Photo: Human Rights Watch
As tanks rolled into the streets of Bangkok in 2014, Thailand was about to experience another coup d’état, led by retired General Prayut Chan-o-Cha. His premiership began with bitter anger among many people for cancelling democracy and giving the military greater political powers. Now, more than eight years since the coup, cracks in his once untouchable persona are starting to appear. This article will aim to show why the junta was initially lucky to remain in power for as long as it did, with the mistakes of the Royal Thai Government are responsible for a botched vaccine rollout, growing civil unrest, and courts finally standing up to his government, foreshadowing Chan-o-Cha’s likely exit soon from the political arena.
Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s rise to power followed a path that is unfortunately common for Thailand, reaching Government House through a military coup d’état in 2014, ousting elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over allegations of corruption. Thailand at this point was almost descending into Civil War over factional politics between the supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra in red shirts and people in yellow shirts protesting the continued political dominance of the Shinawatra family in Thai politics. As violence spiralled out of control, and with King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s influence decreasing during his various illnesses, Prayut Chan-o-Cha locked down Bangkok and declared martial law, marking the kingdom’s twelfth coup d’état since 1932. Chan-o-Cha’s initial promise was to restore the country to democracy, holding free and fair elections in October 2015. This never came to fruition, as elections were only held five years later in March 2019 after a referendum on a constitutional change. This election was considered an expression of hybrid democracy, with people being able to choose candidates for the parliament’s lower house, but with members of the Senate being selected by the military, would then choose the Prime Minister. The changes in the constitution before the election were designed to keep the military officials in office with strengthened political power. While political stability is almost impossible to achieve in Thailand, the luck that the junta was able to gain through certain unfortunate social events would allow the military to stay in power and oversee the royal processions for the cremation of a deceased beloved king and the coronation of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.
Numerous pushbacks to the election were introduced, but the loss of Thailand’s most sacred figurehead in October 2016 provided an opportunity for the junta to remain in power in order to maintain peace and stability. The death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej led to mass mourning, with an official one-year mourning period announced for the people of the kingdom to reflect on the tireless work of the king. The news came as a stroke of luck for the junta as in the face of increasing pressure from domestic and international actors to hold the promised elections. Chan-o-Cha’s government took this opportunity to oversee not only the mourning period and the royal cremation, but also the ascension of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn as Rama X. The period between the announcement of King Bhumibol’s death and the coronation of HM Vajiralongkorn lasted four years, which explains why the junta government continued to postpone elections. Chan-o-Cha had claimed that the changeover in the monarchy was not the reason for the numerous delays in elections, as these were separate matters, yet the ties between the military and the monarchy in Thailand are close, and will surely continue to be so until substantial reform is introduced. As a date was announced for a general election, various parties decided to take a shot at removing Prayut from power.
Thailand’s first democratic election since 2011 was somewhat of a failure, with no solid outcome until 45 days after the polls had closed. By May 2019, Prayut’s military-backed Phalang Pracharat Party was declared the winner and so remained in the government. Despite independent bodies calling the electoral structure ‘deeply flawed’, considering that Phalang Pracharat had not won an overall majority in the parliament, it remained in power. Anger among the opposition parties over the result had begun to backfire, as the Constitutional Court started to dissolve parties and ban political leaders. One party to suffer this fate was a new force to have entered Thai politics, the ‘Future Forward Party’, which campaigned as pro-democracy, favouring reforms that would keep the military out of domestic politics for good. As a result of its anti-junta stance, allegations of financial mismanagement led to the dissolution of the party, despite gaining 80 seats in its first and now final election. The leader of Future Forward, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has been banned from Parliament for ten years and is currently facing criminal investigation on a charge of l-majest over his remarks about a vaccine contract. The anger that the political parties felt over the outcome of the election spread throughout the population, as many people were furious at the result and the actions of the courts. Protests began to break out in Bangkok, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister and the Royal Thai Government’s entire cabinet. During the initial stages of the protest, the government remained largely silent on the issue, until the Bureau of the Royal Household became an issue on protestors’ lips.
