Avoiding no-win game in Thailand

The Thai people have cause to be dismayed by the drift of constitutional abridgements their kingdom has undergone since the coup of May 22. The dynamism of plurality will have dissipated so much by the time the country reverts to civilian control that there will be doubts whether voters will have much of a choice when an election is called. The army, courtiers and establishment elites in business and the public services are unchallenged after prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed in an insurrection supported by the military.

The most repressive act, from the standpoint of preserving the rootstock of democracy, was the purge of institutions and personnel allied with the Shinawatra political structure. This has been justified by the junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), on the grounds that restoring order and investor confidence required the expunging of what it called the venality and cronyism of the Shinawatra clan and its acolytes.

But Thailand is a nation divided on class lineage, one of the most corrosive there is. So, the current leaders will have to contend with ingrained cynicism about their championing of governing integrity. On top of that, a provisional Constitution now in force confers absolute power on General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta head. It encapsulates the distrust common people have of the upper classes.

General Prayuth will not need to be named prime minister by the appointed Parliament, although he is expected to be when it meets this week. As NCPO chief, he can override Parliament and the interim government, and act in any way he regards as consistent with the national interest. And officers who had a hand in the coup will have immunity from prosecution so as to execute their tasks of running the country during these troubled times.

How much damage all this will inflict on the body politic is hard to assess, but an indication will come over time whether or not the Shinawatras are able to mount a challenge. The past is no guide. It is thought Thaksin Shinawatra was tacitly allowed to go into exile when he was cleared to travel to Beijing in 2008 for the Olympic Games, despite a prison sentence hanging over his head.

His sister Yingluck is facing various charges but was permitted to visit Europe, where she has been reunited with her brother.

From hereon, the guessing game takes wing. But an outline emerges: If the establishment cannot rule Thailand by winning elections, it will do so by other means. It is when the people, including those who dare to stare the gun down, agitate for a real say in their future that opposing leaders will face the risk of going for broke instead of working hard to achieve national reconciliation.