Updated at 4:07 a.m. ET on 2018-05-20
Thai junta leaders are tightening relationships with supporters of the Shinawatra family in a bid to retain power through elections expected next year, analysts and rights activists said as Thailand approaches a fifth year under military rule with no firm date for polls in sight.
On May 22, 2014, then-Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. He dissolved parliament, detained political leaders and imposed a curfew while promising to bring Thailand back to democracy within 18 months.
But four years later, Prayuth has yet to provide a concrete timeframe for a general election, although the 64-year-old leader has announced plans for a vote in February 2019.
“We see the attempts to form connections with local influential people in some constituencies with cozy welcoming,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University. “It is an old trick to make sure that the military’s status quo remains intact after we have a civilian government following the planned elections.”
Titipol was referring to Prayuth’s recent trips to rural northeastern provinces, including Buriram, a known electoral bailiwick of the Shinawatras.
But Prayuth, at a news briefing Tuesday after his provincial visit, rejected insinuations that he was courting support from voters.
“What is wrong with visiting constituencies? I have never recruited anyone,” he said.
During the trip that took him about 372 km (232 miles) away from the capital Bangkok, Prayuth was welcomed by supporters of Newin Chidchob, a former aide of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was also deposed in a military coup.
Prayuth recently approved a budget allocation of 20 billion baht (about U.S. $635 million) for five development projects in the Buriram area, raising questions about what deal he had forged with Newin, a politician and soccer club owner who has been labeled as a “kingmaker” because of his ability to influence voters.
“I won’t say which party I am with. This [allocation] is a national project,” Prayuth told reporters. “I don’t waste time thinking who supports me or not.”
Newin was a member of several political parties until he and his allies eventually joined Thai Rak Thai, the party of Thaksin, Yingluck’s older brother who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was overthrown in a coup on Sept. 19, 2006.
Dominating politics in northern Thailand
Yingluck fled Thailand in August 2017 before she was to appear in court to hear the verdict over charges of gross negligence in a failed rice subsidy scheme during her tenure. A month later, she was sentenced in absentia to five years. Government officials said they were unsure of her whereabouts, but she had been seen in February with Thaksin in Singapore.
The Shinawatra family have dominated politics for almost two decades in the poorer, more rural areas of northern and northeastern Thailand, where many have benefited from populist policies launched by Thaksin and his supporters, analysts said.
But the military traditionally holds considerable power in Thai politics. Since Thailand’s constitutional monarchy was created in 1932, the kingdom has experienced 18 military coups, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
Yet in the midst of major political upheavals, the Thai public would often look to the king to provide assurances and possibly offer a solution. That pillar of stability ended when the nation’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej died on Oct. 13, 2016, CRS said.
Bhumibol’s son, Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne in December 2016, toward the start of a year of national mourning for the late king, who had reigned for 70 years.
King Bhumibol’s intense popularity could be gleaned in 1992, analysts said, when at least 48 people died after Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon unleashed a military crackdown on hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. The bloodshed ended soon after Bhumibol intervened.
Suchinda toppled the elected government of Chatichai Choonhavan in 1991, citing widespread corruption as a reason for the coup. After the general election in 1992, Suchinda became prime minister on April 7, 1992, despite his public statements that he would not become a politician.
Suchinda’s appointment resulted in massive protests the following month, leading to the crackdown. Officially, fewer than 50 people died in the 1992 mayhem. Unofficially the number may have reached 300, according to Asiaweek magazine.
Prayuth’s ambiguous political ambition
Like Suchinda, Prayuth has been ambiguous when asked about his political ambition, analysts said.
But Sunai Phasuk, Thailand director for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told BenarNews that “it now seems clear that Thailand's junta leader Gen. Prayuth will use an election as a steppingstone to prolong his rule.”
“The general has been campaigning across the country, using taxpayers money, to boost his popularity and solicit support from political clans,” he said. “But nothing indicates that the race will be contested on an even playing field.”
