As the economy stumbles, the junta has an image problem
Aug 9th 2014 | BANGKOK | From the print edition
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THE army has long been the most powerful force in Thai political life, and has wholly monopolised it since its latest coup in May. Bangkok, the capital, remains calm, and many ordinary Thais do not miss the self-serving political classes who were booted out. Still, how popular the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta calls itself, really is remains hard to say. It is a criminal offence to criticise it, and the press is muzzled. Lèse-majesté cases are piling up. The junta has even banned a computer game, Tropico 5, in which players set up their own military dictatorship in a fictional paradise where sunny beaches and political corruption “coexist in perfect harmony”.
The coup leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his fellow soldiers have been busy putting up a façade that bespeaks legitimacy. The coup has the endorsement of the 86-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. On August 7th the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, chaired the opening ceremony for a new national assembly to replace the elected politicians who were kicked out. Stuffed with army officers and members of the old Thai establishment, it will be a rubber-stamp affair.
It is all a throwback to an earlier, simpler era. Unlike the generals of 2006, when the last coup took place, the current lot are intent on retaining complete control. A temporary constitution grants the army men absolute powers. And to safeguard against the generals ever coming before the courts in some future reckoning, it grants an amnesty for actions related to the toppling of the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
The 2006 coup leaders ousted her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms billionaire turned authoritarian politician whose populist parties have for years won every election that has been permitted. Back then the generals thought they could marginalise Mr Thaksin as a political force and encourage a return to a tutelary democracy guided by the establishment around the king. Those who removed Ms Yingluck now realise that they must ensure the Shinawatras are wholly spent as a political force. The generals let Ms Yingluck leave Thailand for Paris on July 20th to attend a birthday party for Mr Thaksin. They did so on the condition that she returns to face possible charges relating to her time as prime minister. Yet some must be calculating that she will join her brother in self-imposed exile. Without competitive elections, the Shinawatras are powerless.
The Orwellian name the junta has given the new dispensation is “genuine democracy”. There is, in truth, a reformist element to its programme, including a desire for less inequality and an impartial enforcement of laws. Many of the populist proposals, such as reforms to health care, are taken straight from Mr Thaksin’s playbook.
Yet finding people with stature and experience to front the new order is not proving easy. For foreign minister, the junta tried to recruit Surin Pitsuwan, a former secretary-general of ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations. At home and abroad, he is one of Thailand’s most respected figures. But he could not be tempted. South-East Asian diplomats say the Thai foreign ministry is paralysed, lacking guidance.
With no proper interim government, portfolios are unlikely to be filled on merit. Although a non-businessman is running the state airline, at least he is the air force chief. How, though, to explain the head of the navy heading the ministry of culture?
Getting the trains to run
The junta seems to realise it has an image problem. This matters to it because for all the emphasis now on political stability, the economic mood is jittery. The economy has shrunk precipitously this year. Exports, in a country that depends more than most on them, have stopped growing. High household debt further complicates matters. Thailand is likely to be Asia’s most lacklustre economy this year. Economic revival is the generals’ priority.
From day one, therefore, General Prayuth has tried to reassure investors. He has made himself head of the Board of Investment, which has swiftly approved billions of dollars worth of pending applications. General Prayuth is leading a splurge in infrastructure spending, including on two high-speed railways worth $23 billion that are seen as vital future links to China. But approving such projects is one thing; getting them up and running so that they start to have a positive economic impact is quite another. Nor is the quest to reassure outsiders helped by the certain knowledge that cronies of the army (whose officer corps at times resembles a business club) will be hungry for the juiciest deals.
As for democracy, that will have to wait. General Prayuth gives October 2015 as the probable date for an election. The junta will not say, however, what restrictions it might impose. Given that the whole point of this coup, and the last, was to overturn a winner-takes-all electoral system that served Mr Thaksin so well, it would be a wonder if no restrictions applied. Whether the next full constitution, Thailand’s 20th, will be put to a popular referendum is equally unclear.
What the generals want, above all, is for “moral people”, not elected populists, to run the country. It is heartening that the junta has shown some concern to bring about a reconciliation, however unlikely, between the pro-Thaksin “red shirts” and their opponents, who paralysed Bangkok in giant protests from late last year. But that does not necessarily mean the army will allow Thaksinite politicians to take part in drafting the new constitution, let alone run in the proposed election.
Most Thais would like to see their country emerge one day as a prosperous, truly democratic leader within South-East Asia. Thailand’s economic growth since the 1960s has raised incomes and provided education to most of its citizens. But the pillars on which future prosperity rests are crumbling. A strong commitment to the rule of law, a well-regulated financial system, and transparency in how fortunes are made are all in short supply.
For now the army men taking Thai society back to the past are legally unassailable. Many Thais may in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. But at some point the self-appointed leadership will be unable to justify its continued existence. The junta may yet surprise everybody by pushing reforms, healing society’s deep rifts, and restoring democracy. But do not count on it.