As the military’s grip on power becomes increasingly entrenched through constitutional means, Duncan Bartlett assesses the chances of a return to democratic governance

The people of Thailand have entered 2018 facing a complete ban on all political activity, despite repeated promises that they would be able to vote in a general election by the end of last year.

This political lockdown has been imposed by the military government thatseized power in a coup d’état in May 2014. Amnesty International says the regime suppresses peaceful political dissent and has put thousands of civilians on trial before military courts. ‘Torture and other ill-treatment are widespread,’ according to a recent report by the organisation.

The military junta, claiming its coup was necessary following instability after the last election, named their unelected government the National Council for Peace and Order. It initially promised to step aside within a year, butinstead the military has gradually tightened its grip on power.

Now the upper house of the Thai parliament is dominated by figures chosen by the junta, and a re-written constitution ensures they will remain there with the army’s backing, even if there is an election for the lower house.

Progress towards a democratic election was further stalled with the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej two years ago, which plunged Thailand into a long period of mourning.

Professor Chris Dixon from the Global Policy Institute says, ‘The 12-month mourning period was used as cover for increased repression. People were left in no doubt that any dissent would be treated as disrespectful to the monarchy and subject to draconian lèse majestélaws.’

The upper house of the Thai parliament is dominated by figures chosen by the junta

Even well before the king’s death, the military was encouraging vigilante groups to ‘deal with’ dissidents. ‘One group, known as the Rubbish Collectors, was even rumoured to have appealed for assassins to eliminate overseas critics of the king,’ says Dixon.‘Even if such rumours were not true, they were enough to create fear and ensure compliance.’

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general in the military junta, has been sending mixed signals about when people will be able to vote in a civilian election. During a visit to the White House last year, he appeared to promise an election in late 2018, only to backtrack a few days later.

When human rights groups objected to the general’s White House visit, warning that it could lend legitimacy to the junta and extend the period of military rule, President Trump responded in typical style. ‘Our relationship on trade is becoming more and more important and Thailand is a great country to trade with,’he told Chan-ocha. ‘I think we’re going to try to sell a little bit more to you.’

In fact, Thailand has enjoyed a rise in exports, particularly to the rest of the ASEAN region. Its economy has remained stable and tourism, a vital source of foreign income, has been largely unaffected.

PM Prayuth Chan-ocha has sent mixed signals about when people will be able to vote in a civilian election
PM Prayuth Chan-ocha has sent mixed signals about when people will be able to vote in a civilian election

Somchai Jitsuchon from the Thailand Development Research Instituteexpects 2017 will show 4 per cent annual economic growth, boosted by investment from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US. But he believes much more needs to be done to close the wealth inequality gap, one of the widest in the world. According to Credit Suisse, 58 per cent of Thailand’s wealth is owned by just 1 per cent of the population.

‘The military government has attempted to create a database of the poorest people and help them directly but it’s a complicated process.’ says Jitsuchon. ‘We still have about twenty to thirty percent of the population working on farms and they can’t easily do anything else. This affects national productivity,’

There is a stark contrast between those who live in impoverished rural regions, mainly in the north and northeast of the country, and the urban, middle-class, centred in Bangkok. Each region supports different political groups and signals its allegiance by colour: yellow shirts for city dwellers, red shirts for the farmers. The junta has exploited this division, saying it instigated the coup to prevent the longstanding rivalry between the red and yellow shirts spilling into bloodshed.

It is difficult to obtain reliable information on political opinion in a country where all political activity is banned. However, FT Confidential Research, an independent research service from the Financial Times, recently conducted a survey which suggests Thais are more pessimistic about the current political situation than at any time since the military took power. Most respondents said they believed the election now promised for November 2018 will slip to 2019 or later.

And there is another piece of important unfinished political business: the fate of a former prime minister who fled the country on corruption charges.

According to Credit Suisse, 58 per cent of Thailand’s wealth is owned by just 1 per cent of the population

Yingluck Shinawatra was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia. Her supporters among the red shirts see her as a hero, fighting against the exploitation of the poor. But the yellow shirts believe she stole large sums of money which was meant to help the farmers. For the time being, Shinawatra remains in Dubai, safe from the miserable fate of being locked up in a Bangkok jail cell but sidelined from politics. Neutralising her as a political threat in this way is key for the yellow shirts, as her family has won every election it has contested since 2001.

Even if a lower house election is held in late 2018, it will not guarantee the smooth transition to democracy. Somchai Jitsuchon says the junta will probably select politicians to run for office, blurring the lines between military and civilian rule.

Professor Dixon sees another way in which the military could wrest back control. ‘After an election, the parliament could be made up of people representing many small parties and that would lead to fractious coalitions. If there was no consensus on who should form a government, the junta might pick the prime minister.’

What is more, the junta has revised the constitution in such a way that the military budget is protected for the next 20 years and cannot be changed by a civilian government. The army’s development plan for the country is also laid out for another two decades. ‘It’s clear that the real political power rests with the army,’ says Professor Dixon. ‘Ultimately, it is the generals who decide the extent of civilian democracy.’

Duncan Bartlett is a former presenter of World Business Report on the BBC World Service, specialising in Asia, and the current Editor of Asian Affairs

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