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Silk Binds for Thailand’s Democracy

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2018-05-18
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A pro-democracy demonstrator shouts slogans calling for a general election this year in Bangkok, May 5, 2018.
A pro-democracy demonstrator shouts slogans calling for a general election this year in Bangkok, May 5, 2018.
AP

Updated at 11:15 a.m. ET on 2018-05-21

Four years ago, members of the Royal Thai Army seized power in their second bloodless coup in eight years, convinced that deep societal and political cleavages were an existential threat.

Despite their pledge to return power to civilians within two years, the military has clung to power, forestalling elections until mid-2019, barely even coming up with justifications any more.

Many Thais and apologists for the military-royalist elites often justify coups as a necessary corrective. But this coup was different from the outset.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha made it clear from the start that he was not going to make the same mistakes as his predecessor in 2006, with a quick restoration of democracy.

Prayuth and his junta settled in for the long haul. The Orwellian-named National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) installed military officers in almost all branches of government and established a rubber-stamp parliament, of which over 58 percent of its members were uniformed or recently retired military, and 5 percent police.

The remainder were ultra-royalist elites. There was no broader societal or socio-economic representation.

The opposition was arrested, parties banned and dissent quashed. Ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was under investigation for mismanagement, fled the country in August 2017 and is living in exile with her brother, Thaksin.

The junta, of course, demands their return, but it delighted with the prospect of a leaderless opposition.

Power to issue royal pardons

One of the underlying justifications for the coup was to ensure military control over the Royal succession.

The revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died in October 2016. Prince Vajiralongkorn, who commands none of his father’s popular respect, ascended the throne.

To date, he has been managed by the military, which has appeased the capricious young monarch. The junta has no choice but to, as the king has one thing over them: the power to issue royal pardons to ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck.

Should the king try to make his imprimatur on politics, or try to shore up his popular legitimacy, he could easily pardon the Shinawatras. That would make them untouchable. Nothing scares the junta more.

Consolidating power

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has passed about 298 laws since 2014 and issued 500 orders. But in that time, the country continues to stagnate. The culmination of the NLA’s efforts was the promulgation of the 2017 Constitution.

The junta has pledged that future coups will become unnecessary. There is some truth to that: the 2017 Constitution consolidates power in the hands of unelected elites and military-appointed bodies.

A prime minister can simply be appointed and political parties are weakened. The 250 man-senate will be appointed by the military, and will include the six senior-most military officials. There are all checks, but no balances.

Nonetheless, the junta has pushed back voting some 0 times. Elections may be held in March 2019, at the earliest, but many think mid-2019 is more likely.

Prayuth is actively campaigning to keep his job and working to build a new political party, all the while hamstringing the opposition.

The insecure government has banned political gatherings of more than four people and criminalized peaceful protests. It has threatened opposition leaders with sedition charges to silence dissent. Since the coup, 94 people have been charged with lese majeste 75 with sedition, and more than 500 arrested. Civilians can be tried in military courts. Ahead of the anniversary of the coup, leaders of the opposition Pheu Thai Party were charged with sedition for holding a press conference.

Article 44 of the interim Constitution gave the junta absolute power to act in anyway it saw fit. And yet, it has failed to fundamentally make any meaningful reforms.

Obviously, Thailand’s scores in international surveys of democratization, human rights and rule of law have plummeted. The Economist Intelligence Unit rates Thailand as a “hybrid regime,” well past being a “flawed democracy,” but neither a full-fledged authoritarian regime. Between 2014 and 2017, its score in the EIU’s democracy index fell by 14.1 percent, citing sharp declines in the categories of civil liberties, electoral process and pluralism.

The annual Fragile State Index has seen sharp declines across most of the 12 categories it measures.

But what is most striking is how much worse, some of them got between 2014 and 2017. For example, the politicization of security forces has increased by 16 percent between 2006 and 2014, but accelerated by 19 percent by 2017. Group grievances, which improved slightly between 2006 and 2014, fell by 6.3 percent in 2017.

The coup, which was supposed to resolve factionalized elites, has done nothing of the sort.

Thailand, according to FSI, has one of the most factionalized elites in the region, while its decline in human rights scores between 2014 and 2017 superseded almost every other country in Southeast Asia.

Global Rule of Law Index has seen steady declines, as well. Across its range of measurements, Thailand is in the bottom third in Southeast Asia, but between 2016 and 2017, the trends intensified. Thailand’s score fell by 7 percent.