As the Covid-19 pandemic infected the world, Thailand’s initial response was a success. This happened while pro-democracy protests were gaining support among those many who had been on opposing sides seven years before, simply due to the undemocratic and bullish behaviours of Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s government. Fast-forward a year and a half since the initial lockdown, and the economy is in ruins with no path to recovery, a vaccination programme that has become a laughingstock within Thailand, and open discussion of reforms of the Bureau of the Royal Household. The latter issue is one of some shock, considering the revered status of the monarchy in Thailand and the fact that any criticism is punishable to 15 years per offence. With the Covid-19 outbreak, Thailand used Section 5 of the Emergency Decree of 2005 to control the spread of the virus. This emergency law provides the government with greater powers; they have been in place since April 2020, with international actors and domestic critics questioning the need for these draconian measures. Among the changes introduced were unchecked governmental power, the ability to arrest without charge, and greater censorship of TV through the blocking of certain channels. Most worrying was the ability of the government to investigate persons accused of spreading misinformation on Covid-19. This has provided an already intrusive regime with greater powers to detain people who may disagree on government policy regarding Covid-19 rather than on anything specific to the existence of the virus itself. Prayut has been able to keep the Emergency Decree in place as Thailand now experiences the third wave of the virus, but as the pandemic rips through the kingdom, a downturn in luck for the PM is starting to show.
Despite the government’s bottleneck hold on society having lasted over eight years, it is starting to weaken with protests that began over the general election results now demanding effective reforms and the resignation of Prayut Chan-o-Cha. As previously mentioned, the stature of the Bureau of the Royal Household has long been untouchable, but this began to change as questions started to arise over the questionable finances of HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn. As required in the 2017 constitution, the Crown Property Bureau, estimated at $30-60 billion, has been placed under the direct control of HM Vajiralongkorn. During a time when many people are struggling to live, it was announced that the King was in Bavaria on Thai taxpayer money. Ultimately, the pro-democracy protests started to demand reform of the Royal Household, which has been not only socially unspeakable, but risks facing severe judicial punishment. The initial response from the government was silence, until Prayut’s forces found that their patience had been tested for too long. As protestors surrounded Government House and cornered its occupants, police retaliated using chemical-laced water cannons and tear gas. The protestors did not need to attack to openly discuss the Royal Household in the way they did, but it seems that the stubborn nature of Prayut Chan-o-Cha led to this. Prayut’s government had stirred controversy since 2014, with various failures and failed promises, and the protestors wanted change and were now willing to overhaul the society to make it happen. The constant lies and thuggish behaviour have pushed moderate Thais to questioning the institutions that were designed to protect and uplift society. The pro-democracy protests are an initial sign that Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s luck is running out.
Further evidence of Prayut’s luck running out was the recent blocking by the Civil Court of the government’s plan to ‘gag free-speech’. The regulation initially put forward by the government allowed the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to cut the Internet access of those who spread content on social media with the intention to ‘frighten’ people. The Civil Court ruled that there was no reason for further restrictions on free speech, given that Thailand already has some of the toughest laws among democratic nations, and Prayut was forced to revoke this restrictive regulation. International institutions and human rights activists have been monitoring the situation in Thailand with concern for the power the government holds with very little accountability. The media in Thailand is heavily regulated, with the majority of TV channels being state-owned, while print media have little choice but to promote the government, out of fears of censorship or being forced to close.
The government has been heavily criticised over the past few months for the failure of its vaccine rollout, after awarding the Astra Zeneca contract to a company called Siam Bioscience. However, due to the harsh l-majest laws, criticism of the awarding of this contract can lead to imprisonment, as HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the majority shareholder. This company has never manufactured vaccines in the past, hence the scepticism as to whether it will be able to deliver to Thailand and the surrounding countries that are dependent on its products. Currently, the vaccine rollout does not meet expectations, which, as of the writing of this article, were initially for only 7% of Thai people being fully vaccinated. The shutdown by the Civil Court and the slow, miserable vaccine rollout are signs of luck running out for a Prime Minister known for his obsession with superstitions.
We can begin to that the luck of Prayut Chan-o-Cha’s illegitimate regime is coming to an end, despite his initial success in augmenting power by doing whatever it takes to keep it, no matter the societal cost. Since the military took power in 2014, the economy has been driven into the ground, the once untouchable Bureau of the Royal Household is being questioned, and the utter failure of the government’s handling of the pandemic response, all suggest that his time is indeed running out. While any government will face challenges, Prayut has put Thailand through some of its darkest times in years, with his cavalier attitude towards holding public office, as evidenced in such things as refusing to answer questions, spraying hand sanitizer at journalists, throwing a banana at a camera man, and threatening to “probably execute” reporters. Despite the Thai people’s having largely turned their backs on this government, the alternative is no brighter, and indeed is probably much bleaker. For, if Prayut goes, another military-appointed figure will almost certainly take his spot and Thailand will be back at square one. With the way the current constitution stands and the make-up of the Senate, a complete overhaul of the constitution and the parliament are surely needed for meaningful change to take place, and the likelihood of this does not seem high in the next decade.
Jamie Greenfield, Year 3, BA (Hons) Politics