The Staying Power of Thailand’s Military
Image Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

The Staying Power of Thailand’s Military

 
 

Thailand is currently under the strictest military regime the country has seen since the early 1970s, an era when China-backed communist guerrillas threatened to overthrow the established monarchy-military symbiotic order. Despite rising controversy surrounding the current National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta’s heavy-handed rule, it’s a military regime that will likely remain in power for the foreseeable future.

To understand the present and project into the future, it’s important to understand Thailand’s recent past. The 2014 military coup marked the crescendo of anti-government street convulsions, staged initially against an amnesty bill that would have paved the way for the criminally convicted self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand a free man under his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government.

Those protests later morphed into broad, if not vague, calls for cleaner governance, an end to corruption and an overhaul of democratic politics. The street protest-enabled coup, rather than an answer to a popular reform call, was clearly orchestrated by royalist elites to ensure that top generals, rather than squabbling politicians, are in control at the time of what many view will be a delicate royal succession.

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Since seizing power, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s junta has advanced reform rhetoric while simultaneously consolidating a strong and increasingly efficient police state bent on ferreting out and squashing dissent. Crackdowns on journalists and activists have become progressively more severe, including the recent commando-style abduction and physical beating in an open field of an anti-junta student activist. It has also ramped up punitive anti-royal charges against both critics of the crown and anti-military opponents.

The vow to restore democratic governance and hold new elections is and remains a sop to Western governments, namely the European Union and the United States, as well as certain local middle class constituencies who support the country’s long and painful struggle for democracy over military-led authoritarianism. The junta’s time table for new polls has been progressively pushed back, first promised for late 2015, then mid-2016 and now mid to late 2017.

That’s based on the assumption a new draft constitution passes a July referendum, which seems unlikely given reports that it, like a previous scrapped version, includes various controversial provisions that aim to uphold the military’s overarching political role. It’s not altogether clear what will happen if the charter is voted down, though it would almost certainly further attenuate the junta’s hold on power beyond 2017.

Rather than a near term democratic transition, Thai politics will more likely be steered by the military for the foreseeable future. Thailand has arguably already entered an end-of-reign new political order, where the military, rather than a democratic government, has begun to fill the inevitable power vacuum that will open at the end of the current king’s long and storied reign and the crowning of a new, inevitably less influential, heir.

Who wears that crown, however, is not a complete given. How a contest between competing royalist camps plays out in the weeks and months ahead could have significant implications for stability. Even with a calm and predictable succession, it is expected that the military government will invoke martial law to enforce an extended period of national mourning until the transition is deemed as safe and secure.

If there is any hint of turmoil around that process, either from a competing royalist or oppositional camp, the military leaders now in charge will likely jettison their self-professed commitment to restoring democracy and hunker down for an even longer stay. Only when the succession is considered settled and the monarchy upheld will the country begin to move back towards some type of, most likely highly circumscribed, democratic order.

Consolidation

Many observers were taken aback by how easily the military consolidated its power in light of the political saber-rattling that preceded the 2014 coup. Unlike the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin’s elected government, characterized by commentators at the time as “smooth as silk,” Prayut’s putsch has employed especially hard tactics to consolidate its control.

Civil liberties have been sharply curbed, political opponents have been threatened and harassed, the press intimidated and censored, and the general population given strict marching orders to think only happy thoughts. Those measures were initially employed to counter the threat that Thaksin’s allies might mount an insurgent response to the coup, but as that threat fades its clear the junta has no intention of lightening its grip.

Thaksin’s allies had threatened civil war if Yingluck’s government was overthrown in a democracy-suspending coup. There were news reports at the time citing Thaksin’s “Red Shirt” protest group members saying that their stronghold northern and northeastern regions would secede from the kingdom if Yingluck was ousted through extra-legal means. Yingluck disassociated herself from the threats at the time, while the military sought harsh repercussions against the vocal activists.

None of those civil war threats, however, even remotely came to fruition after the coup. The military’s threat to seize the well-investigated personal assets of key Red Shirt leaders if they agitated has proven highly effective in muzzling and neutralizing their criticism and resistance. More hard-knuckled tactics, including intrusive surveillance and strongly enforced bans on political gatherings, have been deployed to suppress possible organization and unrest in the provinces.

Those tough tactics have underpinned the stability that has defined Prayut’s military rule. There has been barely a peep of street level resistance to the coup in Bangkok, and arguably less so in the provinces, despite the rolling back of civil liberties and heavy-handed rule. But the calm has been achieved largely through intimidation, not genuine reconciliation – a notion that the junta’s spin machine has bid to perpetuate through its North Korean-like “returning happiness to the people” mantras spread nightly over state media.

At the same time, former army commander and now prime minister Prayut has seemed to grow increasingly comfortable in his political role. While his off-the-cuff and often impolitic comments are often portrayed critically in the press, his tough talking, straight-shooting manner has given him a certain populist appeal at the grass roots, similar in respects to the cowboy antics Thaksin leveraged to win and maintain popular support.

