OBSERVERS WARN LONGER TERM MAY ALSO BE ROCKIER
THE WAY AHEAD is not a bed of roses. The economy is flagging. The reforms are both threats and opportunities. If the junta is to stay for another two years and remain intact, it has to do its job right, political observers have said.
In the past couple of weeks, the political atmosphere has been overwhelmed by the waves caused by the junta’s possible tenure extension, starting with the first move made by some National Reform Council (NRC) members. Using legal instruments, they put forward a few possible approaches that could stealthily give the green light to the extension of the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) term as well as the terms of other essential organs established after the coup in 2014.
Subsequently, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the premier and the coup-maker, picked up the ball and ran, saying he was ready to stay on – if the people wanted him to.
To date, the prospect of the tenure extension is a strong possibility despite political figures from the key camps coming out and criticising the ambitions of the NCPO and the country’s other rivers of power.
It has become clearer every day to those who object to the extension that the junta will likely be in power longer. Admittedly, they concede that their dissatisfaction does not really matter as they are not able to protest. So, the junta could stay on, if all the conditions allow it. But the anti-extension camp cautioned that two more years of junta rule would not be all roses.
Attasit Pankaew, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University, said the junta staying on would provoke both support and objections, but they would amount to only a fraction of the voices. The lecturer believed that the people the government should worry about were the silent majority.
“The people who don’t pay much attention to politics and have remained neutral in any disagreement might account for 60-70 per cent of the people. And they will explode if the government doesn’t tackle bread-and-butter issues,” said Attasit.
Additionally, he remarked that although the internal-friction force is manageable, the international pressure is beyond the military’s control and could create a dramatic impact. For example, if international forces impose economic sanctions, the internal pressure would be magnified. Ultimately, it would cause severe damage to the junta, he warned.
Similarly, the vice president of Rangsit University’s Research and Academic Services, Anusorn Tamajai, an economic expert, said the country in the near future might face an economic crisis irrespective of the coup. Inevitably, the economy will be a difficult challenge for the government, he said.
“The economy will likely go into recession, not because of the NCPO but because of many factors internal and external.”
Anusorn said that the coup could hurt the economy because of foreign investors’ reaction to it.
“Others might argue that stability is the key to boosting the economy. However, foreign investors favour stability with democracy. Now they are waiting for Thailand to be sustainably stabilised. So, to return to democracy at the soonest time is the best solution,” he said.
The pro-democracy camp and activists share similar views. Sombat Boonngam-anong, aka Nuling, said that the PM could stay in power but ahead of him would lay a thorny road with the economy the major challenge.
Sombat alluded to the song “Returning Happiness to People in the Country” composed by the coup leader, saying that Prayut should keep his promise when he said: “Give us a little more time.”
“How long is a little more exactly? The pro-democracy camp has tolerance. But they also have limits. Most importantly, the ailing economy is also pushing people closer to breaking point every minute,” said Sombat.
On the other hand, the chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, Supant Mongkolsuthree, expressed sympathy for the government, saying the depressed economy is partly due to the world economy not having fully recovered. However, he also said jokingly that it would be nice if the government could review its economic team’s performance.
Asked if there were any opportunities coming for the country and the junta, Attasit responded swiftly: “The reforms are the opportunity, if they could really be pushed through and serve their purpose well.
“If the reforms [under the proposed extended tenure] are successful, it will be a big plus for the NCPO as well as the country. But so far, I haven’t really felt the impact. It hasn’t occurred to me that they have accomplished anything,” said Attasit.
Akanat Promphan, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee’s (PDRC) spokesman, said that the “great mass of people” wanted to hear the progress of the reform efforts.
He reiterated that the NCPO and the reformers should put in more effort and they could have done a lot better considering the power they have.
“The PDRC, or the ‘great mass of people’, never set a limit to the time it would take for the reform to be completed,” he said. “It is a necessary step needed to be taken before the country can move forward and have an election.
“Thus, we should give it time. But so far, the NCPO and other organs [in the process] have only worked on the draft constitution. Much work is left to be done.
“For example, the reforms should include matters like decentralisation [of power], corruption crackdowns, and the prices of agricultural products. In particular the last one. The government should take care of it. They have more than enough power to do so.”
Former Democrat MP Tankhun Jitissara has a similar opinion. He remarked that the reformers should make it clear to the public what they had been doing and what they were going to do.
“In the past year it has been unclear what they were doing. People will start questioning the reforms if no concrete progress is made,” he said. “And I think they can do better. If they to stay on, it is the chance for them to push through the reforms harder than they have done in the past year.”