Two years since Thailand’s military coup, country heading for turmoil

By: Daniel Besant - Posted on: May 20, 2016 | Current Affairs

This Sunday marks two years since a military coup in Thailand, and the junta’s promised stability seems a long way off

This weekend, Thailand’s military junta reaches a significant anniversary, but it is unlikely many – either within or outside its ranks – will be celebrating.

military coup
Thai soldiers keep watch in front of the military base in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: EPA/Narong Sangnak

Two years ago on 22 May, the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council – its name changed 48 hours later to the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – wrested power from the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Since taking the reins, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, has ruled under Article 44 of an interim constitution. This gives him absolute power to issue orders to “strengthen public unity and harmony” or to prevent any act that undermines public peace.

The military government keeps a watchful eye on social media, the press and any hints of protest. With draconian computer crime and lèse-majesté legislation to hand, the NCPO has imprisoned critics and issued compulsory summonses to several hundred dissidents to attend “attitude readjustment” sessions in military camps. All of which has induced a climate of fear.

“The media has faced intense censorship. Public protest against the government has been prohibited. Meanwhile, cases of lèse-majesté have skyrocketed,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. “On top of that, the military government has never been hesitant to intrude into private messages on the social media [accounts] of Thai users.”

On the 7 August, Thailand is set to hold a national referendum on a draft constitution. Drawn up by 21 NCPO-appointed writers, it specifies that a 250-member upper house is to be nominated by the junta. Six of those senate seats are designated for top military brass. Public criticism of the proposed constitution has been outlawed.

Commenting last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was critical of the military’s increasing dominance. “Extending the military’s powers is not the answer to rebuilding Thailand’s political landscape,” he said. “On the contrary, Thailand has competent civilian institutions and should be looking to strengthen the rule of law and good governance, not undermine it.”

Much is at stake for the junta with the referendum, according to Chachavalpongpun. What it craves is “legitimacy, legitimacy, legitimacy”, he said. “The approval of the constitution would give legitimacy to the constitution in itself and equally important the legitimacy of the NCPO,” the academic added. “Internationally speaking, this would also compel Western nations to endorse the constitution and the general elections which will follow.”

Whatever happens, the referendum will be contentious. Many individuals and a large swathe of civil society groups oppose it, as do factions in the Puea Thai party, which includes supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother – and a faction within the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra Democrat Party. And the longer the military government stays on, the more likely it is to collapse in on itself.

“Generally speaking, the longer a military dictator rules, the more risk there is of internal dissent and factionalism,” said Lee Jones, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. “This is why pure military dictatorships typically don’t last very long and why the NCPO doesn’t want to rule indefinitely. The risks are heightened in [Chan-ocha’s] case because he is so erratic and incompetent.”

Writing in the Straits Times on 14 May, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said turmoil looms on the horizon. If the draft constitution is rejected, the prime minister has indicated another will be drafted – which would be the third during his time in office. If successful, “the consequent election will risk being rigged for a four-star general to take the premiership in a military-conceived ‘custodial’ democracy.”

“Either way, Thailand is heading inexorably towards tension and turmoil,” Pongsudhirak added. “The military will become increasingly heavy-handed as it loses control and dissent mounts, and pro-democracy forces are too scattered and divided on the Thaksin fault line to fill in the gap.”

In the meantime, support for Chan-ocha is haemorrhaging. Since launching two years ago with high popularity, one of the junta leader’s two TV shows, “Returning Happiness to the People,” has plummeted to the depths of the ratings. At the same time, the government’s Facebook page can barely muster 20,000 followers.

“This is an obvious indication of the deteriorating of popularity of the junta. We must understand that the junta has never been popular among the mass population anyway,” said Chachavalpongpun. “But when the [leadership] has shown no sign of seriousness about returning power to the Thai people, many of them see no point in why they have to continue to watch silly propaganda from the state again. Trust me, many Thais are so tired of him.”

The powers-that-be have completely failed in their stated aim to reconcile Thai society and create a stable political order, said Jones. “The NCPO has only succeeded in uniting Thailand’s political factions against itself,” he added. “Basic rights are being undermined, while the economy is suffering under military misrule. Thailand is going backwards.”