A mad man is ruling in the land of smiles. A year after taking power it has become clear that General Prayuth Chan-o-cha is a malign dictator who offers no solution to the problems Thailand is facing. Instead, he makes death threats against journalists, drags those who speak their minds before martial courts, postpones democratic elections time and again, and overlooks the drafting of a constitution that may legally prolong his stint as prime minister, or at least allow for his return when and if elections are eventually held. His aggressive comments before the media are as legendary as they are dangerous in that they reveal his temper, his lack of rationality, and an absence of any even-handedness. The world should have long lost patience with the man who has dragged Thailand into an economic and political no man’s land.
Almost twelve months have passed since Prayuth staged a coup on May 22, 2014 against the Phue Thai Party-led caretaker government at that time. The move was an attempt to eliminate once and for all the political influence of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a previous coup in 2006, and of his sister Yingluck, who had been elected prime minister in 2011. Prayuth’s putsch was followed by the passing of an interim constitution and the formation of a rubber-stamp parliament, which dutifully handed him the premiership. Since then he has overseen an anemic economy, with consumer confidence hitting a nine-month low in March and growth forecasts trimmed to 2.8 percent by some estimates. These economic numbers are closely tied to Thailand’s gloomy political outlook, as none of Prayuth’s actions has restored investor or consumer confidence.
The international community watches a country that was once – it now seems ages ago – considered a beacon of hope for democracy in Southeast Asia slipping further into the abyss. But opposition has become more vocal in recent months. On his visit to the country in January, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russel, voiced the Obama administration’s concerns over “the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup,” over a political process “that doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society,” and over the treatment of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was removed from office shortly before last year’s coup, impeached, and then targeted with criminal charges in a process Russel considered “politically driven.” As was to be expected, his comments did not go down well with Thailand’s dictatorship. It responded by summoning the U.S. charges d’affaires; Prayuth defending himself as a “soldier with a democratic heart.”