In December, Thailand’s military junta lifted the ban on political activities in the country– including as gatherings of over five people–ending some of the most draconian assembly laws in Southeast Asia. Thai civil society has been at the forefront of political change and the target of oppressive military intervention in Thai politics. With the ban now ended, this article explores three potential catalysts for political action ahead of potential elections later in 2019.
Luxury Watch Scandal: Just over a year ago, the country went into an uproar over a scandal by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who was criticised and investigated by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) over his failure to declare 22 luxury watches and more than a dozen rings on the list of assets submitted to the Commission when he took on the dual roles after the May 2014 coup d’etat. The public scandal seemed to crystallize a growing animosity the public has long held against coup makers, as activists have now begun a formal petition to have the NACC Commissioners impeached. Thai activist Srisuwan Janya, Secretary-General of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution has begun collecting signatures at his tea shop in Bangkok. Srisuwan aims to get as many as 20,000 signatures to send to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), who would then consider a request to the Thai Supreme Court calling for an inquiry on the grounds that the NACC Commissioners violated the Thai Constitution and the law by clearing Prawit of wrongdoing. Prawit later told journalists that the luxury watches and items he had been wearing belonged to a dead friend and had subsequently been returned.
Other activists have begun staging protests over the watch scandal, including pro-democracy activist Ekachai Hongkangwan, who in August was assaulted by individuals whom he claimed are linked to Prawit. In previous cases, where individuals had the audacity to challenge the junta, particularly Prawit, people were forcibly summoned to “attitude adjustment” sessions, which lasted as long as seven days. The military government in the prelude to a contentious and possibly delayed election, cannot afford more challenges to its legitimacy. Prawit now makes an easy target for an emboldened Thai civil society and a poster child for perceived corruption. After all, this is not Prawit’s first political scandal. Earlier in 2016, the Deputy Prime Minister chartered a flight to Hawaii with a huge entourage to attend a Defense Minister’s meeting at the invitation of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. The tab for the flights and refreshments totaled almost $1 million.
Election Postponement: Tensions between the military junta and civil society is also rupturing along the election faultlines, as the junta and the Election Commission continue to bicker over the postponement of the Parliamentary election, which had been slated for February 24. If the date is held any other date than that, it would be the fifth such delay over elections since the junta took power in May of 2014. Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists have begun staging rallies for the third time in over week, criticizing the military for the potential delay. Over the past weekend, demonstrators gathered at Ratchaprasong, the epicenter of the 2009/10 political violence demanding an election by February. While the ban on political activity has been lifted since last December, some Thais are weary about the idea that the polls could take place after the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn in May. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam suggested the election would be postponed because it would overlap with the Buddhist rituals and preparations associated with it. No election decree has been issued, which would make the polling date official. What is encouraging for civil society is that the junta has been lukewarm to criticism, only drawing a provocation from Royal Thai Army General Apirat Kongsompong, who called protesters “bent on causing trouble”.
Prospects of another coup: It was Apirat Kongsompong who prompted talk of another coup d’etat when he was asked if it would be necessary to throw a coup again, having told a reporter, “If politics does not create conflict like in the past, there is no need for us to intervene.” Members of the ruling junta have designed the Constitution and the Upper Chamber of Parliament in such a fashion that losing control of power is a near impossibility, although illiberal democracy is still possible under the most optimistic of scenarios. The goal of the new Constitution has always been to entrench junta and military loyalists in power so throwing coup would not be necessary in the future, save an outbreak of political unrest. In October, Apirat warned that he may stage another coup if people “create riots” over the next election, warning that the Army would seize power if opponents achieved an unexpected victory. Apirat is also Secretary-General of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). In being so willing to rule out future coups, Thailand’s top-ranked General clearly reveals the military’s cavalier attitude toward democracy. Thailand’s military has staged at 18 coups since 1932. The Thai armed forces have been at the center of political life in Thailand since the modern era, intervening in the Red Shirt political protests in 2010, as well as the 2006 coup which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, now the Prime Minister, overthrew Yingluck Shinawatra’s government but promised to bring democracy back to the country within 18 months. It never happened.
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Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.