The Asian Voice

What is Prayut up to? Nation columnist

Thai Buddhist monk Phra Buddha Isara has been charged with illegal association for his role in the People's Democratic Reform Committee protests in 2014.
Thai Buddhist monk Phra Buddha Isara has been charged with illegal association for his role in the People's Democratic Reform Committee protests in 2014.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Just when we thought nothing could make the upcoming election, and its consequences, more unpredictable, officials have gone ahead and defrocked Phra Buddha Isara.

(The former monk, whose layman name is Suvit Thongprasert, was arrested in the Nakhon Pathom city of central Thailand, last Thursday by a team of armed police. He has been charged with illegal association for his role in the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protests in 2014 and the unauthorised use of the initials of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit in amulets.)

The move means that under the controversial regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, former premier Yingluck Shinawatra, the leader of the "red" camp, had to flee the country after being found guilty of corruption-related dereliction of duty, while one of the leaders of "the other camp" has been arrested, stripped of his monkhood and slapped with weapon robbery charges.

The first case did not change a thing, as Prayut would remain immensely unpopular with the red-shirt people no matter what happened to Yingluck.

The latter case is highly intriguing, as the ex-monk's supporters form a sizeable power base for Prayut.

The military-backed prime minister seems to be making enemies left and right.

The arrest and defrocking took place amid an outcry over the detention of pro-election activists.

Older generations of anti-Thaksin activists have not been spared either.

Key yellow-shirt protesters have been either put behind bars or found guilty of unlawful acts.

Some may defend Prayut's apparent "neutrality", though virtually nobody believes his acts will lead to political reconciliation.

Others have taken the man to task for turning the already-destructive national polarity into a hate triangle of a massive scale.

The siege of the Dhammakaya Temple, whose ex-abbot is still on the run, is another heavily politicised case that brought the local and international spotlight on the Prayut regime.

While Dhammakaya has been deeply connected with the Shinawatras, a lot of senior monks who face a government crackdown on corruption or embezzlement are not.

Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the anti-Yingluck mass protests in the months before Prayut's coup, returned to the political limelight recently, with widespread speculation he is ready to lead a new party.

Analysts immediately saw a Suthep-Prayut alliance and deemed it a powerful one ahead of the election.

That perception has been rocked by the arrest and defrocking of Phra Buddha Isara, who also led anti-Yingluck protests around the same time as Suthep, albeit in a more controversial way.

Simply put, Prayut has done what seems to be a textbook example of what not to do if you want to play politics.

Yet he is accused of wanting to extend his political hold on power way after the election.

What is going on here?

The first theory has an idealistic answer. Prayut, goes this theory, wants genuine reform and does not care who likes or dislikes him.

That Prayut is being scolded left and right means he must have been doing something good, it says.

The second theory sees a politically ambitious Prayut, who's arrogant and confident of his "real" power, enough to not care whether politicians or activists support him or not.

Prayut in this theory is shrewd, stands above "standard politics" that features the standard shifting of alliances.

The action against Phra Buddha Isara is part of a multi-level plan of the sort that requires you to sacrifice a key piece in a chess game.

The third theory is, on the surface, like the second one.

Only it does not rate Prayut's shrewdness.

He is seen as playing standard politics by co-opting some former rivals.

He was back-pedalling and the Phra Buddha Isara incident was just a spin intended to distract the public from the plight of arrested "pro-election" activists and created an impression of an unprejudiced agenda.

Whether it is the first, or second, or third, theory, Pheu Thai must be smiling.

The red camp remains unwaveringly united, whereas "the other side" has been split into groups that could compete against each other for votes.

While Yingluck's "plight" must have solidified support for Pheu Thai, a former monk in prison outfit means anti-Thaksin votes will be divided among estranged parties.

Winning the election and being in the next government are different things, though.

Barring a massive landslide victory, post-election alliances remain something as unpredictable as ever.

To form a government coalition, Pheu Thai will need at least one key ally, without which the party can become one of those election winners who end up in the opposition bloc.

There have been talks about a "national government", which means everyone gets some bit of the cake and there will be no opposition in Parliament.

That scenario is unlikely, though not impossible.

But whatever pans out - a national coalition, a Prayut-led coalition, a Pheu Thai-led coalition or a Democrat-led coalition - it may require the age-old tactic of divide and rule.

Whoever can pull that strategy off will probably emerge as the ultimate winner of this power play.

The writer, a former journalist, comments regularly on Thai current affairs. The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.