Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is intensifying its crackdown on the political opposition ahead of national elections now planned for February 2019 after repeated delays. The polls would mark the first potential transfer of power to a civilian administration since the Thai army seized power four years ago. The junta has since extensively rewritten Thailand’s constitution in a bid to permanently suppress regional and class-based political discontent within the Southeast Asian nation. But popular frustration is rising with the NCPO.
In mid-May, despite a ban on political activity across the country, the opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP) called a press conference. Several party members delivered a statement accusing the NCPO of failing to keep the promises it had made to Thais back when it seized power in 2014. These included improving the economy, protecting rights and democracy, fighting corruption and achieving national reconciliation across Thailand’s bitter political divide.
“The past four years under the NCPO are taking the country into a dark and dangerous future … It is the duty of all Thai people to return to a constitutional monarchy and not allow the absolute regime to destroy democracy any further,” local media reported the PTP statement as saying.
Such a provocative gesture was bound to generate a backlash from the military government, and it wasn’t long in coming. Eight members of the PTP were hastily charged for their parts in the news conference, a fact that was widely reported abroad. Five senior members were charged by Thai police with violating the ban on political activities and three more with sedition. The trio facing criminal charges of sedition were PTP members Watana Muangsook, Chaturon Chaisang, and Chusak Sirinil, who had all taken part in the news conference at the party’s headquarters in Bangkok. But those charged with breaking the ban on political activities included the party’s caretaker leader Wirode Pao-in, and the PTP’s secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, another placeholder. All eight men are loyal to ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and some analysts believe the NCPO plans to use the case against the men to ban the pro-Thaksin PTP ahead of the elections.
The PTP is a new party front for an old political faction, albeit one which has won every national election held in Thailand from 2001 onward (there have been six). Over that period, the Shinawatras — Thaksin and his sister Yingluck — have been forced from power three times by Thailand’s conservative political establishment; twice by military coups in 2006 and 2014, and once by street protests and some controversial judicial decisions by the country’s Constitutional Court. Despite this history, the latest vehicle for the Shinawatra clan is still plausibly called Thailand’s largest political party. From abroad, the movement’s exiled leader was publicly seen flexing his muscles in the media recently.
For nearly two decades, billionaire telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra has held onto a devoted following among Thailand’s rural poor, particularly in the country’s north and east. Out of the country since 2006 to avoid criminal charges against him, Thaksin is remembered as a populist insurgent; memories of his cheap medical care and debt relief, strident nationalism, and public contempt for the Bangkok establishment remain extremely popular among his working class base.
Though now 68, Thaksin shows no sign of disappearing from the Thai political scene as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, the general who led the 2014 coup, would undoubtedly wish. In any case, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who as Thailand’s first female prime minister was toppled in that same coup by Prayut, has joined her brother in exile abroad. Should anything happen to Thaksin, she would be an obvious successor to her older brother.
After the 2006 coup, among other political feats, Thaksin was able to bankroll his sister Yingluck into office in 2011. Cushioned by their wealth and safely overseas, the Shinawatras are undoubtedly hoping to use the opening provided by the 2019 elections to return their own partisans to power and reverse the judicial verdicts against themselves. The fact that the two former Shinawatra prime ministers exist free and beyond the reach of Thailand’s military-controlled judicial system could lie behind the eagerness with which the junta has gone after the PTP since it listed the military government’s “failings” in public earlier this month.
Prayut Chan-ocha is determined to stay on as prime minister, not least to avoid the previous juntas’ mistake (as Thailand’s generals now see it) of leaving power prematurely and letting the Shinawatra clan back into power. If that were to happen, the junta and its supporters in the Thai establishment could undoubtedly be exposed to legal charges in their turn. Falls from power are rarely free of personal consequences in Southeast Asian states.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s complex career does not seem to show much respect for liberal democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. Thaksin is an admirer of Singapore’s strongman leader Lee Kuan Yew and his transformation of Singapore. Some commentators have speculated that when he was in power, Thaksin’s vision for modernizing Thailand included building a dominant-party state similar to that of Singapore under Lee. Should he somehow return to Thailand and power, it would leave Prayut and his colleagues looking very vulnerable, and threaten the conservative Bangkok-based elite that the present military leadership favors.
The current Thai prime minister may therefore be counting on a clause in the constitution the NCPO wrote to help him stay on past the election. Under it, a victorious party can appoint a non-elected prime minister if it so chooses. In recent months, analysts say that Prayut and the junta have set out to recruit former PTP members of parliament into a myriad of tiny new parties being set up under the new constitution’s less than democratic rules. Rather than retiring when the NCPO dissolves itself, Prayut may envisage presiding over an unwieldy alliance inside a weak and divided parliament. Dissolving the PTP after the current criminal case against its leadership would leave a lot of ambitious Thai politicians looking for a new home. In a country with a political system as corrupt and authoritarian as Thailand’s, some of them might even be threatened or tempted into the Thai prime minister’s fold. To no one’s surprise, such things have not changed under the junta, despite its promises to fight bribery and nepotism four years ago. Even so, as the example in next door Malaysia shows, it all may not be enough to stop a seventh straight Shinawatra electoral victory.
For all the sound and fury around the election and the NCPO’s struggle with the PTP, however, the major question is whether it all actually matters. Thailand’s constitution, which was signed into law last April by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (ruling as Rama X), has firmly consolidated the Thai military’s grip on power. It was so important to the junta to pass the document that they let themselves be blackmailed by the new king into expanding the royal powers granted Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. But the constitution reinforces a number of anti-democratic power centers within Thailand’s new political system beyond the king’s. For example, the U.S. NGO Freedom House reports in its 2017 profile of Thailand that “all 250 seats in the Senate, or upper house, will be appointed for the first five-year term by the junta, and will include six seats reserved for senior military officials.”
Under its new constitution, the NCPO has created a new political system that resembles the military-backed civilian administrations across the border in Myanmar. Even the Shinawatra clan might have trouble overcoming that, which is precisely why the junta apparently feels emboldened enough to finally allow national elections in Thailand next year.
Neil Thompson is a freelance journalist and analyst. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.