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Thai military draws up 20-year national political blueprint

Prime minister rewrites the political rulebook to 'straitjacket' future governments

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has consistently put off a general election and is now rolling out his 20-year blueprint for military control.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's ruling generals are fine tuning a strategy that will ensure the country remains in their grip for at least the next 20 years.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been reviewing the plan this week before submitting it to the palace for approval during a  90-day window.

The National Strategy Act was pushed through the unelected National Legislative Assembly (NLA) earlier this month without public debate. The lawmakers have approved what one critic described as the making of a "Thai-style military state."

The NLA has already approved a 13 billion baht budget to fund Prayuth's political vision. The former army chief staged a coup in 2014 that overthrew an elected caretaker government.

The military regime's political allies claim the strategy is needed for political stability, national security, long-term development, social equality, and prosperity.

Beside broad themes, precise targets have been set in the national blueprint for the next two decades. Per capita income, for example, must rise from the current $5,907 to $15,000. The country must also be ranked in the top 10 countries in the UN's World Happiness Report -- it is currently 46th. 

The military government's long-term national agenda first surfaced in mid-2017 with the creation of a 35-member National Strategy Committee (NSC) dominated by military top brass.

The NSC and a pro-junta anti-corruption commission have been given punitive powers to punish members of future elected governments -- including jail terms -- if they stray away from implementing the plan.

Analysts foresee a crippled Thai polity when the junta ostensibly cedes power after a long-delayed general election that might be held in the first half of 2019. Henning Glasser, a German constitutional scholar at the law faculty of Bangkok's Thammasat University, expects the next elected government to face a "minefield of obligations" because the 20-year strategy is legally binding and very broad. "It is meant to tightly define Thailand's future for years to come," he said.

Many believe the strategy has grown out of the generals closing ranks with an ultra-conservative political camp within the country's entrenched elites, most of whom would prefer authority to held by unelected technocrats rather than elected politicians.

"They have been inspired by the Chinese model and the old bureaucratic-polity of Thailand from the Cold War years," Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank, told Nikkei. "This is a commonly shared view within Thai aristocratic thinking, so we have a retreat backwards."

Some Bangkok-based diplomats believe the generals are finally showing their true political colors by denying a future place for properly elected governments. "The national strategy acts as a straitjacket on future elected government," said a Western diplomat. "Governments who fail to strictly follow the strategy can face removal from office under the guise of good governance because of an enforcement power handed to the regime's appointees to exercise control even after the regime is no longer in office."

The judiciary is also already playing a role. Weeks before the NLA vote on the national strategy, the Supreme Court ruled that generals who stage coups have immunity from being charged for insurrection or tearing up an existing constitution -- an act of treason in most jurisdictions. The case was brought by pro-democracy activists in May 2015, a year after Prayuth took power. The Supreme Court ruled that the generals were protected under sections of the constitution the junta's nominees drafted after the 2014 coup that exempted the coup-makers from criminal and civil liability.

Legal experts and activists fear the ruling can only serve to entrench coups in Thai politics, since coup-makers will continue to be guaranteed impunity.  According to Gregory Vincent Raymond, an Australian scholar, some of Thailand's most senior lawyers are "quite prepared to abandon the 'rule of law'."

"The law is not a constraining factor since along with seizing the television stations, finding a constitutional drafter to absolve coup-plotters from legal sanction is a standard part of coup procedure," said Raymond, author of the recently published Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation. "Meechai Ruchapan is a constitutional drafter who has been employed regularly throughout the 1980s, and who has again been employed by the current (military regime) for the 2016 constitution."

In the face of such actions, the country's major political parties have been reduced to crying foul from the margins. They fear being disbanded if they violate a slew of edicts imposed on party activity since the coup, including openly engaging with their party members. Their enforced restraint has now lasted more than four years, and Prayuth has faced no effective political opposition.

"Rewriting the political landscape of the future this way will also protect the military's interests, particularly in procurement," says Kan. The defense budget has been rising since the coup; it reached 222 billion baht ($7 billion) in 2018 from 192 billion baht in 2015. "The 20-year strategy is the mechanism to ensure long-term weapon purchases continue."

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