merely a mirage.

It is possible that the junta doesn’t have the slightest idea of what reform is. Corruption has never been as rampant, as borne out by the public perception of a scandal-plagued government and by Transparency International’s corruption index, which gives it a score of only 37 out of 100. While the junta proudly talks of reconciliation, it mainstreams hate and aggravates polarization by criminalizing the opposition, dissenters and pro-democracy protesters.

While giving lip service to democracy and human rights issues, the junta skewers student activists and outspoken dissenters and harasses the media for criticizing the junta, resulting in a runaway authoritarianism. The frequency of fake polls floats Prayuth on cloud nine, basking in a reverie of make-believe popularity until real polls brings him back to earth.

A real poll apparently was conducted in January. The survey of residents in 77 provinces gave the Prayuth government an average approval score of 5.73 out of 10, its lowest rating since the coup, having fallen from 7.02 six months after the takeover.

The shockingly low poll number does not usually deter authoritarian regimes it as does democratic governments. The latter would call a snap election to obtain a fresh mandate, but this authoritarian regime is trying to bolster its acceptability by floating an idea of a national reconciliation government comprising all concerned parties and political groups but with Prayuth still maintaining his position as a premier.

However, when the regime is faced with a dwindling number of strategic allies in the elitist establishment, it has to carefully contemplate the contingencies. This mild exigency is compounded by a host of economic malaise afflicting the country and concerns over people’s livelihoods. Furthermore, the repeated postponement of the general election has increased the people’s distrust.

Elections have now been pushed back from November this year, as promised to the Thai people and President Donald Trump, to next February on a “technicality.” Further delay may exceed the threshold of the people’s endurance and could trigger a groundswell of popular upheaval.

Another thorn in the side of the junta is the symbolic display of defiance by student activists on May 22 to mark the fourth anniversary of the coup to make a call for an election this year. They were promptly arrested. The students’ protest may have nudged the people out of their complacency in safeguarding their rights. The onus is now on the junta and it cannot afford to sit on its laurels with a false sense of security engendered by consummate authoritarianism.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai Ambassador. He lives in Bangkok.