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Thailand Inc. cozies up to the junta

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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on May 16.   © Reuters

BANGKOK Under the banner of expanding forest cover, Thailand's military regime has stealthily deployed troops on missions over a wide swath of remote terrain. They have shown up in fatigues, often in convoys, and usually armed with official notices. During one stretch of this nearly two-year campaign, the Internal Security Operations Command, a military unit formerly used to suppress communists during the Cold War, even posted photos of the deployments online.

This unusual priority for the generals, flagged soon after they seized power in a May 2014 coup, earned initial praise from some conservationists as well as from conservative backers of the putsch. They cheered as the regime used a draconian martial law to kick out wealthy owners of resorts, holiday villas and sporting ventures illegally built in protected natural reserves after fiddling with land deeds.

But putting boots on the ground to meet the regime's target -- expanding Thailand's forest cover from 17.1 million hectares, or 31.5% of the nation's land mass, to 20.5 million hectares in 10 years -- has left a dark trail. Hundreds of poor villagers who traditionally lived off the forest in the country's north, northeast and south have been driven out of their natural habitat under the new order. Some have been arrested and jailed. One community leader, Den Khamlae, remains missing after leaving his Chaiyaphum Province home in April to forage for edible bamboo shoots.

In the northeast, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a nonprofit legal team, reported that 30 areas in 10 provinces faced disruption by the end of 2015. Another regional development group warned that 2,300 villages could be uprooted and lose their only source of livelihood as collateral victims of this "militarization" of nature. Nationwide, at least 20,000 forest communities are vulnerable.

This is not the only trail of disruption being blazed by the National Council for Peace and Order, as the regime is officially known. Local farming communities are in the crosshairs because of another venture to set up special economic zones along Thailand's borders to attract foreign investment, part of the council's efforts to boost the anemic economy. It follows a move by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to invoke the absolute powers granted to him under Article 44 of the current constitution to nullify existing land-use laws -- from forest reserves and farming tracts to industrial zones -- in Mae Sot, a town along the Thailand-Myanmar border, billed as a pilot project for the economic zones.

Already, 600 families have been affected in Mae Sot. More farmers living in the four other designated special economic zones face a similar plight. It explains the growing chorus of criticism against the broadening of draconian laws, supposedly on the books to combat national security threats, in order to achieve economic goals. Article 44, they say, is being used to sidestep existing environmental and health safeguards and undermine the food and economic security of local communities.

"The military may have to prepare for resistance from the weak they are displacing," warned Naruemon Thabchumpon, an international development specialist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Such developments are at odds with promises Prayuth made to justify the military takeover. He set his sights on narrowing the country's inequality gap as part of a road map to restore political peace in the deeply polarized country. It was even a mantra for the conservative legal minds chosen to draft the country's new charter. One scholar, Borwornsak Uwanno, reportedly said that disparity in income, wealth distribution and opportunity "constitutes the underlying root cause of social and economic ills of the nation."

These sentiments made sense when the military staged its coup. That year, studies had been published that highlighted the gulf between Thailand's rich and poor. A report on unequal wealth distribution by Credit Suisse ranked Thailand the sixth most inequitable country, estimating that its richest 10% controlled nearly 75% of the wealth, up from 73.8% in 2013. The National Economic and Social Development Board, a government think tank, reported that the wealthiest 0.1% of the country owned 46.5% of Thailand's total assets. Uneven land ownership figures have also primed the country for unrest; according to the Thai Future Foundation, a think tank, the nation's top 10% of landowners owned 60% of its land.

SOCIAL ENTERPRISE The junta has tried to signal it is staying on its intended course and making moves to reverse this economic order. In early this year, it rolled out a flagship social enterprise company with state and private sector backing, Pracha Rath Rak Samakkee ("people of the state love harmony"), whose name has a quirky Orwellian ring. It comes on the heels of billions of dollars in poverty-fighting measures dished out since last September by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, the regime's economic czar, including a pledge in early May to grant 3 billion baht ($84.6 million) worth of bank loan remissions to indebted farmers.

But the newly incorporated social enterprise company also serves as a way for big business to strengthen its ties to the junta, as prominent figures from the Thai Chamber of Commerce rub shoulders with generals and secure plum positions for themselves. Charoen Pokphand Group, owned by agribusiness magnate Dhanin Chearavanont; Thai Beverage, owned by liquor and beer tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi; and Mitr Phol Sugar, owned by sugar baron Isara Vongkusolkit, are among the Sino-Thai conglomerates now marching in step with the social enterprise venture.

By the end of 2016, Pracha Rath Rak Samakkee will have branches in 76 provinces with the support of other big business players, such as Bangkok Bank and Boon Rawd Brewery, the makers of Singha beer. They will follow the example of Thai Beverage and fork out cash to invest in the venture's activities across Thailand.

"Somkid is a hero to the private sector, and many will want him to succeed," said a member of the chamber of commerce, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They want to help him because they do not want another crisis."

This junta-tycoon axis has raised eyebrows even among royalist and conservative constituencies that threw their weight behind Prayuth's putsch. The Democrat Party -- the country's oldest, many of whose supporters backed the coup -- is challenging the regime's claims that it is narrowing the inequality gap. The junta is "clearly listening to big business," Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told the Nikkei Asian Review. "They have been very generous on tax breaks."

Analysts say the junta's courtship of the ultrarich can be explained by the composition of the rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly that Prayuth appointed. "New data shows that the average income of the 220 members of the junta's NLA is 32 times the per capita income ($5,778)," noted an article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, an academic publication, in early May. Invoking Thomas Piketty, the French economist, it stated that "such a legislature is unlikely to take action to close the economic and social divide."

The forests of Thailand, far away from Bangkok's halls of power, bear an unlikely silent witness to the failure of the junta's pledge to close this gap. Despite their rhetoric, it appears that the generals are missing the forest for the trees.

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