By The Nation
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s recent trip to the predominantly Malay-speaking South ahead of a mobile Cabinet meeting was ostensibly made to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation. Instead, it came across as a precursor to an election campaign.
General Prayut urged the southerners to be patient with the government, which he said was doing its best to improve their livelihoods. He told them outright he wasn’t seeking their votes, but speculation abounds that the head of the ruling junta that seized power in the coup of May 2014 wants to remain in national politics, and with a mandate from the electorate.
It is as yet anything but clear whether Prayut might stand for election or rely on a passage of the new Constitution allowing elected parliamentarians to choose a non-elected outsider to lead the country.
In Pattani, the premier seemed to present himself as someone who would endure any obstacle in order to meet the people. The heavy rains had grounded his plane, he said, and it had been a long road trip from Songkhla. That couldn’t have sounded like much of a sacrifice to the thousands living in floodwaters.
Prayut vowed that they would soon see improvement in the economy now that the South’s security situation had improved. But the local economy has never had any real correlation with the insurgency there. Despite the violence that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since January 2004, property prices continue to rise and new shops and businesses continue to open, especially in Pattani.
Prayut said massive investment in the region was imminent and his government was working hard to give southerners the same access to goods and services enjoyed elsewhere in the country. Again, however, even though the South is Thailand’s poorest region, the lack of development is not the cause of the violence. Rather it is the state policy of assimilation eating into local cultural and religious identity. Thai-Chinese Buddhists continue to dominate business and politics in the South’s three main municipalities. Race relations are sound, contrary to the government’s simplistic narrative.
Prayut’s problem is one of oversimplifying. He is unable to communicate with the public on complex issues (not that Banharn Silpa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh or Samak Sundaravej were any better at it).
Today’s technology allows every citizen to record and instantly share political figures’ words and actions. Politicians are forced to respond just as quickly, leaving little or no room for spin. This came into play again during Prayut’s trip deep into the South, and showed that he cannot, even after three years as premier, be regarded as prime ministerial material. In Pattani he snapped at a fisherman who made a comment about commercial fishing depleting stocks, telling the worried man not to be so demanding.
How then would Prayut fare in national politics if the playing field were level? We see a military officer so used to giving orders and being obeyed unquestioningly that he doesn’t know how to behave in a civilian setting. His beliefs about what’s needed to resolve the country’s shortcomings have little basis in reality, but that’s his comfort zone and he’d rather not stray from it. He believes his nightly broadcasts will eventually make people see matters his way. Unwilling to instead listen, he hasn’t heard that millions of Thais are waiting for normal programming to resume.