Thailand’s Constitutional Dictatorship Weathers the Storm

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Thailand’s Constitutional Dictatorship Weathers the Storm

Despite rumors of dissent within Prayut Chan-o-cha’s coalition, the military is poised to retain its privileged position in Thai politics.

Thailand’s Constitutional Dictatorship Weathers the Storm

Anti-government protesters participate in a rally Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Daily protests in Bangkok have become so routine, despite their increasing violence, that they are barely making the news anymore. Flash mobs of car protestors shutting down intersections, and violent clashes in Din Daeng, continue to pit Thai citizens against the government.

The protests matter for four reasons:

First, their demands include not just that the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha step down; they are also calling for a wholesale reform of the monarchy. This is no longer taboo, even though the government has tried to squelch it through the continued application of Article 112 of the Penal Code. Since November 2020, over 120 people have been charged with lese majeste, including most recently a young woman. In January, a woman received a record 43-year sentence for insulting the monarchy.

Second, the government has increasingly turned to repressive means. Police have driven vehicles into crowds, a student was left in a coma, tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons are routinely used, and over 300 people, including children, have been arrested in Din Daeng alone. The government’s overreaction suggests just how insecure it is feeling right now.

Third, despite the threat of further government crackdowns, violence, and arrests, the student-led demonstrations show no sign of easing. There have been over 645 warrants issued and nearly 400 arrests so far. The Thai government is failing to deter the protestors, and nothing concerns an authoritarian regime more than when the state loses its ability to instill fear.

Fourth, there is no doubt that things are getting more violent. Government crackdowns have provoked more violence on the part of the protestors, in a steady escalation. Neither side seems willing to pursue steps that would diminish the violence.

But are the protests actually working? Are the protestors any closer to achieving their goals?

Thailand remains a deeply polarized country. The military-backed government clearly stole the election in 2019, aided by their 2017 constitution, the country’s 20th. Through gerrymandering, malapportionment of the vote, a rigged party list system, the systematic disqualification of opposition politicians and the banning of their parties, the targeted application of vaguely written security laws, and a completely appointed senate that was allowed to vote for the prime minister, the military ensured its “parliamentary dictatorship.”

But the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) is not unpopular. Indeed, it won the second most seats (116), garnering over 8.4 million votes, or 23.3 percent of the electorate. It established the government through political chicanery, but it represents a significant segment of the population.

Yet the government has painted itself into a corner. Confronted with an unpopular monarch, the government views democracy as a gateway drug to “republicanism.”

It is not just an existential threat to the monarchy, but also to the military. Despite Prayut’s assertions that the military has to acquire expensive weaponry to prepare for war, Thailand has no enemies on its borders that seriously threaten its territorial integrity. So without a state to defend, the military sees its primary role – and justification for its constant political interference – as the defense of the monarchy.

But no one is calling for the abolition of the monarchy, just its reform. Legally, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. But the current king has taken on some of the attributes of an absolute monarch, including the use of Article 112 to make the monarchy out of bounds for protest or criticism, and his consolidation of total power over the Crown Property Bureau. This has allowed the king to treat the CPB, a $45-60 billion organization that was once treated more as a public trust, as his personal bank. While the king did return to his kingdom after intense public criticism that he rode out the first wave of the pandemic in a luxury resort in the German alps, there’s plenty of fodder for public criticism.

By tying themselves to a monarch who has no popular legitimacy, the military has doubled down in its refusal to reform the monarchy.

The current political system and parliamentary distribution of power make any constitutional amendments very hard, even when there is broad support for change. Any amendment requires the support of one-third of the 250-member Senate that is appointed by the military. Since so many senators are uniformed military, they remain in the chain of command, and vote as told.

For instance, in the latest draft amendments, the number of party list seats would go from 150 to 100 of the 500 member lower house, with clearer rules for their apportionment. The amendment would favor larger parties. The 2017 constitution sought to weaken large parties, i.e. the opposition Pheu Thai. Indeed, by using the power of incumbency and government purse strings, the PPRP has done well in by-elections and local elections since 2019, so they are feeling a bit more confident in their ability to contest seats.

While an overwhelming number voted for the amendment (472 to 33, with 187 abstentions), there was no senatorial support. The military continues to thwart the will of the people, even when its own party is in favor.

Hence the protests continue, forcing the government to rely on coercion.

To date, the government seems relatively immune from public pressure, as well as pressure from the political opposition. Prayut has now survived three separate votes of no confidence; in the most recent vote in early September, he survived with over 56 percent support.

The real threat to Prayut is growing unhappiness with his management from within his own ranks. There have long been rumors of a growing rift between him and his two deputies Prawit Wongwusan and Anupong Paochinda, who, together, staged the May 2014 coup d’etat.

While that rift is denied, in September Prayut fired two members of his cabinet for “disloyalty.” One of whom, Thammanat Prompao, had been convicted in an Australian court in 1990 for drug trafficking, and inextricably allowed to hold office in Thailand, despite the country’s own strict drug laws. Prayut sacked them for their role in the September vote of no confidence. There’s blood in the water.

One has to wonder how much longer the ultra-royalist and military elites are going to countenance Prayut: He’s publicly reviled, the cause of massive street protests that would harm the economy were it not for COVID-19 already doing so. Under Prayut, economic inequality has soared. His government’s handling of COVID-19, despite a rash of emergency powers, has been lackluster, and the country’s vaccine rollout has lagged, with under 20 percent of the population fully vaccinated. His own party seems disenchanted with him.

At what point do the elites see Prayut as a liability and put him out to pasture? There are signs that that some have had enough.

The high court, which is closely tied to the monarchy, recently handed the government a surprising blow, overturning the July 30, 2021 decree that severely restricted the media. It was a clear admonishment of Prayut’s over-reach.

The government’s intentions to restrict civil society are clear. A draft law submitted in January 2021 would seriously impede non-profit organizations and restrict the rights to freedom of association for civil society organizations. It’s not clear if the court would block such a law.

The elites are likely to go with the dictator they know. Elections can be held no later than March 2023. And Prawit recently let slip that elections would be held in 2022, a sign of government confidence. And why would it not be?

With the appointed Senate still in office and  its constitutional role in voting for the prime minister, all the military needs to do is make sure that their PPRP polls steadily, and the “constitutional dictatorship” will remain intact.