Accommodation

Has post-coup stability held more due to military suppression or Thaksin’s inaction? It now seems clear to many diplomats and analysts that a certain accommodation between Thaksin and the military was put in place at the time of the coup where Thaksin’s personal and family interests have been left unmolested in exchange for him unplugging his political machine, including his withholding support for earlier calls among his political allies to establish an exile government.

Anti-government street protesters that helped to topple Yingluck had often bayed from their protest stages for an uprooting and expulsion of Thaksin and his family clan’s influence and interests. That has happened to a degree in the bureaucracy and state enterprises, and increasingly through what some view as a politicized anti-corruption campaign targeting the former premier’s power base in the police, but Thaksin’s personal assets and his family’s businesses have been left largely untouched since the coup.

His son’s Bangkok-based Voice TV news station, while under the same strict censorship guidelines of other private stations, has not been singled out for harassment despite a sometimes critical edge. The Shinawatra family-run property concern SC Asset, where Thaksin’s son-in-law serves as a top executive, has been allowed to roll out its new high-end properties unimpeded without politicized probes of its land bank acquisitions and finances.

That soft touch, as well as nod-and-wink perceptions that Thaksin could receive a royal pardon, or at least more sympathetic treatment, if and when Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is crowned king, has likely factored in Thaksin’s mostly muted response to the coup and military government. Despite the heavy harassment of his political supporters, proposed measures to curb his party’s future electoral chances, and occasional ad hominem attacks on his personage, Thaksin’s criticism has been sparing and infrequent.

Twenty months since the coup, Thaksin is now arguably fighting a battle of relevance, with indications of flagging support and a lack of connection with his former grass roots support base. Some of his supporters say they are waiting for a “signal” to move, while others have complained they no longer receive funds from their past paymaster. It is notable that Thaksin’s call late last year to wear red as an act of civil disobedience fell flat, though this too begs questions of how much is driven by fear and how much disenfranchisement.

As Thaksin’s perceived threat fades, Prayut’s junta could feel emboldened to take a harder line against the former premier’s in-country and family interests amid criticism from certain royalists the regime has been soft on the ex-premier. One move in that direction is the criminal trial of Yingluck for alleged corruption her government’s boondoggle rice price support scheme. If found guilty, the coup-ousted ex-premier could spend a decade behind bars, though many analysts doubt such a divisive verdict will ultimately be handed down.

Divisions

With Thaksin’s perceived threat in retreat, or at least dormant, divisions are becoming more apparent among factions in the armed forces and their opposed royalist backers.

The coup firmly consolidated the power of the Queen’s Guard regiment, an elite force committed to protecting Queen Sirikit, with its alumni gaining control of the military’s influential command positions and inside the junta government. That consolidation has come at the expense of King’s Guard troops, capped by the largest out-of-cycle reshuffle the country has seen since pro-Thaksin soldiers were purged in the aftermath of the 2006 coup.

This intra-military tension explains, at least until recently, occasional obscure allusions in the local press of a possible counter-coup against Prayut’s royalist junta. While certain elite soldiers remain peeved about being sidelined after the coup, internal tensions have also turned on the notion that Prayut and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the junta’s two highest ranking members, have not gone far enough in purging Thaksin’s influence amid rumors confirmed by diplomats that the latter has met secretly with Thaksin in Singapore.

A recent scandal surrounding the military’s construction of larger- than-life statues of past kings at a royal park has implicated top-ranking Queen’s Guard soldiers, including a former army chief, and delivered the first knock against the junta’s claims that it is above the corrupt practices of elected governments and politicians.

The damaging revelations are known to have come from within the Queen’s Guard, in what appears on the surface to reflect a personal feud between sitting army commander Gen Teerachai Nakwanich and his predecessor, Gen Udomdej Sitabutr. It’s also seems clear that the local press received a signal from senior royalists that they could pursue the sensitive story without fear of reprisal. Privy Council President Prem Tinsulonda was quoted in one local report admonishing the military to be more careful in its spending.

The scandal sparked speculation about whether Teerachai, promoted in part for his post-coup suppression of Red Shirt activists, and his ally in charge of the First Army Region, Lieutenant General Theppong Tippayachan, could be tempted into leading a counter-coup on behalf of an opposed military faction and influential senior royalists who have expressed misgivings about the junta’s suppression of civil liberties, quality of governance and lack of transparency. That speculation and critical reporting died down after Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn appeared to put the embattled park’s foundation under his patronage in January, as announced in the Royal Gazette.

The intra-military tensions are also a reflection of known competing visions for the succession, with the ascendant Queen’s Guard known to back heir-apparent Vajiralongkorn’s claim and other influential royalists aligned with disgruntled Kings Guard soldiers believed to favor an alternative scenario where the king’s second daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is somehow crowned. A 1974 amendment to the 1924 Succession Law allows for a princess born of the king to take the crown only in the absence of a fit-to-rule male heir, legalese that could be open to the Privy Council’s interpretation. At such a high stakes historical moment, future political events could break in a number of different ways.

Scenario 1: Faux elex

In this scenario, a retrograde constitution that enshrines the military’s political role is passed either by referendum or enacted unilaterally after a “no” vote of the current draft version. The military has made clear its wish for a charter that gives less power to political parties to enact their own policies, an overarching role for appointed institutions to remove corrupt politicians and governments, and provisions for the military to legally take power during times of crisis.

