Thailand in 2014: Reform or Repression?
May 28, 2014
After declaring martial law for just a couple of days, Thailand’s military decided to launch a full-blown military “takeover” which most people in the rest of the world called a coup. The junta is now called the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC). The reaction in Thailand was mixed. Those who supported the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) are elated, as a government that they viewed as corrupt and guilty of abusing its power has been removed. By contrast, supporters of the Pheu Thai party and the Red Shirts say that the military intervention has once again denied them their popular electoral mandate as it did in 2006. For many other Thais of no particular political stripe, they feel saddened by the coup and view it as a significant setback in Thailand’s political development.
Compared to 2006, this coup is indeed different. The 2006 coup set a timetable of about a year to hold elections and restore democracy. The military, by and large, met this timetable. This coup has no such timetable. The Thai army commander, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, has said the military will run the government “indefinitely.” The military has instituted some harsh restrictions on the Thai populace – banning groups of more than five people from gathering; shutting down more than 200 websites deemed to be a threat to national security; shutting down television stations; telling newspapers and on-line media to be “cooperative”; and ordering 200 academics, journalists, and activists to report to the army’s headquarters for possible detention. Those who fail to comply can face up to two years in prison. In addition, civilians charged with lèse majesté will be tried by military court martial, not in criminal court. Such measures are reminiscent of General Sarit Thanarat who ruled Thailand with an iron fist from 1957 until his death in 1963.
While in power, General Prayuth has said he wants to “reform the political structure, economy, and society.” But under what terms will this reform take place and who gets to decide is unclear. A major question being asked both in Thailand and internationally is whether Thailand, under the NPOMC, will lead to more reforms or repression. What General Prayuth has accomplished in the past week is the isolation of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and former cabinet ministers under the Pheu Thai party from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was deposed in the 2006 coup. General Prayuth will do his best to make sure he can isolate anyone who might be viewed as an ally of Thaksin as he is loathed by the military and most members of Thailand’s established elite. The NPOMC will make every effort to make sure Thaksin cronyism is eradicated. This will not be easy given Dr. Thaksin’s money, networks inside the country, popularity (albeit somewhat diminished), and his public relations efforts abroad.
The established elite might loathe Thaksin Shinawatra, but he is loved by many Thais who have said that he was the first politician to pay attention to their needs and to give them a sense that their voice matters. Thais in rural areas are more cosmopolitan than they were decades ago. They are more mobile, better educated, and more informed about the world through cable television, the internet, and social media. Moreover, Thaksin’s populist policies are difficult to dispel for the working class and poor in the north and northeastern parts of the country. The military understands this and one of their first priorities is to pay rice farmers money that was overdue for the disastrous rice-pledging scheme implemented under the last government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister.
Assuming efforts at reform will be serious, and whoever the NPOMC selects to participate on reform committees will have a major task on their hands. Amid this political unrest, Thailand faces many other issues, including an ever-widening income disparity gap, a sub-par educational system, antiquated infrastructure, environmental degradation, and pervasive corruption. These are issues that both the Pheu Thai (and its various iterations over the past 14 years) and the Democrat Party were largely unsuccessful in addressing effectively. General Prayuth, the military, and other institutions comprising Thailand’s established elite want to vanquish Thaksin Shinawatra and his influence forever. It remains unclear whether they will be successful. But one thing that Thailand’s military will not be able to vanquish are the large majority of Thais, whether they support Thaksin Shinawatra or not, who want their voices heard and to have a say in the political, economic, and social life of the country without fear of retribution.
John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.
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