Lockdown and anxiety in Thailand

Military leaders may project an image of business as usual, but the reality is suppressed scepticism, tension and opposition.


After seven months of eerie calm following Thailand's latest military coup on May 22 last year, prospects for South-east Asia's second-largest economy this year are characterised by anxiety and apprehension about what is to come.

Thailand's virtual lockdown since the coup is likely to be maintained in this transitional period, where a resurgent monarchy-centred political order must come to grips with inexorable democratic arrangements. The hitherto elusive balance between old powers and new politics, between Thailand circa the Cold War and its offspring in the early 21st century, will continue to underpin and determine political outcomes next year and thereafter. Under the current military regime, security and order apparently have superseded prosperity and freedom.

Thailand's lockdown has been as astonishing as it has been unsurprising. With a military regime under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) ensconced in power after the putsch and governing the country directly, as opposed to delegating to technocrats and policy professionals, it was a matter of time before the ruling generals' mindset, organisational culture and values and preferences would become entrenched and dominant. Consequently, Thais are forced to adhere to traditional values and symbols as if their clock of progress had been turned back a few decades.

Of course, most matters outside political life are still business as usual. Those not engaged in politics and policymaking will still find Thailand a hospitable, permissive and forgiving place. But the military's role in politics and society will become increasingly salient and controversial. The military authorities may project a business-as-usual image, but the reality is increasingly marked by suppressed scepticism, tension and opposition.

The maintenance of martial law since the coup is a telling indicator, as military-authoritarianism has reared its repressive head in a country that was on the verge of democratic consolidation less than two decades ago. More manifestations of the military's resurgence during the grand transition and the royal succession are likely this year, with a build-up to consequences spilling over into a reckoning of sorts next year. Several trends and dynamics are discernible.

Voters' rights

FIRST, the ticking clock for a return to democratic rule by early next year will put pressure on the military regime. It is clear now that the ongoing Constitution-drafting process will stem from the 2007 charter template, which was effectively set up by the previous coup in September 2006. Like the current draft that is being deliberated, the 2007 version was crafted in a top-down fashion, but failed to keep deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra's party machine from winning the vote.

Until the authorities and the major players during the current coup period acknowledge that Thai politics, henceforth, will have to be more about the electorate than about the elite, Thailand will keep going around in circles. The current anti-corruption campaign is a move in the right direction but, in the end, it must rely on informing voters about their rights and responsibilities and about the consequences of their vote. Another top-down charter, without public participation and inclusiveness, will only spell more political difficulties down the road.

Moreover, the return to electoral democracy after a new Constitution will depend on what happens in the political arena. The NCPO is unlikely to hold open elections unless it has a say in post-election outcomes. The risks are just too high for the ruling generals to simply return to the barracks. The probability of a military-aligned party will heighten in the months ahead, perhaps in combination with a ban on some of the erstwhile elected politicians, including Thaksin's sister and ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, to level the playing field in the coupmakers' and their supporters' favour.

What might sap support

SECOND, the economy will be consequential for the military's legitimacy and support from the pro-coup coalition. If the economy drifts into a recession of any sort, pro-coup support can erode just as quickly. The military government's challenge is how to drive the Thai economy forward when the generals are not trained for the job.

Policy contradictions are rife, such as trying to stimulate demand while contemplating a rise in a string of taxes at the same time. Enticing investors has been impeded by nationalist allusions, such as the proposed revision of the Foreign Business Act to crack down on foreign ownership.

Fundamentally, the military's command-control culture is ill-suited for economic management and, thus, we are likely to see more contradictions. Yet, if economic growth this year comes in at about 3 per cent, it is unlikely to sap pro-coup support enough to derail the military government.

Third, corruption will be the military's Achilles' heel. Corruption also involves nepotism, collusion and cronyism, rolled up into hypocrisy. For example, whether Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's brother Preecha Chan-o-cha is elevated to the top army post from his current assistant army chief position will be scrutinised. It is naive to expect complete integrity and honesty of any Thai government. But if corruption becomes unmanageable without a semblance of accountability, then tension and resistance against the military government will build and come to the fore.

Fourth, if there is going to be outright opposition to the military government, it is likely to come from the pro-coup coalition, particularly the former People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and its forerunner, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The Thaksin side, including the Puea Thai party and the leadership of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, has kept quiet because it has much to lose by rising up at this time. Without leadership, funding and organisation, ordinary anti-coup red shirts in the north and north-east do not have the wherewithal to mobilise. But if the PDRC and PAD feel sufficiently disillusioned with the coup period after all the heavy lifting they did in the recent past, then the military government can expect trouble. Other civil society groups will also have a louder voice, but it is unlikely to be enough to bring down the military government as compared with the overlapping forces of the PDRC and PAD.

Finally, Thailand's transitional endgame during this lockdown period will require compromise and accommodation. The established centres of power and the newly empowered forces of electoral democracy will need to come to terms with new rules of the game that place the electorate at the front and centre of political outcomes.

The old centres of power will have to give up some to keep much of the prerogatives and privileges they have enjoyed, and the newer sources of power in people's representatives must show more integrity and better policy performance. As in the past decade, this compromise is imperative but so far elusive. Until the Thais can agree on them, Thailand will not be able to move on and forward.

The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.