Submitted on Thu, 7 Apr 2016 - 11:27 AM
Election? Another coup? People’s uprising? Where is Thailand heading? Academics have said that if the military decides to prolong its regime, a people’s uprising is inevitable.
After almost ten years of political crisis in Thailand, demonstration after demonstration and coup after coup, the future of Thai politics is very difficult to predict. How long will the military regime last? When will elections take place? These are the questions many have tried to answer.
Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy junta head, said last month that even after an election is held, the military will have to maintain power over the civilian government for the next five years because it is “necessary” for the “transitional period”.
It is unclear what the general meant by transitional period. This phrase however has often been used by politicians, academics, and media over the past few years. The meaning arguably varies. It could be a transition to democracy, a semi-democracy, a fully authoritarian regime, and last but not least, a transition in the monarchy. Frequent news of the suppression of critics and activists has led to a climate of fear which prevents Thais from freely and comprehensively discussing how the transition should work.
In an attempt to predict the unpredictable, Prachatai presents six scenarios for Thai politics: 1) hybrid-regime; 2) a failed referendum; 3) double coup; 4) prolonged military regime; 5) people’s uprising; and 6) a good ending.
The scenarios are based on fact, speculation, and analysis and even rumour, and are analysed through various lenses of political science.
Scenario 1: Semi-democracy
The final draft of the constitution was officially released on 29 March and obviously aims to curtail the political stability of majoritarian governments. This charter, if ratified, will institutionalize the military as a real governing power of Thailand through various mechanisms. For example, the military can appoint 250 senators who will serve for five years and six of them will be top military officers. The senate will have the power to veto laws from the lower house and initiate a censure debate against the executive branch.
The draft also provides a secret route which allows an unelected person to become PM. With the new electoral system which aims to prevent a single-party government, it is more than possible that Thailand will have an unelected PM under the charter.
Surachart Bamrungsuk from Chulalongkorn University, an expert on the Thai military, calls this political structure a hybrid regime, a regime where an elected government is controlled by other institutions. This regime will take Thailand back to the semi-democracy of about three decades ago. The unelected PM at that time was Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and he remained in power for eight years continuously (1970-1978).
“Elections will be just a symbol, the real power will be in the hands of the military.” said Surachart.
This scenario will happen only if the draft charter passes the referendum scheduled in August. If everything goes smoothly in accordance with the junta’s roadmap without any political accidents, an election will be held around December 2017.
Suriyasai Katasila, a social movement expert and former co-leader of the right-wing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), told Prachatai that people and political parties are now sick of the junta. They want democracy back on track as soon as possible, so following the roadmap is the quickest way.
“Even Pheu Thai politicians who repeatedly reject the draft will eventually vote for it. They are politicians. Their lives are tied to elections. They might fix the things they don’t like in the charter later on, but the election must come first for them,” said Suriyasai.
Scenario 2: A failed referendum
The referendum can fail for two reasons. The first is that the public will turn down the draft in the referendum and the second is that the junta will either cancel the referendum or nullify the result. In the past few months, we have seen various groups opposing the draft. The Pheu Thai party has issued a statement urging people to reject the draft even though this will postpone the election.
“The Pheu Thai Party understands that the people have been waiting for and want the election to be held soon, but an election that is held under rules that are undemocratic will only create more trouble to the people and to the country which will become harder to solve,” Pheu Thai said in a statement.
Moreover, the junta’s administration of the country in the past two years has caused dissatisfaction among not only the red shirts but also the yellow shirts. The junta has issued a number of regulations facilitating investors, but frustrating the grassroots such as bypassing the EIA process on government projects, and exempting special economic zones from regulations on urban planning which will cause environmental and economic damage to local communities. These policies are strongly opposed by civil society, the majority of whose members are anti-Thaksin.
Suriyasai said that the junta are walking in the wrong direction. The middle-class and the anti-Thaksin wing want the junta to reform Thai politics and the bureaucratic system but the junta has to rely on bureaucratic mechanisms to run the country. Therefore, what the junta has done in the past two years is re-centralizing the bureaucracy, not reform the country. Under this circumstance, Suriyasai believes that the junta will gradually lose their supporters
However, if the junta thinks that the draft will be turned down, it might cancel the referendum by itself. Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, an expert on political institutions from Chulalongkorn University, said that the junta is obviously afraid of that scenario as can be seen from the suppression of debates and campaigns against the draft constitution.
“If the voters reject the draft, it might as well be interpreted as the rejection of NCPO,” Siripan said in a seminar on the charter draft.
We have seen various attempts by the junta to silence voices against the draft and referendum. The junta repeatedly threatens any group rejecting the draft. At least three public events to discuss the content of the draft have been banned in the past few months. Under the 2016 Referendum Bill, people who publicly denounce the referendum will be punishable by up to ten years in jail. The bill also gives the Election Commission the authority to regulate all campaigns relating to the draft.
