Commentary / World

Thailand in 2015: a year of spinning its wheels

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

2015 has been a year of stillness in Thailand, at least in the political realm. The military staged a coup that ousted the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. Throughout the year, the military regime of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who serves the prime minister, promised a number of projects claiming to put Thailand back on the democratic track. But these promises have proven to be empty.

There were two major events in 2015, which brought into question the sincerity of the junta in its endeavor to reform Thailand. The first was the failure of the constitutional drafting process. Tasked with writing a new constitution, the Constitutional Drafting Committees presented their charter to the military-elected parliamentarians, but it was disapproved. The gist of the constitution was in itself controversial.

It was designed to prevent powerful political parties, like that of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, from easily returning to power. This was because it encouraged independent candidates to run for parliamentary seats. They were expected to take a fair share of seats from the Shinawatras.

The disapproval of the constitution, while it points to the junta’s incompetency in the drafting mission, helped prolong the life of the military government. It sent out a strong message of a junta planning to stay in power at least until after the royal transition. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been ill and the anxiety that comes with the royal succession prompted the military to take charge of political power to defend the interests of the royal institution and of itself.

Certainly crafting a new charter is not easy. After all, the military government aims to exploit the constitution as an “infrastructure” to allow itself control of politics even when it has to step down from power.

From this view, the new constitution, now being re-drafted by the military-appointed committees, will have little to do with promoting political reform, but rather to empower the extra-constitutional institutions.

Thus, as the military government has promised to hold an election in 2016, there is little hope the election will effectively shift Thailand’s political landscape away from the traditional powers. This condition will challenge the confidence of foreign businesses, which fear that the crisis of political deadlock in Thailand, in the post-election era, will push the country further into the abyss.

The other event that successfully created a climate of fear in Thailand was a string of arrests on corruption charges of those who had worked with the royal family. The death of the famed fortuneteller Suriyan Sucharitpolwongse, known by his Thai nickname Moh Yong, reaffirmed the dark world involving the Thai monarchy.

Moh Yong, prior to his mysterious death in detention, worked closely with the army and in particular Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. He helped publicize big campaigns, including “Bike for Mum,” which celebrated the queen’s birthday last August as part of consolidating the monarchy’s role in public. But he was later charged with corruption as well as exploiting the name of the monarchy for his own end— the latter charge was brought under Thailand’s lese majeste law.

The arrest of Moh Yong was only the tip of the iceberg. His case was linked to the arrests of several high-ranking military and police officers.

Some analysts argue that the systematic purge of key figures surrounding the crown prince was an indication of fragmentation among royalists. In particular, the arrests of some military men also confirmed the struggle of power within the army. More importantly, this climate of fear suggests abuse of the lese majeste law for political purposes. And the fact that the crown prince seemed to give the green light to charging his once-loyal individuals with lese majeste could indicate that this barbaric law will be fully exercised under the forthcoming reign of Vajiralongkorn. This will be a sad sign for human rights in Thailand.

In looking ahead to 2016, pessimism emerges. Already, Prayuth has told the Thai media the election might be delayed, and the new realistic date might even be beyond 2017. The constitution will be approved at some point next year, but for the time being, its content is still under wraps. Meanwhile, human rights violations will continue to take place since the space of free expression has been seriously limited.

On the economic front, 2015 has failed to deliver a successful business-oriented policy by the junta. The first economic term led by M.L. Pridiyathorn Devakula was unable to bring back confidence among potential investors, fix economic troubles caused by mismanagement in the hands of the previous government or stimulate economic vibrancy among Thai consumers. Although the junta borrowed populism a la Thaksin as a way to promote local economies, it lacked the golden touch once enjoyed by the Thaksin administration.

So it appears that 2016 will not guarantee that Thailand will be a happy place. With all the troubles, including the uncertainty that will accompany the royal succession, Thais should not be too excited to welcome the new year.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies where he teaches Southeast Asian politics and international relations in Asia.