When the mainly military members of the Thai National Legislative Assembly voted on 6 September 2015 135:105 against the draft of the approximately 20th charter, there were very few commentators who spoke out against this decision. The proposed charter, after all, had been criticised by both major political parties, the Democrats and Pheu Thai, as well as by civil rights groups and the alternative media. Only one voice spoke out for the charter in the days going into the vote, Suthep Thaugsuban, head of the Great Mass of People's Foundation for Thailand's Reforms.
One very obvious reason for this general opprobrium for the charter was the inclusion of the ‘National Strategic Reform Commission’, also called a politburo or ‘coup committee’. As one commentator mentioned, the NSRC had “the power to initiate reform policies that constitutionally obliged successive governments. Worse, if the NSRC deems that the country is in crisis, after a consultation with the President of the Constitutional Court and the President of the Supreme Administrative Court, it can intervene ‘as necessary.’” The same analyst pointed out that this is essentially a means to maintain an arbitrary level of power for the National Council for Peace and Order after the next constitution comes into effect as there are essentially no limits to the NSRC’s power.
While voting down its own charter made for an amazing piece of political theatre, the obvious question then raised is when the Thai military will actually hand over power and hold elections. At present, we are looking at April 2017 at the earliest. Of course, in the case of a complete collapse of the economy, there may be protests which could result in some form of return to the situation faced in 1992 and possibly an earlier return to some form of democracy.
However, the supply of Chinese tourists keeps coming, aspects of Thaksinomics have been revived under Somkid Jatusripitak, and the Thai military is inching closer to large transport infrastructure deals with China. Moreover, the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank stands poised to help Thailand out if the economy really begins to experience difficulties. And at present, 2.7% GDP growth is adequately compensating for deflation and negative export growth of approximately 3-4%.
Moreover, the ultimate unsayable is how long the Ninth Reign will continue. The vast majority of Thais, foreigners, and indeed human beings no doubt wish His Majesty a many more years of a fulfilling life. However, no-one lives forever.
This essential truth, combined with reasonably solid support in the North and Northeast for Pheu Thai, or at least anyone but the Democrats, together with the military’s concern over the succession based on gossip in mainly Bangkok-based cliques, mean that the military intends to hold onto power not just for the succession but probably for a few years afterwards. At present, there is talk of the military trying to engineer this via a national unity-style government, perhaps under Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, to ensure the military and palace understand each other.
While the Thai military’s duty is to plan for the worst case scenario and ensure the integrity of the country, there are, however, some obvious problems with the present ‘iron rule’. The main one is that it is dominated by ‘attitude adjustment’ and a lack of any political reconciliation that can show schoolchildren growing up under the 12 Core Values of Thai People what democracy actually is under Value 7: “Understanding, learning the true essence of democratic ideals with His Majesty the King as the Head of State”.
No public forums about politics are permitted in the country, criticism of military rule is illegal, and no public debates about how to reduce differences between groups - mainly social class-based and ethnic-based differences – are underway. It is even illegal for high school or student groups to organize mock parliaments or debates on issues central to sustainable development, such as mining in their local environment.
This is despite the fact General Prayut at the UN stated, in a first speech that deserves to be quoted at some length as it encapsulates months of ‘Return to Happiness’ Friday speeches:
Another pressing challenge in our time is inequality… the intrinsic worth of each and every human being must be recognised. The Thai government is working to empower the vulnerable and the disenfranchised… many people still need help. And to reach them, especially the vulnerable groups, we must improve on our disaggregated data so they become visible and their needs are more precisely addressed in policy… social recognition of such groups is also important. We have to build a society that is compassionate, respects humanity and embraces equality.
This speech clearly refers to the poor and ethnic minorities, even if General Prayut finds it difficult acknowledging that Thailand has socio-economic classes and ethnic minorities. Moreover, most journalists and commentators who have met General Prayut seem to come away with the impression that he is sincere about this blend of rhetoric.
The problem, then, is reducing the level of paranoia within the Thai military to the extent that its Internal Security Operations Command, the Thai version of MI5, can be talked down from the high levels of suspicion it is entertaining. ISOC, a military bureaucracy re-energized in 2007-2008 under its own parliamentary act, as a concept is based on feeding on - and into - a cycle of paranoia, as noted by Pravit Rojhanaphruk. Also, like all bureaucracies, it wants to grow and establish itself; its job is not actually to organize political or even inter-regional reconciliation via its seminars but to propagandize, monitor, report, and ‘re-educate’. The new ‘Cold War’ against Thaksin is a chance for warriors to shine again, for generals to win stars, and for budgets to be boosted.
Given that the Thai military is not going to easily walk away from this worldview, one which sees totalitarian tendencies such as a ‘Great Firewall of Thailand’ as positive moves and one which, in time, could turn Thailand into a full-blown police state, pragmatism dictates some form of military oversight committee is going to exist over the next half a decade. In other words, the NCPO, either in the open or as a hidden ‘shadow state’ coup committee, is going to stay with us no matter what until 2020 at least.
Thus, a temporary ‘Grand Council’ involving appointed half military, half civilians, for the duration of the succession and until perhaps one year after official mourning ends, may make sense. With specific powers instead of arbitrary ones, e.g., to intervene militarily in the case of a) instability at the time of the succession due to the likelihood of a significant economic downturn, b) the return of Thaksin except to face justice, c) a popular armed rebellion or d) the attempted secession of one of the Thai regions, such a committee could be a valid, temporary measure built into the next constitution.
However, such specificity requires the military to acknowledge what ails Thailand – i.e., to disaggregate the data, as in General Prayut’s first UN speech, so the problem of the lack of opportunities in education for ethnic minorities and the resource extraction growth model (labour, timber, minerals) applied to these second-class citizens becomes visible. Allowing ethnic minorities the freedom to assemble and organize politically would also permit the special circumstances required for the creation of a legitimate third force in Thai politics, as the military is apparently aiming for – though this would require the kind of vision not yet exhibited.
The main risk of a ‘Ground Council’ is the possibility of a slippery slope leading to the Thai military seeking to institutionalize it as a permanent body. This is a not inconsiderable risk in the present atmosphere, though institutionalizing it would seem to undermine some of the prerogatives of the Privy Council as well as of the monarchy, a consideration which may tend to prevent such a move.