‘New’ cabinet announced, junta faces challenges from all sides

In the presence of King Vajiralongkorn, the new cabinet is to be sworn in today (16 July 2019) at 6 pm. Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister of Thailand, is facing challenges from all sides, including the general public, internal problems, civil society and the opposition parties.

Prayut Chan-o-cha
Source: The government's website

Challenges from the general public 

After Thai people have had to wait 108 days since the general election, King Vajiralongkorn announced the new cabinet in the Royal Gazette on 10 July 2019. Important figures of the last government remain in this cabinet as expected, including Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, Wissanu Krea-ngam, Gen Anupong Paochinda, Somkid Jatusripitak, Don Pramudwinai, and Gen Chaicharn Changmongkol. Meanwhile, 13 ministers come from the Phalang Pracharat Party, 7 from the Democrats, 7 from Bhumjaithai, 2 from Chart Thai Pattana, and 1 each from Action Coalition for Thailand and Chart Pattana.

The new cabinet is facing challenges from all sides. Following the mass protests of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) to overthrow the corrupt ‘Thaksin Regime’, two PDRC leaders have become ministers, Buddhipongse Punnakanta and Nataphol Teepsuwan. But at least 5 ministers have served in a Thaksin cabinet, including Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, Somkid Jatusripitak, Anutin Charnvirakul, Suriya Juangroongruangkit, and Somsak Thepsuthin. To the general public, the new cabinet is not so new and not good-looking.

What is unexpected is that one minister has been named as a former drug dealer. Capt Thammanat Prompao, one of the Deputy Ministers of Agriculture and Cooperatives, has been jailed in Australia for drug trafficking in Hong Kong, but he said he was innocent and asked people to give him a chance. Graduating in the 25th class of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and the 36th class of Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, he changed his name many times and was acquitted by the Court in 1998 of involvement in the murder of Dr. Poonsawas Jiraporn.

To allay concern that his criminal profile might disqualify him as an MP under Section 98 of the Constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Krea-ngam said he was not sentenced under Thai jurisdiction. “In the past, there was once an MP who was sentenced abroad for drug trafficking in Hong Kong. That has no effect as far as Thailand is concerned, but it might affect his reputation, honour, and many other things. It might constitute a ban in other ways, but this accusation cannot be applied directly. Even though the accusation is consistent [with the clause], a Thai Court did not judge him.”

The internal challenges

The new cabinet also faces internal problems. Since the constitution does not require a minister to be an MP, Kalaya Sophonpanich, Deputy Minister of Education, and Juti Krairiksh, Minister of Social Development and Human Security, said they will resign as party-list MPs of the Democrat Party so that next ones on the party list (Pisit Leeahtam and Issara Sereewatthanawut) can become MPs. While there is still a conflict within the party as to whether Issara Sereewatthanawut can be both an MP and Secretary to the Speaker of Parliament as invited by Chuan Leekpai, it is settled that Jurin Laksanawisit will serve as Deputy Minister, Minister of Commerce, and also an MP, because he is the party leader.

The same dynamic is also strongly at work in the Phalang Pracharat Party. A discussion started in the middle of June with a committee being set up to study whether their ministers should resign as party-list MPs. Last Tuesday (9 July 2019), Phalang Pracharat was reportedly holding an internal meeting, but the conclusion has yet to be announced. Because of their very thin majority, there is a concern that a busy minister who misses a parliamentary meeting to vote as an MP could have a decisive effect on legislation. But unlike the Democrat Party, Phalang Pracharat consists of many factions which do not yet trust each other. Before the announcement of the cabinet line-up, Suriya Juangroongruangkit of the Three Allies Faction criticized Phalang Pracharat leaders as untrustworthy and pressured Sonthirat Sonthijirawong to resign as party Secretary-General due to a rumour that Suriya might be pushed out of a seat in the cabinet by Sonthirat. If the leaders of a faction resign as party-list MPs but remain as ministers, a cabinet reshuffle would deal them a major blow and risk factional warfare inside the government.  

Challenges from Civil Society and Opposition Parties

Once the cabinet oath-taking ceremony is completed, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha will no longer be the head of National Council for Peace and Order or able to use Section 44. He gave a farewell speech on TV as head of the NCPO yesterday (15 July 2019) and earlier cancelled 66 NCPO orders and announcements using Section 44. However, 144 remain in place, according to Human Rights Watch and iLaw. Civil society has demanded that the NCPO cancel 20 more of these, including one which allows military authorities to detain civilians arbitrarily and one which exempts certain projects from town planning laws, leading to severe violations of community rights and environmental damage.

“We still cannot be glad,” said Sunai Phasuk, Advisor of Human Rights Watch to BBC Thai, “because there are many orders and announcements that are still enforced and those in opposition to the government may be persecuted by using the authority of these orders. Calling people in to report may still happen and people who violate the NCPO’s orders which are still enforced will be prosecuted.” Answering why these orders are still in place, Sunai said “The second Prayut cabinet is afraid there will be resistance.”

Surachai Trong-gnam, Secretary-General of the Enlawthai Foundation also raised concerns with BBC Thai that the NCPO’s problems are more than their orders and announcements and that the revocations have not reversed the problematic policies the junta carried out in the past.

“It may be good that some orders are cancelled, such as not bringing people before the military courts,” said Surachai. “But if we talk about orders and announcements which relate to the environment and community rights, I think whether they are cancelled or not has almost no impact on the communities, because the order has created the impact already. Large numbers of villagers have recently been prosecuted and sentenced to prison, and the problems that come from implementing the forest management policies set by the NCPO will still continue.”

“The problems are not only about the orders and announcements of the NCPO, but there are still problems with the many policies and laws passed under the NCPO government and even the Constitution. For example, Section 51 of the Constitution makes the procedure for filing a complaint with regard to the environment into a complicated procedure and it has to pass through many departments before it can go to court. So we quite agree with the proposal to amend the constitution and eliminate the legacy of the NCPO by establishing a committee to review all policies and laws which have come about during the NCPO government.”    

Meanwhile, Prayut has announced a draft proposal of government policies and parliament will debate it for 3 days between 25-27 July. Asked if he is willing to amend the Constitution, he said there is still nothing in the proposal but we will know the answer soon. He himself is willing to change any problematic laws but it has to be according to procedure. One can interpret his message as meaning that constitutional amendments will be difficult because they require votes from the unelected Senate.

Prayut also said the government has no conflict with anybody because today this is the government of the country. However, the 7 opposition parties are quite well prepared to fight. Last weekend, the Pheu Thai Party changed its executive committee with Sompong Amornwiwat as the party leader and Sudarat Keyuraphan as the chair of the Party's strategy committee to work as opposition. Chaowalit Wichayasut, the deputy leader of Pheu Thai Party and opposition whip, said a 3-day debate is appropriate timeframe.

The debate will be based on the question of whether the policies are consistent with what was promised during the election campaign and may also pave the way for a motion of no-confidence later on. However, Gen Prayut said the debate should not be treated like a no-confidence motion and that the opposition should take this fact into consideration before criticizing him. It is true that the junta government can still continue and function minimally despite a successful no-confidence motion because of the technicalities in the Constitution, but we still have to wait and see how the government will respond to all these challenges.