THE ASIAN VOICE

2016 likely to be a bumpy ride for the Thai government: The Nation

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (right) speak as he delivers the one-year performance presentation of his government at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (right) speak as he delivers the one-year performance presentation of his government at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTO: EPA

Key issues such as the controversy surrounding the military’s Rajabhakti Park project, the the national referendum on the new constitutional draft and the Supreme Court verdict in the rice-pledging case against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra are set to heat up Thai politics next year.

Political activities have been effectively frozen since the military coup in May last year, at the order of the junta government, known as the  National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

However, many political observers doubt whether the ongoing calm is genuine. The situation appears peaceful because the NCPO has used its power to prohibit any political moves. Over the past year, it regularly summoned people who disagreed with it for so-called attitude adjustment. Those detained included politicians, protest leaders and political activists.

In response to the latest controversy involving the Army's Rajabhakti Park project, a number of activists have been arrested, including a few men who distributed a diagram explaining alleged legal irregularities. 

A small group of student activists were prevented from travelling to the park in Hua Hin district, Prachuap Khiri Khan, as they tried to scrutinise the project. The activists' moves caused ripples and seem to have provided some headaches for the NCPO and the government.

This particular issue is likely to heat up Thai politics next year - and the NCPO does not appear to be able to come to terms with it. What it has done is to deal with the people who campaigned about what they saw as a scandal. 

If the NCPO continues failing to clear public suspicion about this alleged scandal, the dissatisfaction certainly will grow and the pressure on its members will rise further. Suppressing corruption is a key selling point for the NCPO, and this has given it legitimacy in running the country.

Also, the country's economy has weakened and shows no sign of recovery any time soon. Despite several government stimulus projects, the economic situation has remained unchanged. The economic problems will eventually lead to increased dissatisfaction with the government.

Any unexpected factor in the future could put the government in the hot seat. And the undercurrents will re-emerge and become a severe problem. As past administrations learned the hard way, even the slightest problem could grow out of control if dealt with incorrectly.

Moreover, two other issues will prove to be key turning points for Thai politics next year - the national referendum on the new constitutional draft, and the Supreme Court verdict in the rice-pledging case against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The charter draft being written by the Constitution Drafting Commission, headed by Meechai Ruchupan, will definitely be put up to a referendum next year. Unlike the previous draft, which was voted down by the National Reform Council, this new one will not need approval from any post-coup agency.

In the run-up to the referendum, we can expect campaigns by supporters and detractors of the constitution draft, and political parties certainly will become actively involved in the campaigning.

If the draft fails to pass the national plebiscite, the NCPO and the government will remain in power. But they will be viewed with suspicion that they want to cling on to power. Even if the draft manages to pass the vote, there could be suspicions the new constitution was drafted in a way that allowed the NCPO's "inheritance" to remain in Thai politics.

Another key turning point will be a ruling by the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders in a case against Yingluck stemming from her government's corruption-plagued rice-pledging scheme. The trial, in which the ex-PM will be accused of negligence, is expected to end in November next year and the verdict is likely in late 2016 or early 2017.

If the verdict is against Yingluck, her supporters are unlikely to stay idle. In 2010, the red-shirt supporters of her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, began street protests just days after the same court ruled against him and ordered the seizure of Bt46 billion in assets found to have been gained dishonestly. The street protests, lasting more than two months, grew to become political unrest and riots, during which more than 90 people were killed and some 2,000 others injured.

So, 2016 certainly will not be another easy year for the NCPO and the government.