Media freedom

In terms of freedom of the press, Thailand continues its race to the bottom. In 2005, Reporters Without Borders rated Thailand 107th in the world. In 2018, it had fallen to 140th.

The regime has a host of tools at its disposal to muzzle the press, including criminal sedition and defamation along with Article 112 (lese majeste) of the criminal code. The 2006 Computer Crimes Act was strengthened in 2016 giving the government broad, poorly defined and sweeping powers to censor the internet. A 2016 executive order allows the government to shut down any media on the grounds of national security.

Journalists have regularly been charged with sedition, while the editor of the Bangkok Post, Umesh Pandey, was sacked this month for overly critical coverage of the thin-skinned junta. The Bangkok Post said in a statement that it was committed to editorial autonomy, rejecting any notion that there was government interference in editorial issues.

Endemic corruption

The lack of accountability and any meaningful checks and balances have ensured Thailand's endemic corruption has gotten worse.

Although one of the justifications for the coup was to combat corruption, the junta and NLA’s financial disclosures revealed soaring amounts of unexplained wealth, making an absolute mockery of any pretense that this was about eliminating fraud and profiteering. Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan is publicly derided for his luxury watch collection.

According to Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index, Thailand’s score fell between 2014 and 2017, and in global rankings it fell from 85th to 96th in the world.

The junta’s own anti-graft agency is currently investigating about U.S. $4 million in misappropriations from a program to help the poor.

Anemic growth

While the economy in 2017 grew at its fastest rate in the past five years (3.8 percent), the 10 years since the last coup saw anemic growth of only 3 percent. Growth is expected to slow in 2018 and 2019, with an over-valued baht, hurting exports, domestic consumption and private-sector investment. Thailand’s robust tourist sector has been a lifeline for the junta.

The Fragile State Index has actually downgraded Thailand’s economy between 2014 and 20017. And it’s easy to understand why: the agricultural sector – which is 8 percent of the overall economy, but one third of the population – has been really hard-hit by the junta’s policies. On a per capita basis, the bottom 45 percent of society is earning less than they did in 2014.

Reuters recently reported that GDP growth has only increased 1 percent since the coup, but that the agriculture sector has seen negative growth since 2014. Say what you will about the Shinawatras and their populism, they did improve the livelihoods of the rural population.

The government has announced 1.5 trillion baht (U.S. $46 billion) in infrastructure spending as a stimulus. But as is always the case in Thailand, the majority of that is concentrated in and around Bangkok.

And with Thailand’s education system overly politicized and forced to focus on the “12 Core Thai Values” enunciated by the junta, it is hard to imagine that the future workforce will be sufficient to get Thailand out of the middle-income trap.

Double standard

The Thai coup has done inordinate damage to Thailand diplomatically.

Sanctions from Washington automatically kicked in, limiting engagements, especially in military-to-military relations. This infuriated the Thais, who are always quick to point to America’s double standard with its relations with Egypt.

The junta quickly reached out to China, and to a lesser extent Russia, to supplant the U.S. alliance.

The Thai military, now engaged in a range of bilateral military exercises with the China’s People’s Liberation Army, have ramped up arms imports from Beijing, including the purchase of three submarines, and are in discussions about establishing an armaments production and repair facility.

Thailand quickly joined the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Nonetheless, the nation seem to be falling into the Chinese debt trap through a major high-speed railway project funded by Beijing at less than friendship rates.

Diplomatically, Thailand was once a leader of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Today it still is, just for the authoritarian regimes that seek to emulate it. Cambodia has just passed its own lese majeste law to further stifle dissent.

Political stability through force

Prayuth vowed to “return happiness to the people.” The coup has done anything but that. There is more political stability, but that is only through force. The fissures in Thai society are as deep as ever, they have been papered over.

Thailand, once an exemplar in the region for democratization, returning the military to the barracks, free speech and human rights, has continued to set itself back. A stultified polity, lagging economy that is being surpassed by its peer competitors, sinking political legitimacy and growing popular resentment bodes poorly for a junta that continues to cling to power.

And the election in Malaysia that brought an end to the ruling Barisan Nasional’s 61 year hold on power and investigations into former Prime Minister Najib Razak, are making Prayuth and Prawit all the more insecure.

The best part about military coups is that they have so much ammunition to shoot themselves in the foot.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College 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 or BenarNews.

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