By The Nation
With the election date now official, it’s time for the military to withdraw from politics and return to their barracks. Those who seized power by force in 2014 must now hand that power back to voters and allow them to freely choose a new government that ends military rule.
Management of the nation’s economy and society is too sophisticated a task for soldiers whose expertise is limited to the field of combat. Any doubts on that point have long since been dispelled by the junta’s performance over the past five years.
General Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose coup toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, likes to claim that his intervention established peace and stability while also protecting the cash cow of Thai tourism. He neglects to mention the rash incompetence of his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, responsible for keeping millions of Chinese tourists away from Thai shores.
The coup nearly five years ago undoubtedly benefited the military. The Army, Navy and Air Force have been showered with extra firepower, from small arms to missiles, tanks, jet-fighters and submarines. With the checks and balances out of the way, the procurement process has been opaque and apparently lacking in strategy. Billions have been lavished on conventional weapons including tanks, warplanes and submarines at a time when other more developed states are preparing for growing unconventional threats.
The defence budget has increased sharply over the past decade since the 2006 coup, despite the absence of any clear external threat. Rather than reflecting the actual security situation, the budget hike is simply an indication of the fact that the military is in power.
Prayut also claims his junta took power to cleanse the country of corruption, yet none of the murky military procurement deals has been scrutinised in recent years. Scandal-tainted projects such as the grounded airship and the fake GT200 bomb detectors have been whitewashed. Meanwhile the national anti-graft agency has cleared Prawit over his failure to declare a collection of luxury wristwatches, accepting his dubious story that it was borrowed from a friend who had since died.
The junta’s failures extend to the national reconciliation it pledged, which has been replaced instead with wide-ranging suppression of civil freedoms and human rights. The junta-sponsored charter and organic laws were not designed to establish the rule of law, but simply for perpetuating the power of the generals and their cronies. The charter and election law aim to weaken political parties and the elected government to come. The constitution effectively hands power to the junta’s handpicked Senate to install an unelected prime minister if elected parties fail to agree on a candidate.
Elections in countries where democracy is deeply rooted are the best platforms for political parties to contest their policies. But that principle will not apply in Thailand, where party policies must accord strictly with the junta’s 20-year national strategy. No matter what policies they campaign on, winning parties that form the government must enforce the junta-dictated national strategy otherwise they can be impeached. In this light, as an exercise of the people’s will, the election is meaningless.
Sending the military back to barracks and correcting the mistakes made by the junta are two major challenges the parties should be campaigning on to win the people’s mandate.
Voters will expect the parties to produce clear policies on how to forge a professional Thai military that refrains from interfering in politics and respects civilian supremacy.
Coups and military regimes have never brought development for any democratic country. It’s time that the Thai people exercised their right to vote and wrested the democratic destiny of this country back from the arrogant and destructive rule of a self-serving military elite.