This is the type of charter the military envisions and by hook or crook will eventually bring into law. Organic laws drafted for the new charter will no doubt ensure that future democratic polls are highly circumscribed and held in ways that favor a new military front party, supposedly now in the making behind the scenes, and other medium sized parties not overtly aligned with Thaksin to form a “unity” coalition government.

Some analysts speculate such a “democratic” transition would be steered from above to resemble the coalition governments led by former army commander, prime minister and current Privy Council President Prem in the 1980s, a period of military-guided rule often referred to by academics as “Premocracy.” It’s a scenario that would also assuage Western and domestic pressure to return to a form of “civilian-led” rule.

While consistent with the junta’s official narrative, the risk is likely still too high that a Thaksin-aligned government is swept into power despite attempts to tilt the electoral playing field against him. In that scenario, much of what the military has implemented over the last 20 months, including a broad 20-year economic plan, would be briskly swept away. There would also be the risk of political revenge, even with an amnesty for the coup-makers written into the charter.

The military tried to tilt the post-coup 2007 election away from Thaksin’s new party but wholly failed. It’s a democratic lesson no doubt still fresh in mind among the top brass and a scenario likely deemed as too risky to the military’s short and medium term corporate interests, particularly with the royal succession still unresolved and no clear sign yet that the urban-based middle classes are poised to resist continued military rule.

Scenario 2: Rebellion

This scenario weighs the potential for Thaksin to mount a credible challenge to a military-steered new political order or ramped up threats to his or his family’s personal or business interests.  It would entail, as in 2009 and 2010, the former premier mobilizing resources to ignite Red Shirt-led pro-democracy resistance against military or perceived as proxy military rule after a potential rigged election in 2017 or 2018.

Unlike those previous uprisings, in light of the military’s police state infrastructure it would likely have to be a national-level conflict with unrest staged in the provinces as opposed to Bangkok, where any hint of organization would be quickly detected and squashed. There’s a readymade model: a low intensity, shadowy insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost Muslim-majority provinces has kept the military on its heels for over a decade. A scenario where a similar hit-and-run strategy is launched across northern and northeastern provinces would be a nightmare for the already overstretched Thai military.

This scenario assumes Thaksin reaches his personal breaking point and returns to his past brinksmanship, though there are questions about his ability to reconnect with a largely disenfranchised support base, his willingness to lose the pockets of Western support he and his sister have won as unfairly persecuted “democrats,” and his willingness to venture wealth some diplomats estimate has taken a significant hit with the collapse in global commodity prices in sight of his known recent investments in energy, metals and other commodities.

This scenario would fetch a strong military response, one where it moves to assert even stronger grass roots control and without a vow to quickly restore democracy until stability is restored. It’s a scenario that could badly and quickly backfire on Thaksin without a decisive victory, which seems doubtful on nearly all fronts. It’s doubtful Thaksin pursues this route until he sees how the royal succession and his hoped for royal pardon plays out. But with the ex-premier’s history of erratic and emotional responses, particularly when his personal interests are in play, it can not be completely discounted.

Scenario 3: Natural causes

In this most likely scenario, Prayut maintains power until the actuarial moment. Martial law will likely be invoked and election plans put on hold until the succession is deemed safe and secure. The military’s economic policies, including big ticket infrastructure building and investments in railways, would remain on-track during the transition.

It’s widely held that there will be a military-enforced, prolonged period of national mourning, an interregnum period where by some readings the Privy Council will assume royal power until it formally puts forward a successor. In the mainstream scenario, royalist camps close ranks despite competing visions and jointly support heir apparent Vajiralongkorn’s claim to the throne. With a few potential wrinkles related to recent purges of the heir’s previous family and aides, this is still seen as the succession’s most likely outcome.

In another less likely scenario portrayed in leaked Wikileaks documents recounting meetings between senior royalists and former U.S. Ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce, the Privy Council could in certain circumstances opt alternatively to appoint Sirindhorn to the throne. Many royalists, including those who rallied around her bathed in purple 60th birthday celebrations last year, are known to favor the scenario. Depending on how it was justified and messaged, such an outcome would either be accepted or contested by a competing royalist camp and potentially draw the self-exiled, self-interested Thaksin into the fray.

In yet another scenario, Vajiralongkorn’s first daughter, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, known affectionately as Princess Pa, a Cornell law school graduate who has been recognized by the United Nations for her commendable work on women’s rights, is put forward as a compromise candidate with her father’s blessing. Many believe the 37-year-old princess, whose domestic profile has risen favorably in recent years, including through public presentations on the need for stronger rule by law, has been groomed specifically as a new generation source of moral royal authority.

In any of the scenarios, the military – if it remains united, a big if  –  will aim to maintain a firm grip on power until it is clear that the succession is safe and secure. In the case of any real or perceived threat, military rulers can be expected to suspend their promise to restore democracy and instead leverage their police state powers to consolidate a longer-term stay in power, in the name of protecting the new king. The succession-before-election scenario could take many different forms, all hard to predict and all crucial to the future shape and direction of Thai politics and society.

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