August 2, 2016
The Politics of Thailand
The Generals who hide behind the throne
Thailand is ill-prepared for the death of its King
TO THE tourists who still flock to its beaches and golden temples, Thailand seems calm. But this is an illusion. Thai politics are as ugly as the country is beautiful—and could soon get uglier. The country’s beloved king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose 70th year on the throne was celebrated on June 9th, is 88 years old and gravely ill. The country is scared of what might happen when he dies (see article).
Were Thailand a normal democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the death of a king would cause national sorrow but not political instability. Alas, it is not. Two years ago the army seized power in a bloodless coup. An “interim” constitution grants the prime minister and junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, almost unlimited power. Because the regime is illegitimate, it hides behind Thailand’s most revered institution.
Its propagandists do all they can to fizz up adulation of the monarchy; for example, by building colossal statues of seven Thai kings. And the regime has applied Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws with ferocity, arresting people for the slightest perceived insult to the dignity of the king, his family or even his pet dog. Those deemed to have defamed his majesty face up to 30 years in prison. This creates an atmosphere in which critics of the government, too, can be bludgeoned into silence.
Whereas Mr Prayuth rambles self-righteously on his weekly television show, opposition parties are gagged and parliament stuffed with the junta’s allies. The regime has hauled critics to army bases for “attitude adjustment”. It has charged Thailand’s former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, with neglect-in-office, and may hand her ten years in jail. The army’s latest ploy is a new constitution, which would allow fresh elections but keep the next government subservient to a nominated senate and a handful of junta-stacked committees.
It hopes to win public approval for this plan in a referendum on August 7. Just to make sure, it has trained bureaucrats to “explain” the charter to voters, but it forbids civilians from campaigning against it, on pain of a ten-year prison sentence.
The generals insist that their actions have been for the good of Thailand. Their coup in 2014 ended months of pro- and anti-government street protests, which had turned violent. Locking out Ms Yingluck, they hint, keeps a dodgy family out of power. Ms Yingluck backed an amnesty bill that could have allowed her brother, Thaksin, another former prime minister, to return from exile in Dubai. The army had deposed him in 2006, arguing that his administration was corrupt.
Indeed it was, but probably no more so than most Thai governments. The army’s excuses for seizing power are wearing thin. Thailand has seen a dozen successful coups since the 1930s and a new constitution on average every four years. The army typically installs conservative governments that favour the urban elite. That has entrenched inequality and infuriated the rural poor. Mr Thaksin won two elections by wooing poor voters with free public health care and subsidies for farmers. He may have left the scene, but his supporters are still there.
The Crown Prince
The army has long defended its coups by claiming to have the king’s support. After taking power, coup-leaders have always trekked to the palace to receive royal assent. But if King Bhumibol is succeeded by the crown prince, who is unpopular, the claim of royal approval will count for less. Elites fret that the succession will disrupt long lines of patronage which for generations have shovelled wealth and influence their way. They fear that anti-government activists will seize the chance to push for big changes in how the country is run.
Little time, much to do
With luck, the succession will pass peacefully. But securing long-term stability will require reforms that the army may not like. Royals should speak out against the lèse-majesté law (which King Bhumibol has already once condemned, in 2005). The generals must allow Thais the freedom to debate the new constitution. A better one would be more like the 1997 charter, so far Thailand’s best. If and when the soldiers return to barracks, they will need pruning: their idle ranks include more generals and admirals than America’s armed forces, which serve a superpower nearly five times as populous.
Politicians must rethink, too. Thailand’s middle classes may find Thaksinite populism abhorrent, but they have failed to provide poorer Thais with an alternative. The Democrat Party, the establishment’s main political outfit, has been squealing about the generals’ stifling rule. But for years it has put off the groundwork needed to win an election, betting instead that friends in the army or judiciary will help it. Any lasting solution will require decentralising power to the provinces.
Untangling this mess will take years, but it is not impossible. If the junta blocks reform, allies such as America should impose financial sanctions and travel bans on its leaders and their cronies. Thailand needs a civilian government that is accountable to voters and the law, not to the men with guns.