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Here We Go Again: Thailand’s Return to Military Rule

Here We Go Again: Thailand’s Return to Military Rule

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By Stephen Jaber

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             Six months after the Royal Thai Armed Forces overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Tai Party (PTP) backed government, Thailand braces for the next phase in the military junta’s dominance.[1] The military junta, unironically called The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), seized power following widespread protests that hoped to oust Shinawatra from power due to the corruption of her cabinet. Moreover, protesters were fed up with the sizable influence exerted by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, who had ruled Thailand from 2001 to 2006.[2] Thaksin’s government was similarly removed via military coup. Nonetheless, the Shinawatras have seen their influence diminished by this most recent military coup. On April 1st 2015, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha lifted martial law and has opted to rule via the interim constitution that the junta imposed upon seizing power.[3] As this is Thailand’s 19th constitution in less than 80 years, Thailand’s future as a liberal-democracy is increasingly under threat. A situation in which an unaccountable and unmuzzled military is able to paralyze democratic development is no environment fit for the democratic renaissance Thailand was close to achieving.. [4]

Yingluck Shinawatra’s government was not an angelic liberal democracy. The government was a function of a constitutional regime that was severely ineffective and largely watered down from its predecessor that was enabled by the 1997 Constitution.[5] The 1997 Constitution, nostalgically referred to as “The People’s Constitution,” was a relatively populist document that enshrined respect for human rights, religious freedom and stipulated increased democratic decision making in the form of a directly elected senate and house of representatives.[6]Contrasted with the 2007 Constitution that served as the institutional framework for Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, the 1997 Constitution was exceedingly more liberal and promising for Thailand’s democratic future.

A bit of history on Thailand’s two-decade long democratic backsliding is necessary for understanding the current situation. Following the implementation of the 1997 constitution, the first Shinawatra administration was able to largely maintain unconstrained rule and control major policy organizations of the government. In some ways this violated the spirit of the constitution, while also offending the conservative establishment that resented the first Shinawatra administration. An unexpected by product of the constitution’s wide-reaching liberalism was a large power brokerage to the executive. Nonetheless, the military, bureaucratic civil servants, and the monarchy all voiced displeasure towards the administration’s deployment of ministerial power. Shinawatra loyalists were appointed to key military positions, and civil servants disdained the party’s use of the bureaucracy as a political instrument. Most importantly, the monarchy, headed by the world’s longest reigning king, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was worried that monarchical influence would dissipate in the face of a popular Shinawatra administration and a centralized, and effective Thai Rak Thai Party (TRTP).[7] [8]

After Thaksin Shinawatra was removed in a bloodless coup d’état in September 2006, The People’s Constitution was superseded in 2007 by a military imposed constitution that severely weakened the populist oriented rhetoric of its predecessor.[9] The 2007 constitution limited the Prime Minister’s power vis-à-vis the parliament, restricted the the office to a two-term limit, lowered the opposition seat requirement to launch a vote of no confidence, and prompted a weak legislative system that answered the aspirations of Thailand’s conservative elite.[10] The elite, who had been “victims” of the first Shinawatra’s unexpected power consolidation, welcomed the return to “normalcy” in the face of a neutered executive and an excessively fractured legislature. In essence, the 2007 constitution was doomed to fail as it encouraged a political environment that resembled the troubled and ineffective eras prior to The People’s Constitution.

With a weak institutional arrangement in the form of a dangerously insolvent and conservative constitution, crippling protests galvanized by the opposition Democratic Party (led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban) became an issue that prompted military confrontation.[11] Thailand has particularly susceptible to coups and has experienced somewhere around 20 coups since 1912. As the military repeatedly cited The Military Law Act of 1914, which gives the army “superior power” over government, and national security as recurring justifications for direct intervention and coupled with quiet acceptance by King Adulyadej, it was all but expected that military would intervene in May 2014.[12] [13] Furthermore, in May 2014, the military’s casus belli was to restore order and enact political reforms, an expected yet empty promise that has yet to be delivered almost a year later.[14]

Until this year, Thai coups more-or-less followed a formula: civilian government is deposed in a bloodless military coup, the King legitimizes the endeavor, a new constitution is written and civilian government is restored. Rinse and repeat. General-Prime-Minister Chan-ocha’s recent declaration that Article 44 of the interim constitution “will be invoked with an aim to deploy military officers in tasks related to maintenance of national order,” indicates that the military is over the martial law stage.[15] The vagueness and hazy wording of Article 44 (maintenance of national order is not defined in this context), paired with some bellicose rhetoric from Chan-ocha, — he was said in November, “Don’t ask me to give you democracy and elections. This is not the right time” — mark troubling developments for Thailand.[16] [17] There is certainly a break with tradition here, given that Chan-ocha can be expected to rule with impunity given the wide-reaching authority and obscurity of Article 44 there are worries that a return to civilian rule will become a distant pipe dream.