Student activist Rangsiman Rome, a leader of the Democratic Restoration Group, said Prayuth was seeking support from former politicians because that would help secure seats for regular and party-list representatives who are pro-military in the next elections.
Thailand’s military-backed constitution, which was adopted through a national referendum in August 2016, allows members of the Lower and Upper House to select a new prime minister from non-elected candidates if the elected nominee fails to win the vote.
The military controls 143 out of 250 parliamentary seats, according to Reuters news agency. Under the previous junta after the 2006 coup, the military held 67 of 242 seats.
“The candidates from Prayuth’s allied parties are not popular,” Rome said. “Prayuth believes he should add popular local candidates to ensure the vote, that way he could become prime minister again.”
‘Checking the readiness step by step’
Last week, Prayuth said he could not set a specific date for the polls, insisting that the elections would not be in the nation’s security interests if they led to a return of street violence that periodically took place during the past dozen years.
“I am prime minister right now, I don’t know about my future. I don’t know the election date, but we are checking the readiness step by step, until it is sure the nation would not face troubles,” he said.
Pro-democracy activists plan to pressure Prayuth to hold an election this year, vowing to mark the coup’s anniversary with protest rallies. The two main political factions, including the Pheu Thai Party and its rival Democrat Party, also demanded the junta move ahead with its election plans.
“The election date has been postponed more than 10 times. We try to believe their pledges but they did not feel responsible,” said Rangsiman, referring to the junta.
“We demand that elections be held in November this year,” he said. “There is no guarantee about the election in February 2019.”
Once Prayuth becomes a candidate and promptly lifts all restrictions on other parties and political activities, pro-democracy movements would be expected to cease their protest activities, Rome said.
Entrenching abusive military power
A recent HRW report stated that the junta, during its rule since May 2014, repeatedly failed to fulfill pledges made to the U.N. General Assembly to respect human rights and democratic rule.
Instead, it said, Prayuth curtailed people’s rights to free speech and peaceful assembly and orchestrated the 2017 Constitution, “which will entrench unaccountable and abusive military power.”
The charter contains provisions that allow the military to add 100 seats to the Senate and appoint all its members, HRW said. Six of those seats will be reserved for chiefs of the armed forces. All 250 senators also have the power to help members of the 500-seat National Legislative Assembly appoint a new prime minister.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is formally known, has pushed back dates for prospective elections at least four times. It has arrested pro-democracy activists and critics, as well as banned large political gatherings and demonstrations. However, activists lately have defied the ban and such gatherings have taken place more frequently in the months leading up to the fourth anniversary of the coup.
The junta-backed parliament passed an array of laws aimed at gagging dissent, rights activists said, in a country that already had Lese-Majeste, a strict anti-royal defamation law that forbids insults to members of the Thai monarchy.
As of March, the NCPO has prosecuted at least 94 people since taking power on charges of violating Lese-Majeste, under which offenders can be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison for sharing a story on Facebook, according to iLaw, an advocacy group for online law education.
In addition, at least 75 people have been charged with sedition, iLaw said.
“The U.N. and the international community should not put up with this,” said Sunai, the HRW’s director in Thailand. “Instead, they should firmly and vocally stress it with the junta that the legitimacy of Thailand's election will be based on its quality as a genuine democratic and inclusive process. To have a free and fair election, it needs to start with lifting all restrictions on fundamental freedoms immediately.”
In June 2017, a Bangkok military court handed the longest prison sentence to a person convicted royal defamation, ordering a man named Wichai to serve 35 years for posting content on Facebook deemed as insulting to the monarchy, a lawyer said.
Earlier this year, government spokesman Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters that Prayuth had said more demonstrations against the junta were likely and could derail the election timeline.
“If the unrest continues to rage, is it likely an election can proceed smoothly?” Sansern quoted Prayuth as saying.
Updated to add comments from Sunai Phasuk, Thailand director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.