No Quick Cure for Political Discontent in Thailand

Commentary by Zachary Abuza

2020-07-23
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200723-TH-abuza-1000.jpg A Thai police officer stands next to demonstrators during a protest demanding the resignation of Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in Pathum Thani, on the outskirts of Bangkok, July 23, 2020.
Reuters

Thailand was the first country outside of China to register a COVID-19 case and since then it has managed the pandemic effectively with less than 3,300 cases and only 58 dead. The government should be in a very strong position, and yet, it appears to be in crisis.

The government has been beset by unprecedented public pro-democracy and anti-regime protests, a looming economic recession, and the resignation of at least six cabinet ministers. The forced confinement of a man to a mental institution for wearing a shirt with a pointed message about the monarchy, at a time when the King has ridden out the pandemic at a luxury hotel in the German Alps, underlines the regime’s insecurity.

Despite no community transmission for two months, the government has extended the emergency decree for a fourth time, a sign of its insecurity. A last ditch but still un-finalized cabinet reshuffle has failed to assuage public concerns, and even when it is announced, it is unlikely to address the country’s pressing economic and political problems.

Why does it seem that the wheels are coming off the Thai government?

Let’s start with the basics. The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-cha has little legitimacy. Following a coup, a military-drafted constitution designed to weaken political parties, a hand-appointed senate, gerrymandering, mal-apportionment of the vote, the disbanding of multiple opposition parties, the jailing and legal assault on opposition politicians, and a rigged party-list system, it’s fair to say that the March 2019 election was stolen. The military and ultra-royalist-backed government would not be in power without rigging the system in its favor and disenfranchising the electorate.

The government’s initial mishandling of the pandemic undermined confidence. Thailand dodged the COVID-19 pandemic in spite of the government, not because of it, which speaks to just how good Thailand's health and public health systems are. The public health workers and volunteers deserve huge credit.

And while the government has put in place some good policies to address the health crisis, it has flailed in its economic response. The pandemic really exposed glaring disparities in society. The closure of an economy based on exports and tourism, which account for roughly 70 percent of GDP, has caused massive suffering. Government officials just acknowledged that the export of rice and other food products is set to decline sharply in the second half of the year. The economy is expected to contract by 8 percent this year, amongst the sharpest declines in all of Southeast Asia.

But it is not simply the economic slowdown, it’s that the pain has been so inequitably distributed. Thailand, according to the World Bank, is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Thailand’s inequality has skyrocketed since the 2006 coup; the military and its proxies have been in charge for the majority of that period.

The number of suicides and other public expressions of anger at the government's handling of the economic fallout is telling. And yet, we should not be surprised that corrupt generals doing the bidding of ultra-royalist elites are out of touch with the people.

In June, the military-appointed senate passed a $58 billion stimulus package.  But the $505-billion economy continues to contract. That speaks to the concern that much of the relief went to politically connected elites and large corporations, not to the largely informal grey-market sector that comprises a large portion of the workforce.  And skepticism over the government’s pledge of oversight and accountability is justified.

The recent resignation of the government’s top economic planner suggests that the government is unwilling to lead a broad-based economic response. The resignation of key economic officials speaks to the fact that some within the cabinet and economic team know what policies need to be pursued, but also know that they go against the interests of the prime minister and the elites.

More populist policies that target the most affected may be seen as admitting the regime’s nemeses, ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, were right.

Even before the pandemic, there was pressure on Prayuth to reshuffle the cabinet due to the government's underperformance. Prayuth has spent nearly two weeks trying to reshuffle the cabinet, and yet he has been unable to finalize the slate.

In order to form a government, the military-backed Palang Pracharat party had to form a large and unwieldy coalition. Its coalition partners are loathe to relinquish minister and deputy ministerships, and any reshuffle must accommodate their interests. The defection of a handful of MPs to the opposition could bring down the government.  Indeed, despite pressure at the onset of the pandemic to fire the minister of health who had bungled the initial response, Prayuth was handcuffed: the minister in question headed the government’s largest coalition partner.

The government’s under-reporting (or pressure on the media to under-report) the size and scope of the recent democracy protests speaks volumes about their nervousness. The student-led protests are not going away, despite the renewal of the emergency decree which bans mass gatherings. Indeed, they are now moving to smaller cities across the country.  Youth broke overwhelmingly for the opposition, in particular the Future Forward Party, in the 2019 election. Their discontent over their disenfranchisement is palpable, and we are witnessing an important generational schism.

While the parliament has agreed to set up a panel to hear the students’ grievances, the government is unlikely to cave to their demands. The government will likely try to put down the demonstrations to deter others. That is simply their modus operandi. But as the economy continues to sputter and unemployment rates continue to climb, the regime could see the protests become broader-based.

Prayuth, a former general, likes to portray himself as a decisive leader and a man of action. But today he is a captive of the interests of the country’s elite. The best he can muster is a cabinet reshuffle. But with the same cast of characters, from vying coalition parties, working in a regime with little legitimacy, it’s hard to see that it will make a difference or lead to new broad-based policies that will revive the economy.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and Georgetown University in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

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