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Thai junta bows out having failed to bridge the societal divide

After 62 months of military rule, prime minister drops 'interim' from title

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in 2014. The former general has managed to keep himself in power but now must contend with opposition lawmakers.   © AP

BANGKOK -- It took almost four months after the general election for the new administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to be inaugurated.

That took place on Tuesday. The National Council for Peace and Order, which had been in charge since a military coup in May 2014, was disbanded the same day, and the country swung from military to civilian rule.

The NCPO reigned for five years and two months, much longer than the four-year terms that members of Thailand's lower house serve. Its time in power looks even more drawn-out compared with the aftermath of the coups in 1991 and 2006.

It took a year and two months for Thailand to return to civilian rule after the 1991 putsch, and a year and five months after the 2006 military takeover.

Prayuth, who led the 2014 coup, initially declared that it would take around a year and a half for Thailand to return to civilian rule, although that was offered as an estimate not a timeline.

What took so long, then? There are signs that Prayuth used the two previous military-appointed governments as points of reference.

In the 1991 coup, the military toppled the administration of Prime Minister Chartchai Chunhavan, which had come under fire over egregious money politics, and installed Anand Panyarachun, a former diplomat, as interim prime minister.

His interim government, which included many competent technocrats, found some success in eliminating corruption and easing regulations. It also rejected repeated demands from the military for an increased budget.

Thailand's former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun speaks at an event in Bangkok in March 2016.   © AP

The military felt hamstrung and unable to shape policies. As such, it created a puppet pro-junta party and eventually won the general election, going back to civilian rule.

Suchinda Kraprayoon, the army commander who led the 1991 coup, eventually accepted the prime minister's job despite having pledged not to. Demonstrators took to Bangkok's streets, and the military opened fire. King Bhumibol Adulyadej moved in to mediate, and the Suchinda government came to an end.

In the 2006 coup, the military ousted the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and installed Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander, rather than a technocrat, as interim prime minister.

The military gave the excuse that as a former army commander, Surayad was a civilian. But his installation would transfer power to the military in government.

Surayud's government would bumble through economic and security policymaking. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the army commander who led the 2006 coup, criticized him as "unmotivated," saying he should not have taken up the post.

When an election was held to return the country to civilian rule, the military could not prevent pro-Thaksin forces from returning to power, sowing political confusion.

After the 1991 and 2006 coups, the military took half a step back as it nevertheless backed the interim government. Each time, the generals failed to accomplish much of anything.

Sonthi recently said Prayuth probably "learned a lesson from me." The lesson? Do not be bashful about taking direct control of the interim government.

Former Thai army chief commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin speaks to Nikkei in Bangkok. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

Prayuth not only took charge, he also managed to carry out some constructive reforms.

After once again inserting itself between the Thaksin camp and its opponents, the military's biggest task in 2014 was to restore civil order and mend the nation's deep political divide. Thaksin had gained the support of farmers by implementing measures that boosted their incomes and livelihoods. Those policies, though, were ultimately divisive, as the establishment felt threatened and the nation split into pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin camps.

After accepting the challenge, Prayuth borrowed some wisdom from Thaksin, who won over farmers and other marginalized groups with generous financial handouts.

Prayuth also banned political gatherings. While this latter move restored order, it did so superficially, and Thailand's great inequality remains.

Rather than offer direct financial assistance like Thaksin, Prayuth introduced a property tax. Like other emerging nations, Thailand had lacked a mechanism to redistribute wealth. The result? A barrier between the haves and have-nots. This is reflected in Thailand's Gini coefficient, a measure of income distribution. A coefficient close to 0 shows a nation with relative income equality. A reading close to 1, on the other hand, shows income inequality. At the time of the coup, Thailand's coefficient hovered at around 0.4, a level at which instability threatens society.

Thaksin's handouts to the impoverished cemented his popularity but he never sought seriously to narrow the gap between rich and poor. He never called for the imposition of property taxes, which would hit not just Thailand's elite but more importantly, billionaires like himself.

The junta, on the other hand, looked at wealth-distribution taxes as excellent tools to show the masses that it was delivering true economic reform. In 2016, it introduced an inheritance tax. A fixed-asset tax will be imposed in 2020.

Yet the tax rates are lower than initially planned, and the system is rife with exemptions and other loopholes. The Bangkok Post has reported that the law is a greatly watered-down version of the original bill, and economists see little likelihood that the new taxes can tear down that wall between the haves and have-nots.

A member of the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" group holds a picture of ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra during a rally in Nakhon Pathom province on the outskirts of Bangkok in May 2014.   © Reuters

The junta's economic measures succeeded to a certain extent. In 2017, Thailand's growth rate surpassed 4% for the first time in five years. Prayuth's government also pressed ahead with a grand public works project, the Eastern Economic Corridor, designed to transform a coastal industrial zone into an advanced industrial region.

But in a survey conducted by Suan Dusit University in July 2017, 74% of respondents said they did not think progress had been made in bridging the Thai divide.

Jade Donavanik, chairman of the law faculty at the College of Asian Scholars, who was also a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee, evaluates the junta rather harshly. "The clear achievement is keeping country peaceful. The [biggest] failure is making reconciliation," he said.

The military government should have used its heavy hand and the lack of a political opposition to quickly push through reforms that elude civilian governments.

Instead, it revised the constitution to adopt an electoral system that favored itself. This was a transparent move by a government that knew it had not won over Thai hearts and minds. Under the constitution that was established in April 2017, 250 upper-house lawmakers would be appointed by the junta, joining 500 elected lower-house members. A vote among all 750 members would determine the prime minister.

Prayuth easily won that vote, and the word "interim" has been removed from his title. His key ministers also return, and the military maintains its sway, for what that's worth.

The prime minister now heads a 19-party coalition government, a rarity in global politics. With such a fragile control over the government, Prayuth's ability to heal the nation is questionable.

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