Dec 2022

Three-legged democracy

As elections approach,  Yvonne Gill considers some of the key issues impacting the Thai people, including poverty, corruption and the military and monarchy’s lack of accountability

Even as world leaders arrived for November’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Thai police clashed with pro-democracy protesters at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. Denouncing the summit as a ‘festival of lies’, one activist declared, ‘This warm but hypocritical welcome is merely a means to certify the legitimacy of an ugly, tyrannical government.’

The protesters demanded that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha resign immediately and fresh elections be held. They also called for the release of political prisoners and reform of Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law, which carries a sentence of three to 15 years’ imprisonment for insulting or defaming the royal family.

An important agenda of the APEC summit was to get global leaders and businesses to endorse the Thai pro-military government’s flagship programme, Bio Circular Green (BCG). The government claims BCG will transform the Thai economy, Southeast Asia’s second-largest, into a ‘green engine of growth’. The demonstrators think otherwise. They urged the APEC summit delegates to reject the BCG initiative because it favours big business and is against the poor farmers. ‘Prayuth is using the APEC summit to legitimise these oppressive, exploitative schemes, making enemies with farmers, labourers and the public,’ charged the young woman activist, Passaravalee Thanakijvibulphol.

The government, which has been accused of pursuing policies overtly favouring big business and monopolies wants to attract foreign investors for optimal exploitation of the country’s natural resources, and to build smart cities and special economic zones. The protestors, who held banners against Prayuth and even Chinese President Xi Jinping, think the programme will be devastating for Thailand’s poor and marginalised people. With the country forming part of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative, China is playing an increasingly dominant role in the Thai economy, and is a particular target for the people’s ire.

Gen. Prayuth, then the army chief, seized power in a 2014 coup and later became prime minister under a provisional post-coup constitution. He got the 2017 constitution ratified by 61.4 per cent of those who voted in a referendum in August 2016. No one was allowed to debate the merits of the charter as the army conducted a ‘grassroots information campaign’ in the run-up to the referendum. The junta ominously decreed that ‘people who propagate information deemed distorted, violent, aggressive, inciting or threatening so that voters do not vote, or vote in a particular way’ would face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to 200,000 baht.

Thai riot police attacking pro-democracy protesters near Democracy Monument during November’s APEC Summit in Bangkok1
Thai riot police attack pro-democracy protesters near Democracy Monument during November’s APEC Summit in Bangkok

The constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, consisting of a 250-member nominated Senate and a 500-member House of Representatives, of whom 350 are elected from single-member constituencies, and 150 members from party lists. The Senators are nominated by a 10-member National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), packed with the military top brass. Therefore, even if the military-backed party does not get enough seats in the lower house, the Senators would ensure that it forms a government. The law also empowers the government to ban political parties on tenuous grounds and brings constitutional bodies like the election commission and even the courts under its control.

Ninety years ago, a bloodless military coup – described as the Revolution of 1932– deposed the King and stripped him of his absolutist power, reducing his stature to a constitutional monarch. Thailand has since witnessed a series of democratically-elected governments, punctuated by military coups – a total of 13 disruptions to democracy. Strangely, the people have been fighting against the military to restore democracy, only to be disillusioned by the machinations of opportunist and corrupt politicians, giving the generals another excuse to grab power, only to restore civilian rule when they found the going tough.

The government claims BCG will transform the Thai economy into a ‘green engine of growth’

In the process, the military has refined its power-grab techniques, to the extent that the generals have their own political parties, in order to dress their dictatorship in civilian garb and pose as guardians of stability, thereto discipline self-seeking politicians. A constant ally of the military has been the monarch, who enjoys special privileges and enormous wealth. Traditionally, the Thai people look to the King with reverence as the defender of religions and protector of the nation. Exploiting these sentiments, the monarchy has invariably stamped its seal of approval on coups effected by the armed forces. Yet large segments of the population, particularly the youth, have been offering stiff resistance to the juntas and demanding that the crown’s affairs be made transparent, and the King be held accountable. Over the years, hundreds have laid down their lives in this struggle against military rule, and for democracy.

