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Thitinan Pongsudhirak -- Thai military's lack of exit strategy spells trouble

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Prayuth Chan-ocha   © Reuters

When General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his National Council for Peace and Order seized power in May 2014, it came as a relief to many. Law and order returned to Bangkok's streets after six months of demonstrations against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party-led government.

Two years on, and the junta's lack of an exit plan and its determination to oversee a five-year transition period spells trouble ahead for Thai politics. There is also the matter of a looming royal succession to the extraordinary seven-decade reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

A lengthy constitution-drafting process will culminate in a referendum on Aug. 7, ahead of promised elections next year. The generals will rely on constitutional provisions that favor military prerogatives in an appointed Senate and military-influenced agencies to keep the post-election government in check.

The draft constitution, crafted by an NCPO-appointed committee, also has done away with the requirement that the prime minister be an elected member of parliament. This will enable the top brass to take the helm of government, directly or through a proxy. Even if the referendum rejects the proposed constitution, Prayuth is likely to contrive a similar charter based on previous versions in order to hold elections in 2017, as promised. Delaying the election timetable yet again would be a major loss of face for the military government.

Confident of its fraternal unity and control of the high command and officer corps, the junta can only survive through the referendum and following elections by ramping up repression to contain growing opposition to its rule. The likelihood of more tension and outright clashes between Thailand's military government and civil society will increase as referendum day approaches. Having overthrown two military dictatorships since the early 1970s, Thai civil society is unlikely to put up with the NCPO indefinitely.

History lessons

It did not have to come to this. When the NCPO seized power, the generals made the mistake of ruling directly and not sharing power with technocratic civilians, unlike in two previous coups, in 1991-1992 and 2006-2007. A civilian-led cabinet of policy professionals in 1991-1992 provided a buffer and governing know-how for the generals. The generals later took power after elections and were ousted by a popular uprising, but they had an escape route from the coup period.

In 2006-2007, the coup-makers persuaded Surayuth Chulanont, a retired army chief and member of the Privy Council, the royal advisory body, to lead the government and absorb the pressure and demands that came with it. As prime minister, Surayuth single-handedly kept to the promised election schedule of December 2007, enabling the coup period to end peaceably.

This time, the NCPO does not have an expiry date, with the generals who are trained to rule the barracks now supervising a complex economic and government structure. In addition to the five-year transition period based around the royal succession, the junta has hinted at a 20-year revamp program for Thailand's state and society, for "better" national development. Some who initially supported the putsch two years now contend that they did not sign up for prolonged military rule that has left Thailand internationally isolated and economically stagnant.

At any rate, these conditions are unlikely to improve until the royal succession is completed. Jockeying and maneuvering will continue until then. The junta has squandered a profound chance to be the broker of a new Thailand that can reconcile the traditional elites, centered around the military-monarchy axis, with the population and its elected representatives who want democratic rule.

Instead, the generals chose to secure the royal succession and be its midwife.

Now the junta appears intent on extending its rule and role well beyond the succession, with alarming signs of repression that Thailand's civilian forces are unlikely to tolerate much longer. While the country's prospects seem dire, they are not doomed. Thai politics will continue to be topsy-turvy and volatile, but the economy is on course to expand, albeit in a subpar manner.

Growth prospects, peace and stability will likely come about after the generals step aside in favor of civilian-led compromises that can return Thailand to popular rule. Such compromises will reassure the traditional institutions and players that they will not lose all that much by making concessions and allowing Thai democracy to regain its footing. Only then can Thailand start moving forward again.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

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

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