One year after the latest military takeover, Thailand’s ongoing coup culture leaves a bad taste at home and abroad.
Rice and Thailand go tongue-in-cheek, with the country’s largest export also a staple. These days another staple in the Southeast Asian nation are coups.
And the ‘glutinous’ grain speaks volumes about the country’s latest military takeover, which has just marked its first anniversary, and the rut the country finds itself stuck in.
Let me boil it down for you.
On 22 May 2014, then General and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law, two days later taking full control of the government with the backing of the military. His establishment of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) brought an end to more than seven months of political unrest and protests against the country’s democratically elected government and ongoing tensions between the Shinawatra family-led Red Shirts and the royalist Yellow Shirts.
The move may have brought a semblance of political stability to the country, despite ongoing dissent and protest. But it is also fair to say that Thailand has not made progress economically or democratically – two of the main motivators behind the Army’s smash and grab for control.
Firstly, cash has stopped flowing into the country.
While Prime Minster Prayuth pledged to restore ‘happiness’ to the country, foreign investors just aren’t buying it. Despite investing in infrastructure and a bump in tourism, the government has struggled to build up an economy that has seen its slowest growth in three years in 2014 due to a lack of local demand and a drop in exports.
Thailand is now the least preferred equity market in Southeast Asia according to a May report from Morgan Stanley. The Governor of the Bank of Thailand, has backed this up, recently telling CNBC that investors are holding back amid uncertainty about the military junta’s plans to retain power.
Foreign investors are also treating Thailand like one big ATM; withdrawing cash at a rate of knots. This has seen global money managers sell some US $784 million in equity since Prayuth took control – the only outflow from one of eight Asian stock markets watched by Bloomberg. The reporting agency also says that overseas investors have pulled a net $234 million from Thai stocks this year, after net withdrawals of $1.09 billion in 2014 and $6.21 billion in 2013.
Secondly, beyond the cold hold reality of cold hard cash (or lack of it), Thailand is stuck in the rut of impoverished political processes and institutions. Just before the sabotaged election of February 2014, New Mandala’s Andrew Walker argued that Thailand’s electorate deserved respect. As he observed, it wasn’t a question of whether Yingluck Shinawatra would win; it was a question of whether the opposition would be willing to concede defeat and come to terms with the people’s choice.
“Thailand’s opposition needs to accept the verdict of the electorate and set out on the long road towards rebuilding its electoral base with policies that respond to the dramatic socio-economic transformation that has occurred in provincial Thailand,” he wrote.
“Yingluck will be the winner in the short term. But, for the longer term, Thailand desperately needs a viable opposition whose alternative policies can provide grist to the democratic mill of everyday discussion in towns and villages throughout Thailand.”
We all know how that turned out (and obviously how little attention anyone, let alone military leaders and rejected politicians, pay to esteemed members of the cranky commentariat). But despite the appearance of talking in an echo chamber, Walker was spot on.
The latest coup is symptomatic of Thailand’s ongoing regression into a democratic dead end, with the erosion of political institutions being driven by the country’s so-called Democrat Party which has turned its back on democratic process, and a monarchy that sees a ‘virtuous’ king continually endorse anti-democratic acts like military coups.
The decision to put the handbrake on democratic rule is also like throwing good money after bad in terms of political freedom. Article 44 in the interim constitution, has also seen a tightening of the military’s grip on power and an increase in repression. As Tyrell Haberkorn notes, Thailand’s latest dictatorship is far from benign, with Article 44 allowing the junta the authority to maintain control by any means necessary – including arbitrary detention.
“There are significant restrictions on freedom of speech and constant threats and intimidation of students, resource rights activists, journalists, and others,” writes Haberkorn in Asian Currents. “According to the Thai nongovernmental organisation iLaw, there have been at least 690 persons summoned and detained since the coup, 399 arrests, including 144 arrests at peaceful protests.”
New Mandala co-founder Nicholas Farrelly has also earlier pointed out, this enforcement of ‘the law’ as it currently stands by the NCPO has been executed with a heavy dose of irony. It sees Thailand’s military leaders cancelling ‘politically-related’ academic seminars on the basis of respecting the law, while at the same time glibly overlooking the fact that this law comes from the barrel of a gun. And as Farrelly has written elsewhere, this disrespect also sets a dangerous tone for democratic values and transitions within the immediate neighbourhood.
Last Friday, Prayuth declared that elections might go ahead in either April or May 2016. However, these could be delayed by another six months now that the government’s cabinet has approved a referendum on the constitution and the military’s blueprint for democracy. Is this more grip tightening?
Then there is the question of how the criminal trial of Yingluck Shinawatra will unfold and whether it could lead to more unrest on the streets and further delays to any poll. Up on corruption charges for a contentious rice scheme, if found guilty Yingluck could be jailed for 10 years. Her supporters have already told her to “fight, fight!”
At stake is not only the political dominance of her and her brother Thaksin, but the so-called stability that the coup has sought to deliver in the first place. It may not have sparked just yet, but the latest show of force is an invitation to violence. Clearly, as far as politics and economics go, it’s created more problems than solutions. How much has really changed in 12 months? More importantly, how damaging will it be for the long term? There is a sense that elections, if ever held, may just drag the country back into a vicious cycle of chaos, rather than introduce calmer and more sustainable politics.
And that’s what it comes down to.
There’s little doubt that contemporary politics in Thailand is complicated. There are a lot of ingredients that make up this simmering, spicy dish. And like the country’s rice, this potent mix is the glue that binds so much of its recent political turmoil. This ongoing conflict sees the country stuck – in a perpetual state of “unstate” that is defined by recurring pushes and pulls.
As former Australian defence attaché to Thailand John Blaxland noted in the aftermath of the February 2014 elections, there is a need to look beyond the black and white assessment of ‘red versus yellow’, and take heed of other important factors: Thaksin’s place as both the champion of the poor and greediest prime minister ever, the appeal of opposition heavy Suthep Thaugsuban in Bangkok, and the question of whether democracy can work in a Buddhist state. Added to that are failed democrats and a monarchy some consider to be plagued by succession intrigues.
Whether you agree or disagree that that’s the exact formula behind the current impasse comes down to a matter of taste. I think each ingredient plays its part. But allow me one simple observation. All in all, Thailand’s penchant for politics by bullets rather than ballots is fast becoming a recipe for disaster. Just how long the people are willing to swallow it remains to be seen.
James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala and associate lecturer in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.