The Western Media Doesn’t Like Thailand Now
With the Thai economy promising at least in the short term in some accounts, the junta is not totally a bad development in the interim. The military has broken forcibly the stand-off between the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin camps. Does the end justifies the means in Thailand i.e. a junta and its strong government is what Thailand needed with a weak King, a sore loser more urban anti-Thaksin camp and a populist more rural pro-Thaksin camp?
Certainly Western media types think that a chaotic even sporadically violent democracy is better than a stable junta. Not that they are wrong if the junta does not have a plan to transfer to civilian power eventually by October 2015 as promised. However, the junta’s stability is what Thailand needs now. An aside, the pro-Thaksin camp would win again when there is an election and their opponents would take to the streets again.
Five hundred days of dictatorship
Aug 5th 2014, 8:05 by The Economist | BANGKOK
THE ARMY has been the most powerful force in Thai political life since the introduction of constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since its most recent power grab, in a coup d’état sprung on May 22nd, a junta has been busy building a façade of legitimacy—as if to obscure from view their new dictatorship. An interim constitution grants absolutist powers to the military men, who effectively administer the monarchy. It also grants an amnesty for crimes related to the toppling electoral democracy and the tools necessary to ensure that martial law persists. A handpicked bunch will draft a similar piece of paper within the next 120 days. It is unclear whether the expected result, which is to be Thailand’s 18th constitution, will be put to a referendum.
To make it all fly, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s military dictator and prime-minister-in-waiting, had to prostrate himself in front of the 86-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The ailing monarch’s blessing was the only available source of legitimacy. Accordingly, the interim charter makes mention of the king no fewer than 38 times. Shunting responsibility to the king in this way is a time-tested trick.
On July 31st the king endorsed the members of a new national assembly, a 200-member strong rubberstamp composed of 105 military officers (including 40 generals, 21 lieutenants-generals, 17 chief air marshals and 14 admirals). Professional politicians were ineligible. The civilian half of the new legislature includes civil servants, academics, ex-senators and figures from the private sector (in all, ten women made the cut). An opening ceremony for the assembly will be chaired by the crown prince on August 7th. One of its tasks will be to give General Prayuth, the man who appointed all legislators, the job of prime minister. Unlike the coup-makers of 2006*, who quickly delegated power to handpicked civilians, General Prayuth and his classmates are intent on retaining complete control.
The army has given itself 500 days or so to establish “genuine democracy” by fiat. It will appoint a 250-member strong National Reform Council and then task it with proposing political, social and economic reforms. The stated point of the exercise is to “create the democracy with the King as the Head of State appropriate to the Thai society”. The key characteristics of such a democracy are supposed to include free and fair elections; an end to corruption, misconduct and inequality; and the impartial enforcement of laws. It all sounds perfectly “appropriate”. But it seems the generals have in mind a few extra characteristics.
For a start, no political comeback for Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck, the siblings who won every election since 2001. Without competitive elections, the Shinawatras are powerless, albeit rich. The generals let Ms Yingluck leave Thailand to attend the Mr Thaksin’s birthday party in Paris on July 26th. That puts Ms Yingluck in a position to decide whether to return to Thailand—and face criminal charges—or join Thailand’s long list of exiled former prime ministers.
The junta says there will be a big election in October 2015. Thus far it has refused to say if it will impose any restrictions on the franchise. But it would be a wonder if it didn’t. For the whole point of the coups of 2006 and 2014 has been to overturn the winner-takes-all system which served Mr Thaksin so well, in favour of governance by “moral people” who cannot win elections.
Much of the elite feels offended to hear a spade called a spade. But there can be no mistaking that Thailand’s government has slipped from the reach of any popular majority. The dictatorship which has replaced it will make every effort to outlast the lifespan of the current king.
Most Thai citizens (and most Western governments too) would like to see Thailand emerge someday as a prosperous, democratic republic, a leader within South-East Asia. For them the near-term future looks unpromising. Large parts of the economy are essentially criminal conspiracies based on smuggling, prostitution, gambling and corruption. Research by the World Bank shows that only half of all income shows up in Thailand’s national-accounts data—which is among the lowest rates in Asia.
And while the benefits of Thailand’s economic growth since the 1960s have raised incomes and provided health care and education to most Thais, the pillars of future prosperity look shaky. The things that will be required by further development—rule of law, a well-regulated financial system, transparency of wealth, a strong commitment to a scientific society—are in short supply.
The junta’s very existence represents a rejection of the rule of law. While its commitment to stamp out corruption sounds good, graft is too entrenched to be rooted out by the army alone; like the government it replaced, the officer corps is essentially a business club, serving the country’s elite. The financial system, long under the control of the wealthiest Thais and leading Thai-Chinese business groups, will remain a closed shop. The central bank, which became notorious for its mismanagement of the financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, has since pursued a course that is directly supportive of the wealthy and has significantly slowed growth. Much has been written about the successes of the Thai economy, but Thailand’s record in raising peoples’ standards of living post-1997 is actually worse than that of any other country in East or South-East Asia (with the notable exception of North Korea**). The secretive policies of the Crown Property Bureau, the palace’s investment arm and the biggest conglomerate in Thailand, reflects a deep resistance to transparency. Finally, if freedom of thought and expression are to be the basis of any scientific society—then Thailand will just have to wait.
The forces that are leading the society backwards are now unassailable, according to the letter of the law. They shield themselves from every other kind of criticism by their association with the monarchy. Challenging a state that has been endorsed by the king is socially unacceptable—and now it is a criminal offence, too.
Eventually public opinion will turn against the junta. But a social response to economic failure will take time to develop. Thailand’s economy is short of labour, with nearly full employment. Its fiscal position is enviable by most European and Asian standards.
Yet a meaningful economic recovery in the second half 2014 would be nothing short of a miracle. Imports fell 14% year-on-year in June and industrial output fell 6.6%. Overall production, consumption, investment and tourism all slumped. Investment, which follows demand, will not pick up until the collapse in domestic demand has been reversed. High household debt and consumers’ reluctance to invest their black money are likely to complicate a return to rapid growth. Whatever happens in the next few months, Thailand is likely to be the slowest-growing economy in Asia this year.
At some point the self-appointed leadership is bound to weary of defending itself on the pretext of building a democracy. Most dissenters appear to have resigned themselves to the fact that their views will not matter for a while, perhaps two or three years. Many are too busy simply trying to make ends meet.
To stay in power till the next royal succession, the generals must prove that their brand of authoritarianism can improve the lot of 68m Thais. If they pulled it off, theirs would be the first coup anywhere since the end of the cold war that actually raised the pace of income growth. It will never be known what Thailand could have achieved for itself this decade within a democratic framework. If Thailand’s own history is a reliable guide, abandoning democracy can be expected to lead straight to economic stagnation and exacerbated inequality.
(Picture credit: AFP)
Corrections to this article:
* This clause was changed to refer specifically to the 2006 coup. As a reader pointed out, some of the leaders of previous coups were not so quick to hand over the reins.
** Another reader directed our attention to the case of North Korea, which we had overlooked somehow. Thank you, both.