Thailand’s new military dictator, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, gave a long, rambling, televised address today which is worth reviewing to see how it relates to my analysis of the recent coup and its prospects.
The speech justifies the coup as necessary “to stop the ongoing violence”. But as I stated, there was no obvious “ongoing violence”. Violence had peaked some months ago and apart from the odd incident here or there, did not appear to be escalating at all. This is indeed I found puzzling about the timing: the opportune moment had passed. This is why I suggested something else must have been happening behind the scenes. Prayuth goes on to say that martial law was needed to uphold the law, specifically to “stop movements of military-grade weapons and explosive devices… [and] stop armed groups from committing violent acts. Since 22 May, many members of armed groups have been apprehended and a large amount of military-grade weapons have been seized.” This lends further support to my suggestion that the Eastern Tigers faction may have been alarmed by movements of smuggled weapons.
Prayuth presents the junta as a neutral arbiter just wanting to make Thais “happy” again, insisting that “all sides must cooperate and unite, and stop using violence. Differences should be discussed in order to find agreeable solutions, move the country forward”. He presents the rounding up of over 300 individuals as perfectly even handed, the length of internment merely determined by the degree to which the individual is violent, and says anyone needing prosecution under the law will be prosecuted. In reality, of course, the junta has already shown its deep bias by rounding up many more red-shirt figures than yellow-shirts, and by treating the latter less harshly than even relatively neutral figures. While PDRC leader Suthep Thaungsuban – wanted on murder charges and public order offences – was quickly released and has yet to face justice, journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was interned for a week.
The regime’s hypocrisy also goes further, of course. Prayuth justifies the purging of government offices by saying those moved “were involved with the previous government and needed to be moved in order to resolve the conflicts”. Conversely, Yingluck and half of her cabinet were removed from office by the constitutional court for reshuffling just one official. Similarly, Prayuth announces the payment of THB92,000m to farmers as part of the rice-pledging scheme. This scheme was the basis of a corruption charge that was similarly filed against Yingluck to remove her from office. Prayuth even says the junta will consider long-term infrastructure projects such as railways; again, Yingluck’s policy of building high-speed rail links was overturned by the constitutional court. As Prayuth observes, the “caretaker government was unable to perform their duties effectively” — but he does not note that this was because his anti-Yingluck allies in the judiciary, parliament and the PDRC deliberately paralysed the government while the security forces did nothing to uphold the government’s right to govern. Now he has the nerve to copy the very policies for which Yingluck’s government was flayed. Prayuth laughably insists that projects will not be undertaken to court “popularity or [for] political reasons like in the past”; in reality, the junta is courting political support just as much as Yingluck had.
As these infrastructure plans suggest, the speech ranges extremely widely across many policy areas, illustrating my observation that the junta is unusually ambitious this time around in terms of undertaking a “comprehensive” reform of Thai society. The detailed plans cover public utilities, road building, agricultural price fixing, the use of natural fertilisers, pro-competition interventions, the creation of special economic zones, and the development of green energy through public-private partnerships!
The real ambition lies in their political “roadmap”:
1. “Reconciliation” through army-facilitated talks at every level of society.
2. The imposition of a new constitution and the appointment of a new government, alongside a “reform council” to “resolve the conflicts”.
3. An election, once “reconciliation and unity have been achieved”.
The gap between 2 and 3 is of course exactly where this military regime will fail. The claim is that, through the Internal Security Operations Command (initially established in the Cold War to kill leftists), the army can bash heads together and make people come to a consensus on how the country can be taken forwards in a peaceful and stable manner. As I argue in my piece, the only way out of the decade-old crisis is a new settlement among key social forces that more equitably distributes power and resources and permits social conflict to be contained within stable state institutions. The army’s claim to wish to attempt something like this, whilst obviously undesirable, might just be workable if (a) the army was genuinely a neutral broker among the protagonists and (b) the two sides were genuinely willing to compromise.
In reality, neither condition obtains. As indicated above, the faction behind this coup, the Eastern Tigers, are blatantly partisan. This faction overthrew Thaksin in 2006 and have been predominant ever since. General Prayuth led the bloody crackdown on the red-shirt protestors in 2010 in which over 90 people were killed. The Eastern Tigers’ god-father, General Prawit Wongsuwan (now chair of the junta’s “advisory board”, possibly soon to be PM in phase 2 of the roadmap, if Prayuth himself does not take the job) was defence minister under the anti-Thaksin, Democrat-led administration of 2008-11 (itself brought to power by behind-the-scenes military manoeuvering), and was seen as a backer of the anti-Yingluck PDRC protests. While the military under General Prayuth’s command did nothing to defend the Yingluck government, failing to maintain the public order necessary for elections to proceed, it is now copying the very policies for which Yingluck and her colleagues were pilloried. The military is not just incapable of serving as a neutral broker – its dominant faction has always been a part of the yellow-shirt faction. The only heads Prayuth is interested in bashing are those of red-shirts; and he threatens to stay in power as long as necessary to make them submit. The purge that has already begun is about constraining their power to resist a settlement that will inevitably be one-sided and anti-democratic.
As for the second condition, the traditional elites that form the powerful core of the yellow-shirt faction show no willingness to make fundamental concessions to their opponents. They maintain a fundamental contempt for the lower orders, seeing them as “uneducated people” who do not deserve to play a full role in Thailand’s governance (when in reality they are savvy, rational voters). They promote nonsensical ideas of a “sufficiency economy” – attributed to the king – which basically instructs poorer Thais to be satisfied with just getting enough to get by, to lower the “unreasonable” aspirations for socio-economic advancement that Thaksin courted and responded to. While they occasionally flirt with Thaksinistas’ policies – like the rice-pledging scheme and low-cost healthcare – this is merely a cynical ploy to buy off Thaksin supporters, which has never been fully successful because it does not represent a genuine reallocation of power. The traditional elite looked to the coup precisely to avoid having to make any real concessions. Given that their allies are now in control, it beggars belief that they will suddenly reverse their position and make the concessions necessary to achieve a just and lasting social compact.
The most likely way forward is therefore a re-run of 2006/7: a more interventionist junta, for sure, meddling in many policy areas, but one that can only produce a biased, one-sided settlement that can only elevate its yellow-shirt allies in a successor democratic regime by fundamentally rigging the system against the forces that actually enjoy majority popular support. That did not work in 2006/7, and there is no good reason to suppose it will work now.