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Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Thai junta's roadmap will lead to uncertainty

Since it seized power on May 22, Thailand's military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has plowed ahead methodically with its declared intention of suspending Thai democracy to repair it while "returning happiness" to the people. But as political power becomes increasingly concentrated within the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is officially known, its declared roadmap for peace, order and economic stability appears to be leading Thailand to some place likely to prove unpalatable to the electorate. It is already clear that a miracle is needed for Thailand's latest coup to end well, but the risk that the adventure will turn sour will grow in the coming months.

     To be sure, the junta signaled from the start it means business. In just over four months, it has promulgated an interim constitution and stacked the hand-picked, 220-member National Legislative Assembly with active and retired generals. In turn, the NLA unanimously chose then army commander Prayuth as caretaker prime minister. As if on cue, he promptly selected a 32-member cabinet, again dominated by the military. As he reached mandatory retirement age on Sept. 30, Prayuth hand-picked Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr to succeed him as head of the army.

     Both generals were battalion commanders in the 21st Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division, known as the Queen's Guards. This military unit under the Queen's longstanding patronage is now ascendant in Thai politics. Retired generals Prawit Wongsuwan and Anupong Paochinda, also former army chiefs from this faction, are both ensconced in cabinet -- Prawit as deputy prime minister and defense minister, Anupong as interior minister.

Elevating unelected institutions

Prayuth's iron grip on Thailand during the coup is therefore unmistakable. The NCPO is his politburo (military spokesmen do not deny this), and the assembly his rubber-stamp legislature. Unlike past coup leaders, Prayuth and his military cohorts are ruling and running Thailand themselves, rather than delegating authority and autonomy in areas such as foreign relations and investor liaison to technocrats and policy professionals, as previous coup-installed governments did. Generals occupy crucial technocratic portfolios in the Prayuth cabinet -- notably foreign affairs, transport, commerce and education. Only a few technocrats have found their way into cabinet, and they are mostly holdovers from the last coup administration back in 2006-07.

     Unsurprisingly, the NCPO is also shaping the transition back to democratic rule. After four months in power, the junta has come up with a 250-member National Reform Council whose task is to propose political reforms, and oversee and approve a new constitution. A 36-member committee that will draft the new constitution will be nominated by the NRC, the assembly, the cabinet, and of course the junta, which will also select the committee president. 

      Leaving no doubt about its intentions, the NCPO has already codified 10 broad charter preferences into Article 35 of the interim constitution, mainly addressing past corruption and abuse of power among elected politicians. The article also stipulates that the permanent constitution must ensure a democratic system that is "suitable for Thai society." This constitution-drafting formula evokes the arrangement following the 2006 coup. The 2007 charter was largely oriented toward keeping former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his party machine at bay. This time, the net will be cast more widely. The new constitution is likely to be a broader, more "anti-politician" document that removes political power from elected forces and restores it to the traditional pillars of the bureaucracy, the military and the monarchy.

     This is in line with Prayuth's view of Thailand as a country with a glorious past that has been corrupted by democracy. The junta's response is to minimize elected popular representation and elevate the role of unelected institutions deemed to draw legitimacy through traditional moral authority. The constitution-drafting process next year will thus be a battleground for competing visions of Thailand, pitting supporters of this long-established but undemocratic political order against a more recent but unformed and incomplete system based on electoral rule.

     Thailand's key problem is that it has not yet found a middle path that both establishment centers of power and their electoral opponents can live with. The evidence so far suggests the NCPO is not attracted by the idea of a new compact between the two that could carry Thailand forward.

Beyond the transition

The longer-term implications are an inevitable mess. With unaccountable absolute power, Prayuth and his NCPO members will have the incentive to hunker down beyond the limits of their roadmap, which pledges to restore democracy and hold elections by October 2015. If they are widely seen to be doing a good job, the generals in and out of uniform will want to keep doing it. If they are seen to be doing a bad job they will want a second chance. The top brass will also fear retribution from opponents once they leave power. In addition, the generals are accompanied by their own vested interests, which have much to lose without political power. At least, Prayuth and his military comrades may insist on being the midwives of Thailand's transition beyond the glorious but fading era of King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- who is now 86 and has been on the throne for 68 years. 

     Not for decades has Thailand been ruled so directly and blatantly by a military government in strongman fashion, with a pervasive hold on the decision-making apparatus. The mounting risks of an unfolding collision are clear. Thai society has grown up opposing military rule for the past four decades, including popular uprisings that famously restored democratic rule in 1973 and 1992. There is no evidence it will put up with a military dictatorship for the long term, notwithstanding the initial positive reception of the coup.

     On the other hand, the military government is hierarchical, its organizational culture based on chains of command and control that are not open to debate and public participation. An unaccountable government will in any case lose touch with popular sentiments and grievances. This mismatch of top-down military government underpinned by traditional institutions with democratic trappings can only be a recipe for disaster.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.


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