BY INVITATION

Thai junta's elusive soft landing

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Five months after the military coup in Thailand, generals face pressure to deliver on reform promises. Rather than bemoan the scourge of populist electoral politics, they can adopt a form of responsible populism that puts people first.

As its latest military coup on May 22 crosses the five-month mark, Thailand will either end up with the most benevolent and enlightened military-dominated regime in the country's political annals that will clean up graft and institute reforms like no previous government has done - or it will face an inevitable collision between the pro- and anti-coup forces down the road.

With virtually absolute power and no public accountability, the ruling generals under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha who also serves as Prime Minister, have set themselves up for political dead ends that are likely to lead to tension and turmoil next year and beyond.

In retrospect, the day of the coup was the NCPO's political zenith where they had supreme power and authority, backed by force and the law in their hand, amid implacable anti-government street protests and an ineffectual elected government under proxy leaders answerable to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

But since the day of the coup, it has been all about the top brass' management of their political descent.

If the generals are astute and effective managers of the coup period, their descending slope will be gradual over a limited timeframe, leading to a soft landing and smart exit strategy.

The top brass could slow down the descent by tackling hitherto corruption of politicians and officials without adding their own graft.

They can make their descent gradual by delivering solid economic growth and institute lasting reforms that the Thai public want to see.

They can come up with fair rules in an inclusive Constitution-drafting process with public participation.

In short, the generals should essentially do what they have pledged by suspending and reforming Thai democracy to strengthen it for good once and for all, with better checks and balance, and more transparency and accountability.

However, the descent of the military regime appears to be steepening as its legitimacy in resolving a protracted societal conflict erodes and is overwhelmed by growing mistakes and missteps from policy mismanagement, economic slowdown, creeping vested interests, and abuse of power.

Past lessons

A CLEAR lesson of the military's rapid political descent in the past was in the 1991-92 coup period when the generals organised a political party and took over elected office. It ended in bloodshed as a pro-democracy movement extirpated the disguised military dictatorship.

The 2006-07 coup period was different. The coup-makers were fortuitous because their putsch was lacklustre, sharing power with and losing control to an ineffective civilian caretaker government. The weak coup of 2006 ironically let its makers off the hook because they were forced to step away after the 2007 Constitution was promulgated and elections held.

Dating back farther, military rulers in the late 1970s was smart in making concessions and accommodation to share and eventually transfer power to elected civilians.

This time, by holding immense and concentrated power and by ruling the country directly without a technocratic caretaker administration, the current coup- makers are taking a huge gamble without any buffer or shared responsibility.

Success demands that they manage their own withdrawal from politics with selfless aims and a policy wherewithal that has not been seen in previous military-dominated governments. Failure would raise major risks, not just for the generals but also for Thailand.

Boxed in

AT THIS stage, the NCPO has boxed itself in unnecessarily on several fronts.

Its ongoing restrictions on academic freedom and basic civil liberties are counterproductive. Suppression of academic freedom can only beget more suppression of academic freedom. It will take on a self-perpetuating logic.

Shutting down debates and conversations, including criticism, does not make them go away. And the longer and the more academic freedom remains suppressed, the more difficult it will be to do away with suppression.

What the military-dominated government should be doing is to urge constructive conversations, discourage unfair anti-government criticisms, and actually engage critics on merit-driven grounds - that is, making the military's own argument and putting its views across.

This is difficult for a hierarchical organisation like the Thai military where chains of command and unwavering loyalty are paramount. But it has to learn to do so. Thailand, after all, is moving from 2014 to 2015, not stuck in the 1970s and 80s.

The military wants to recapture the glory years when Thailand's traditional political order revolving around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy was rock solid - but such efforts are futile in the 21st century.

What Thailand needs is a recalibration and compromise between the old order and newly awakened voices in a new political arrangement that maintains electoral democracy with accountability.

Stifling basic freedoms and keeping martial law in place will only generate tension and discontent. Maintaining martial law indefinitely provides a false sense of security.

When it is eventually lifted, the consequent grievances from repression are likely to be fiercer and more virulent than otherwise. For Thailand's military regime, it is better to live with limited insecurity than manufactured security.

Scourge of electoral politics

THE generals have rightly defined Thailand's corruption scourge as emanating from elected politicians, and they have a point.

Thai politicians look at politics like a lucrative business that involves cronies and associates in shrewd graft schemes at the expense of taxpayers, skimming from the national budget at will. But the best way to tackle corruption is to strengthen democratic institutions and accountability and to cultivate and deepen an anti-corruption culture.

Demonising politicians will lead to brick walls as long as electoral rule is to return. This means the ruling generals will have to come up with either their preferred politicians to run in the next election, or perhaps even their own political party. Either way, demonising politicians at large can only undermine the future of representative democracy and electoral rule in Thailand.

Related to corruption is the bad reputation that has been attributed to populism because it conjures up the worst images of politicians, perhaps personified by Thaksin.

While repeatedly successful at the polls, his patronising brand of populism was often ill-considered and based on short-term personal gains rather than the longer good of the country. The costly rice-pledging scheme under the administration of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra was a case in point. It was aimed at electoral gains without fiscal prudence, resulting in multi-billion dollars in losses to taxpayers.

But making an enemy of populism is not what Thailand needs.

All good governments are populist by definition because they serve people, address grievances, and cater to popular demands and expectations. Pro-people policies can be a good thing.

What the Thai generals should espouse is responsible populism that the Thai people can have ownership of and be connected to, a pro-people platform that is fiscally sound and does not mortgage the future of younger generations.

The NCPO generals can have instant gratification by suppressing basic civil liberties but this will bring adverse consequences down the road. They can make quick enemies of populism and politicians now but they will need their own populism and politicians later.

Their short-term gains do not serve their longer-term aims.

At this pace of performance, their soft landing may soon appear increasingly elusive.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.