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Thai PM Prayuth faces growing internal backlash

Ultra-conservative allies display mounting frustration with ruling junta

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks to the press in Bangkok in June.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- To woo the Thai public, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has composed four sentimental ballads since he grabbed power in the 2014 coup. "Don't lose heart because I'll never give up. My two hands won't let you go ...," are lines from his fourth musical foray. Now, the all-powerful junta leader and former army chief has tried his hand at poetry.

The nine-stanza poem, read out during a cabinet meeting in late June, pleads for national unity. "[We] have to be fast to get rid of conflicts and doubts" it says, and points to the "Pracha Rat" system, a junta creation to receive public complaints, as the ideal forum for cooperation. The poem has been "hailed by the Education Ministry," according to one Thai newspaper.

Prayuth's verse for unity is timely, since the military regime is being rattled by a rare backlash. In the crosshairs are a string of the junta's transportation, public health and energy security policies, which have come under fire from the ultra-conservative constituency that had marched in step with the military regime's edicts. These critics are described as "neutral" in Bangkok's political circles and the Thai media, setting them apart from the regime's foes, such as allies of the Pheu Thai Party and dissident academics and youth.

"They are not from the Pheu Thai camp and not the usual post-coup dissidents," said a diplomat from a Western embassy, referring to the political party that headed the elected government which Prayuth overthrew, and the hundreds of political activists the junta has arrested or summoned for a dressing down. "For Gen. Prayuth's political survival, the ultra-conservative political camp is important."

The challenge to Prayuth's authority was sparked in June over an infrastructure project that the regime has been negotiating with the Chinese for the past two years. A public outcry with ultra-nationalist tones erupted after Prayuth invoked Section 44 of the post-coup constitution, dubbed the "dictator's law" since it gives him absolute power, to rush through plans for the $5 billion high-speed railway project in the country's northeast. An academic session at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and commentary in the Thai-language media have rounded on the junta over the first stage of the Sino-Thai rail project, a 252-kilometer stretch to connect Bangkok with Nakhon Ratchasima, a northeastern gateway.

"Losing Thai territory"

The junta has been accused of "losing Thai territory to the Chinese" -- an ultra-nationalist slur that questions the junta's claim to be the guardian of the country and nation -- prompting a swift denial from Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith. The agreement for the project, due to be signed this month, flags the Thai state as the funder while the Chinese are to step in with their engineers, planners and technology. "The Thais feel the Chinese are pushing this project and the junta is caving in," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think-tank. "They are using rhetoric that the junta is a threat to Thai nationalism, and that should worry the junta."

The junta is digging in for now. "This project, along with several others, is part of the country's drive to enhance connectivity, both within the country and to the rest of the world," Lt. Gen. Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a government spokesman, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "The prime minister has mentioned this from the start, including the new measures to ensure transparency and facilitate the ease of doing business."

Policy disputes are better resolved through the Pracha Rat mechanism, he said. "It is more about instilling a process of cooperation and consultation that can yield an acceptable outcome for all stakeholders," he said. "That is why we have the Pracha Rat model for inclusiveness -- to have all parties able to come together and fined a workable solution."

But that is not the only headache. Analysts say the emerging cracks in the junta's ultra-conservative political base is evident on another, equally emotive front: changes to a universal healthcare program, which provides benefits to 49 million Thais and currently costs the state 165 billion baht ($4.84 billion) annually. Amending the National Health Security Act is the way forward, the junta initially argued, as a means of cutting expenditure in the program, which cost just 55.3 billion baht in its first year, 2003.

But public hearings to amend the act are being pilloried by non-governmental organizations, a number of them allies of the People's Democratic Reform Committee, a protest movement of ultra-conservatives and ultra-nationalists, who rose up on Bangkok's street against the last elected government and cheered the 2014 military coup.

These NGOs have "fiercely boycotted" the public hearings across the country to discuss the amendment of universal healthcare schemes, said Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights watchdog. "In [the northeast region of] Isaan, they stormed the stage; they sang the PDRC's theme song, while holding banners criticizing the government," he said. "This is the junta's constituency."

Prayuth subsequently conceded ground ahead of a final decision, assuring his detractors that the regime would not junk the universal healthcare program. It was an echo of a similar retreat in February over the regime's energy security policies, another flashpoint that offered hints of a political rift between the junta and its ultra-conservative base. After standing its ground and arresting and then releasing protesters, the junta suddenly agreed to reevaluate the plan for an 800-megawatt coal power plant in the southern resort of Krabi.

The voices raging against the regime included Rungkun Kittyakara, a minor prince and environmental activist. He took to Facebook to make a daring appeal, calling on a senior general who commands troops in Bangkok to stage a coup against the ruling junta if it reneges and decides to back the plant.

Blueprint for energy

Ultra-conservative stalwarts are as vigilant, including staging flash mobs, in challenging the regime's blueprint for ensuring steady supplies of oil and gas. In their crosshairs is the Petroleum Act, which was amended in late March by the National Legislative Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament, when a contentious clause to set up a National Oil Company was dropped. The amendment opens a path for companies to strike production-sharing contracts when Thailand's Erawan and Bongkot gas concessions, operated by Chevron and the exploration and production arm of the state-backed PTTEP, end in 2022 and 2023. The ultras maintain the amendment violates the constitution and may try to block it in the courts.

Analysts note that these spreading cracks in the ultra-conservative base come against a politically sensitive backdrop -- shifts in authority at the highest circles of power. The new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, returned the draft of the 20th constitution the junta had campaigned for at last year's referendum, requesting changes to articles concerning his powers. The final text, promulgated in early April, included changes to articles covering the monarch's powers to appoint palace advisers and his regent, and regarding his authority in times of constitutional crisis.

The junta leader's hand has been weakened within the military, too. The Government Gazette, the official organ of the state, revealed earlier this year that Prayuth has been relieved of his authority to mobilize troops. This has been transferred to Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisat, the army chief. "The February order does formalize more direct power over the army for the army chief than the junta leader," said Paul Chambers, a Thai national security expert at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

But political insiders say Prayuth wields two weapons to confront his detractors -- the absolute power of Section 44 and his post-coup record as the only member of the ruling junta that the Thai middle class respects. His strategy is to "isolate his opposition" and to play up the "political goodwill he enjoys among his urban supporters," said Kasit Piromya, former foreign minister and a member of the junta-appointed National Reform Steering Assembly.

Prayuth's authority will be tested in coming weeks, as he prepares the list of officers to be promoted in the annual military reshuffle, which is vetted by the army chief and approved by the monarch. His assessment of Gen. Chalermchai, who can still continue as army chief for another year, and Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, commander of the First Army, which protects Bangkok, will come under scrutiny. The rise of both Chalermchai and Apirat, according to Chambers, was "favored by the new sovereign."

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