By JINTANA PANYAARVUDH
THAILAND, after four years of junta rule, is at a historic crossroads. Opinion in the country is divided between those who want the military to retain its hold on power and those who want to send them back to the barracks.
While new political parties have spawned to back General Prayut Chan-o-cha becoming prime minister after the election, many people are adamant that the coup-maker and his military apparatus must now quit politics altogether.
The junta has exploited all means to lengthen its stay in power, but the popularity of its leaders, notably Prayut himself, is now in visible decline. Reform agendas have failed to yield positive results over the four years, either for desperately needed social reconciliation or for an ailing economy.
Reform has done nothing to alter the country’s lopsided distribution of wealth. Multiple polls have indicated that the government’s economic management has not delivered results, especially for medium- to low-income groups.
On the other hand, the rich appear to be getting richer, thanks to an uneven distribution of economic growth that has averaged nearly 4 percentage points per annum since 2014.
Big business, export-oriented industries, tourism and its related businesses were among the major beneficiaries of economic expansion during this period.
Farmers, in contrast, have been hurt by relatively low market prices for their produce over the past few years, leaving most unimpressed by government measures and economic management.
Economists see some improvement during the term of the junta-backed government but are disappointed at the paucity of its major economic reforms.
The government’s economic tsar Somkid Jatusripitak has defended his course, saying last week that GDP growth that rose to 4.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year has built added momentum for the country’s reform push. Deputy PM Somkid refrained from talking about inequality and failure of wealth distribution, instead blaming political movements for interrupting economic growth.
Reforms in education and health have suffered a similar fate, with few if any benefits felt by the people. Though there has been no drastic change to the health system under four years of National Council for Peace and Order rule, experts predict that universal coverage is set to be scrapped so that only the poorest people are covered.
Despite all this, Prayut has retained a level of support even in the Northeast, a red-shirt stronghold. Here, the military has been clever enough to recruit from among low-income rural families, winning their loyalty by providing livelihoods, says Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at the region’s Ubon Ratchathani University.
“Except for the anti-coup hardcore, many people [in the region] don’t really hate Prayut although sentiment in the social media is very strong against him,” said Titipol, citing informal research he conducted in Ubon Ratchathani and neighbouring Yasothon and Amnat Charoen.
Some government policies, such as the rice price guarantee, had benefited the locals, he added.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University, identifies three scenarios which could see the military withdraw from politics:
First, a counter-coup leading to new junta leaders who allow constitutional changes for more pluralistic democracy, along with an election sooner rather than later.
Second, a repeat of 1992’s Black May massacre of peaceful civilian demonstrators, which would tarnish the image of the junta and unite the public in favour of a return to genuine democracy.
Third, a traditional institution demanding immediate democratic reforms. Chambers did not elaborate on this point.
Concerning the possibility of a counter-coup, Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, said Prayut now enjoyed overwhelming support among the military after a decade of building up its strength. Crucially, that time has also been spent cementing a chain of command, beginning with General Anupong Paochinda’s three-year tenure as Army chief and followed by Prayut’s four years in the job and then another four as prime minister, he said. Since then all three Army chiefs – generals Udomdej Sitabutr, Teerachai Nakwanich and Chalermchai Sitthisart – have been subordinates of Prayut, he added.
“I believe Prayut has already scrutinised his successors’ records to check whether he can trust them,” Wanwichit said. “So Prayut now has complete control over the military.”
Prayut’s prospects also look strong on the political front, where many of the major political parties are ready to incorporate the junta’s strategy to consolidate military power. That leaves just a few newly launched parties, along with factions in the Pheu Thai and Democrat parties, plus a tiny group of pro-democracy activists, as the only challengers to a military seeking to extend its control over the country far into the future.
This is The Nation’s last article in a special series analysing the impact of the 2014 coup.