Obviously, this can be seen as the junta’s frustration with the referendum.
This scenario is very uncertain as the junta has not clearly stated what they will do if the draft is turned down. However, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) said that they might adjust the 2014 interim constitution and ratify it as a permanent one.
“If the draft is turned down in the referendum, we might possibly get the interim charter. And I don’t know how the junta would draft it,” said Amorn Wanitwiwat, a CDC spokesperson in parliament on 26 January 2016.
This scenario might be worse since the Article 44 of the interim charter gives the junta full authority to do anything, such as summoning people, issuing laws and approving government projects.
Scenario 3: Double coup
There has been a rumour about a coup to topple the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) since late 2014. It started from an interview of Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former PM and Supreme Commander, where he said “A sincere warning; next year (2015), the junta has to bear many tough burdens such as global economic and political unrest from the draft constitution. Beware of a coup! When you came in, people gave you roses but when you go, people might give you stones”.
Moreover, a rumour of a double coup has been widespread among underground red-shirt radio stations and media produced by red-shirt activists in self-imposed exile.
However, Surachart Bamrungsuk thinks that possibility of a double coup is low because the military is able to maintain its unity. The fact that military can suppress all the scandals and rumours within a short period without any apparent public disunity proves that its unity is still strong.
“A double coup against the junta is just a daydream” says Surachart.
Scenario 4: Prolonged military regime without an election
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled academic, said that the military stepped into power to handle the transition in Thailand’s monarchy. The military is taking advantage of the anxiety and will prolong it as long as they can. They have to make sure that if the status quo changes, their interests will be maintained.
“The junta is taking advantage of the power vacuum to manage the anxiety from the transition,” Pavin told Prachatai.
Puangthong Pawakapan, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, said that the transition will end only when the military feels that the country is peaceful and free from any threat. This means that the military will be there for many years, since the military will be the ones who decide if the country is peaceful or not.
“For the military, the country is always under threat,” Puangthong said in an interview with Prachatai.
Scenario 5: People’s uprising
The key players leading to this scenario are the yellow shirts and most of them are middle-class. Nowadays, they are the main mass supporter of the junta, since they believe that the military is the only one who can save Thailand from the so-called “Thaksin Regime”, that is full of corruption and immorality.
Puangthong said that the longer the junta remains in power, the more corruption will occur. The yellow shirts will realize that military is no longer the solution and eventually turn against the junta.
In Surachart’s analysis, the global economic crisis and severe drought this year will provoke public outrage and the junta’s failure to handle these crises will eventually exasperate the middle-class.
“The middle-class in Latin American countries once strongly supported their military governments but the when the juntas failed to resolve economic crises, the middle-class eventually turned against them, because the middle-class prioritize their well-being,” said Surachart.
Apichat Satitniramai, an economist at Thammasat University, told Prachatai that the draft charter, if ratified, will create conditions which will lead to a people’s uprising. He said that this constitution will limit the people’s opportunities to pursue their interests peacefully through political institutions. Added to the fact that this charter contains various mechanisms to prevent amendments, he said it is not going to end well.
“This makes me very pessimistic. I don’t know how it will end but it is not going to end well. When you shut down all the channels for people to fight peacefully, they will fight whatever way they can,” Apichat said in an interview with Prachatai.
Scenario 6: Could there be a good ending?
A happy ending is still possible for Thailand but the conditions for this scenario have not yet emerged. One condition is that the democratic wing has to negotiate with the military.
Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, said that military really believe that they are the national peacekeepers. He does not think that the military only want to pursue their own interests. The military stepped in because it really believed that the country was in chaos and it really wants to make sure that such chaos will not happen again. This is why the draft charter has various mechanisms to limit the power of elected governments, as the military believes that if an elected government has a full political power, chaos will happen again.
Although most people might disagree with this mind-set and its solution, they have to concede that the military is a crucial actor in Thai politics. Nowadays, we only have a wing which strongly opposes the military and another wing which consistently supports it. This condition will not lead to a peaceful ending. People have to pressure their political parties to negotiate with the military and find a common solution.
“Politicians have to reassure the military that the things that they are afraid of will never happen again. This is a way that we can get democracy back without any bloodshed”, Pitch suggested.
However, Pitch added that the military regime will create a climate of fear which makes people too afraid to express what they really think. In this atmosphere, military will never know what the public really feel toward them. As a result, such a negotiation will be difficult to happen.
“To live peacefully in a dictatorship, people, including myself, have to act and speak differently from what they really think. And this will be a new normal of Thai politics,” Pitch said.