Celebrations were short-lived when the military junta that rules Thailand lifted martial law at the beginning of this month. Any hope that there would be a quick return to normalcy was squelched when the government announced that it would rely on Article 44 to govern. This provision of the interim constitution is a catch-all clause that gives the prime minister unchecked power. Bangkok must recognize that it is not a military government that is offensive, but authoritarian, anti-democratic rule.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha led a coup against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. The military justified its political intervention by charging the country’s politicians with incompetence and corruption, insisting that Thailand could not live with the political stalemate that had been created, a form of political gridlock punctuated by moments of protest that frequently descended into violence.
In fact, the real motivation for the coup was the recognition that democracy was not working for Bangkok’s elites. Ever since billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra had turned his attention to politics, he gained the support of Thailand’s rural classes and the poor, winning one election after another. He repeatedly frustrated the elites who, angered by his policies, would overthrow his government, write a new constitution and then lose to his newly constituted political party.
In the last cycle of that drama, Thaksin — by then forced into exile — pushed his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to head the movement, although he reportedly remained the real power behind the government. She was dismissed from office by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that her transfer of a government official was unconstitutional, a decision that most observers decried as a judicial coup. That did not end protests in Thailand, a pretext the military then used to seize power.
While pledging that military rule will only be temporary, the government has ruled with a whip hand, tolerating little criticism from Thais or outsiders. Its relationship with the press is poor. In press conferences, Prayuth has refused to take questions or threatened reporters when their questions covered territory he thought inappropriate, such as the source of the wealth of some of the leading players in the coup. In a recent meeting with the press, he said that the government might “execute” critics; many outlets reported that as a joking comment but there is little indication that he was kidding.
Prayuth insists he is a democrat and that democracy will return to Thailand; initially he promised that elections would be held by October of this year. That date has been pushed back and no vote is expected before 2016. For the time being, he seems content to exercise the power bestowed by a constitution written by the new government two months into its reign. Among its provisions is Article 44, which gives the prime minister such sweeping powers that it has been referred to by some in the Thai media as “The Dictator Law.”
It is hard to escape that interpretation after reading the constitution. Article 44 gives the leader of the ruling body the power to issue a law “for the sake of the reforms in any field, the promotion of love and harmony amongst the people in the nation, or the prevention, abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security, royal throne, national economy or public administration, whether the act occurs inside or outside the kingdom.” Prayuth has promised to exercise power in a “constructive manner.” When asked what that meant, he offered a less than reassuring reply: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no need to be afraid.”
The end of martial law is a classic bait and switch. The formal end of military rule is intended to assuage foreign critics who should then be content with political formalism rather than the substance of Thai governance. The junta is now ruling according to a constitution and that should be enough for the critics. The origin of that constitution and its contents are not be to closely scrutinized. If that is not enough, Prayuth demands that those critics consider what they would do if they faced similar circumstances — paralysis and daily violence.
The problem is that the Thai military is not a neutral party, restoring an abstract notion of “order.” In fact, it is a highly motivated player in Thai politics and the disintegration of order under the various Thaksin governments reflected a recognition that the military was neither impartial nor disinterested. Those who opposed Thaksin knew that they had sympathizers in the security forces, which emboldened them.
When Prayuth speaks of restoration of democracy, he acknowledges that he means “Thai-style democracy,” in which the interests of the elites are safeguarded. It will be a system that has elections, division of power and is guided by the rule of law, but it will also be institutionally weighted against the majority of Thai citizens who have not yet staked their claim to the rewards of the country’s economic growth. It is a system that will prevent another Thaksin from rising to power and shaking the foundations of Thai society in ways that better respond to the needs of that under-represented majority. It is not democracy as most would describe it.