In any case, as is typical of military juntas, rule under the NCPO has not been fractionally friendly to human rights. The junta has indicated plans to combine the Thai National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Office of the Ombudsman (the office responsible for investigating complains against maladministration of public authorities) in a selection process closed to the public and without deliberation with civil society organizations. This move, according to the Human Rights Watch, would gut the agency while also exposing the military’s disregard towards human rights.[18] That the military has brought forth 14 cases of “lese majeste” (insulting the monarchy), continues proves that there is no break in tradition.[19] Indeed between 2005 and 2011, there were 400 cases of “lese majeste” brought forth.[20] The military and police have routinely arrested those deemed as threads to the establishment. By the end of March of 2015 the military had enacted “14 articles … under Article 44” that give the military the authority to make arrests, conduct searches, censor the media and crack down on any threats against the monarchy or towards national security.[21] There should be no expectations that the military would moderate its image after its ~ 25th coup.

The military-government control of Thailand’s political future has not yet reached its climax. Developments could shift towards civilian rule or continue in the manner that it is currently projected: a strong military dictatorship. Nonetheless, Chan-ocha remains stalwart towards his regime’s worrying democratic subversion: “Article 44 will be exercised constructively," he said, "don't worry, if you're not doing anything wrong, there's no need to be afraid."[22] The situation can further be escalated by more confounding variables that have yet to fully materialize. A succession crisis might be underway as King Adulyadej is 87 and his heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is not as well respected as his father. Having pledged loyalty to Thaksin in the past, Vajiralongkorn is now trying to align himself with the Bangkok elite. The Crown Prince’s reputation as a “hothead, womanizer, and poor decision-maker” has placed him firmly in contention with his father, who not only has been a sober and moderating force in Thailand but also has a cult of personality throughout the country.[23] [24] Thailand could be facing a monarchical existential crisis that would severely complicate the military’s position given that the military has used its support of King Adulyadej as a shield from public dissent, Vajiralongkorn does not enjoy the publics unconditional love.

Thailand’s economy is showing signs of slow-down as the World Bank’s 2015 projections place the economy as the slowest growing in the region.[25] Thailand’s household debt levels are rising fast, and the country’s growth rates since 2010 have paled in comparison to the Philippines’ (6.9%) and Malaysias’ (5.8).[26] [27] Thailand was once hurtling towards being a regional economic leader, but frequently military putsches have dissuaded investors and tempered growth rates. Slow growth rates and a potential currency depreciation will make the junta’s task even more demanding if they are to seemingly fix political corruption as well.

As the country moves forward with a military junta once again at the helm, moderation and effective leadership must be implemented in the form of civilian rule as quickly as possible. These suggestions, however, are likely to be ignored by the hot-tempered General who has taken a one-dimensional attitude towards power in Thailand. On March 23rd 2015, Chan-ocha declared in a speech, “"In the past, our society experienced many problems because we were too democratic.”[28] Thailand remains "99 percent" free, he continued, because if it wasn't "we'd jail [our opponents] and put them before the firing squad. Then it would all be over and I wouldn't have to lie awake at night."[29]

Thailand’s leaders need to get serious about reform and stability. In a country fraught with violence, and uncertainty, the military must return to the barracks and civilian politicians need to remain in parliament.Paranoid dictatorships are the question and never the answer, Thailand’s politicians and leaders would be wise to look to souring situations iun Russia, Zimbabwe and Turkey before getting complacent with Chan-ocha.

[1] http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/22/can-thailand-move-beyond-the-coup/

[2] http://www.voanews.com/content/turmoil-in-thailand-corruption-and-a-political-struggle/1857954.html

[3] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/01/asia/thailand-martial-law-article-44/

[4] http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/06/06/thailand-needs-to-talk/

[5] ibid.

[6] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/thailand/constitution-1997.htm

[7] The 2007 Thai Constitution: A Return to Politics Past

Allen Hicken

Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Vol. 19, No. 1 (2007) , pp. 128-160

Published by: Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40860871

[8] http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/09/us-thailand-king-idUSKBN0M50V220150309

[9] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/thailand/constitution-2007.htm

[10] The 2007 Thai Constitution: A Return to Politics Past

Allen Hicken

Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Vol. 19, No. 1 (2007) , pp. 128-160

Published by: Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40860871

[11] http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/12/11/thailands-popular-protests-have-nothing-to-do-with-democracy/

[12] http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/05/22/314862858/why-does-thailand-have-so-many-coups

[13] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/12/how-to-survive-10-coups-lessons-from-the-king-of-thailand/383465/

[14] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-25149484

[15] http://www.thaigov.go.th/en/government-en1/item/91045-91045.html

[16] https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/29/thailand-human-rights-free-fall

[17] http://www.wsj.com/articles/thailand-unravels-1417572686

[18] https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/03/thailand-keep-independent-rights-commission

[19] https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/29/thailand-human-rights-free-fall

[20] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/27/thailand-arrests-american-for-alleged-king-insult/?page=all

[21] http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/04/01/world/asia/ap-as-thailand-martial-law-makeover.html

[22] ibid.

[23] http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2014/12/04/thailands-royal-succession-battle-comes-into-slightly-more-open-view/

[24] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/12/how-to-survive-10-coups-lessons-from-the-king-of-thailand/383465/

[25]http://qz.com/369281/thailands-teflon-economy-finally-seems-to-be-cracking/

[26] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/bb229c5c-e3e6-11e4-9a82-00144feab7de.html

[27] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-16/thai-gdp-growth-falls-further-behind-neighbors-chart-of-the-day

[28] http://qz.com/369281/thailands-teflon-economy-finally-seems-to-be-cracking/

[29] http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/28/world/asia/ap-as-thailand-prayuths-world.html

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