To give legitimacy to his regime, Prayuth formed the Palang Pracharat party and won the second-largest number of seats in the controversial 2019 election. The popular opposition Pheu Thai party got the largest number of seats. But cobbling together a coalition with more than a dozen parties and with Senate backing, the General rode back to power.  His election campaign focused on traditional cultural values of harmony and respect for the royal family. King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who had just been crowned, promptly endorsed Prayuth’s government.

The years that followed saw mass protests and a reign of terror unleashed by the police and army. The Future Forward party, spearheading the agitation, was disbanded by a court order.

Over the last couple of years, thousands have been taking to the streets, despite harsh crackdowns. Opposition parties in Parliament have brought four no-confidence votes against the government, yet it survived – notwithstanding defections and dissent within the ruling party’s ranks.

The law empowers the government to ban political parties on tenuous grounds

Early this year, the opposition Pheu Thai challenged Prayuth’s premiership in the Constitutional Court, on the grounds that he had already completed the constitutionally mandated eight-year term limit. The court initially suspended him from performing official duties nut then restored it, ruling that his term began in 2017 when the new constitution came into force – not when he seized power in 2014.Prayuth is now eligible to contest next May’s general elections. Small wonder, as the Thai courts are willing handmaidens of the military-monarchical axis.

The Constitution was amended last year to change the composition of the next House of Representatives. Now there will be 400 constituency MPs and 100 party-list MPs instead of the earlier division of 350 and 150, respectively.  As a result, there is a surfeit of new parties, as this change favours small parties. Among them are the Sang Anakot Thai Party (Building Thailand’s Future), Ruam Thai Sang Chart (Uniting Thais to Build the Nation), Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai), Chart Pattana Kla, the Thai Sang Thai (Thais Build Thais), and O-Kard Thai (Opportunity Thai) parties. Floated by existing politicians, none of them has any clear-cut policies, and they are divided between pro-military and pro-democracy camps.

The General himself might hop on to one of the new parties, Ruam Thai Sang Chart, formed last year by his advisor Pirapan Salirathawipak to give his third bid for power a more civilian look. Come what may, he is likely to hold on to power with the backing of the Senate, rebuilding a coalition of the new political parties and existing allies. Without the support of the 250-member Senate – nearly half of whose seats are occupied by serving and retired military officers – it will be a tall order for the opposition to form the next government.

Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong has urged China and the US to maintain smooth channels of communication

The main impediment to the democratic process in Thailand is the military, which works in cohort with the monarchy – both of which have enormous financial and institutional clout in governance and policy-making. The military owns more than 100 enterprises involved in a range of activities, including airport services, broadcasting, construction, banking and financial services, merchandise trading, fabrics, food, industrial supplies, mining, petroleum and related products, real estate and transportation.

In 2017, military officers sat on the boards of 43 out of 57 state-owned enterprises. They are present on the boards of many private companies too. Corruption is rampant in the armed forces and top-ranking officers and their spouses own large properties, well beyond their legitimate means.

Since ascending to the throne, King Vajiralongkorn has taken steps to consolidate the monarchy’s financial and military power, with the help of the Prayuth government which has amended the 1932 law, giving the King full control of the Crown Property Bureau, previously under the Finance Ministry. He has also been given direct control of two influential army units.

The royal family is the largest shareholder in two of the country’s most valuable companies, Siam Commercial Bank Plc and Siam Cement Plc. The monarch owns vast plots of land in central Bangkok, where the capital’s luxury shopping malls, high-end hotels and towering office buildings are located.  King Vajiralongkorn is supposed to have a net worth of $40 billion, making him the world’s richest monarch. He owns properties abroad, especially in Germany, where he spends most of his time at the plush Sonnenbichl Hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He is said to own a $111.3 million home in the lakeside Bavarian town of Tutzing.

While under investigation for evading taxes on property inherited in Germany, Vajiralongkorn was the subject of media reports about him purchasing a $375 million luxury aircraft. German tabloid Bild had earlier speculated that the King might have sent his most prized and valuable possessions to Germany to prevent them from being seized by a future popular government.

Thai democracy increasingly looks like a strange three-legged creature, with one leg belonging to the military, another to the monarchy and, last and least, one to the people. As the popular struggle goes on, democracy seems to be a long and tedious haul for the beleaguered populace of this Southeast Asian country.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London