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October 2, 2020


THAILAND: A fundamental political shift may be under way

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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  • The student protests may be a signal that the forced political equilibrium of the past five years is fraying.
  • The monarchy’s prestige may be declining, dragging down with it the clout of the military.
  • This may be creating a vacuum in Thai politics, which generates the possibility of sustained uncertainty, if not instability.

Much of the coverage of the Thai protests has focused on near-term scenarios, specifically on the survival of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government. However, the dissent in the streets may also be signaling, or even driving, more fundamental changes in politics. Consequently, an extended period of uncertainty is possible even if the protests dissipate, especially if the key players see opportunities to reposition themselves to take advantage of the political flux.

How Thaksin altered politics in the early 2000s and the counter-reaction by the military and monarchy

As we discussed in a note in 2016, Thai politics since the end of monarchical rule in 1932 has progressed in broad arcs based on changes in the balance of power between four competing forces: the monarchy, military, politicians and the Bangkok-based elites. Shifts in this balance were marked by coups, constitutional rewrites, or even violence. Occasionally students would emerge as a political force, but not as a long-term actor.

Two decades ago, Thaksin modified this dynamic by tapping a power base from outside Bangkok. He exploited the long-standing resentment in the Isan, the rural communities of the northeast that were often a political afterthought in the capital’s politics. But while the Bangkok elites, the military and the monarchy grated at Thaksin’s popularity, the breaking point for them was his attempt to entrench his Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy classmates in the police and military, generating a backlash from royalists and their allies in the Bangkok establishment, as well as business elites who had an axe to grind. The result was a decade-long fight for control, starting with the 2006 coup and ending with another one in 2014.

The removal of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, the junta’s successful suppression of Thaksin’s proxies and networks and the seemingly smooth transition to the reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn seemed to signal that the military-monarchy nexus would control Thai politics for the foreseeable future. Traditional political parties such as the Democrats and For Thais were struggling, because of their own missteps and the junta’s tight control over politics. Dissent was not tolerated from 2014 to 2019. And to clothe its actions with additional legitimacy, the generals presented themselves protectors of the monarchy through the strict implementation of lese majeste laws. Prayuth sought to entrench this balance through the new constitution, where unelected officials gained power, especially the 250-seat senate, and by the electoral strength of large parties was diminished through the twin-ballot system. Prayuth likely believed he had avoided the mistake of the generals who took over after the 2006 coup, when they quickly returned power to a democratic government, without enfeebling Thaksin and his networks.

Today, the equilibrium created after 2014 and the system designed by Prayuth, which seemed to be set well into the middle of the 2020s, may be fraying, exposed to the dissent of the students and the likely broader resentment of the population, which had been captured by the substantial public support for the Future Forward party in 2019. Deeper changes may therefore lie ahead, faster than we had expected in 2016.

A system that may be in churn

  • The monarchy. While Thais cautiously and respectfully recognized the succession from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn, the willingness of the students to openly challenge the monarchy’s constitutional position and their call for financial reforms indicate that its political and social clout — borne out of a genuine reverence for Bhumibol — may be dissipating due to the negative perceptions of the current king. This would have consequences for the military’s prestige, which is now tied to the crown, and it may lead to harsher implementation of the lese majeste laws in the near term as a knee-jerk reaction of the royalists in the government. But the real question is whether it may cause the royals to eventually assess Vajiralongkorn’s viability and look to a Plan B: either his replacement with the more loved sister, Sirindhorn (although she reportedly does not want the crown and there is no precedent for a female monarch), or the elevation of his minor son as king, with Sirindhorn as regent.
  • The military. Prayuth and the generals who controlled the military after the 2006 coup until 2014 are associated with the 21st Infantry Regiment, often referred to as the Queen’s Guards/musketeers. Gen (ret.) Anupong Paochinda, who took over as army chief in 2007, came from this regiment, and he promoted its members — including Prayuth. The shift happened after 2014, when General Theerachai Nakvanich became army chief. Unlike his predecessors, Theerachai was from the King’s guard, the one historically associated with the monarchy and, today, with Vajiralongkorn. This may have been part of the succession deal between Prayuth and Vajiralongkorn. The incoming army chief, General Narongpan Jittkaewtae, and his immediate predecessor, the arch royalist General Apirat Kongsompong, are both from this unit. Although there is a tendency to overstate the internal army jockeying, the consequential promotions are incentives for generals not to be caught on the wrong side of the monarch. Prayuth’s goal may be to see the survival of the current system that he helped bring about, while Apirat and Narongpany may have the narrower goal of protecting their and the monarchy’s clout. Should the gap between the armed forces-monarchy nexus and prime minister on how to deal with domestic turbulence increase, so too could the risk of military intervention.
  • The politicians. Nowhere is the vacuum more evident than in the political class, where all the major parties seem to have substantial limitation. According to one poll by National Institute for Development Administration (Nida), approximately 46% of Thais do not support any party. The Democrats are struggling for direction, and the For Thais (PT) party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, while still substantial, has seen its leadership and networks erode, with Thaksin absent from the country and seemingly uninterested in returning. However, the Shinawatras do not yet seem to be willing to concede their status; Thaksin’s ex-wife, Potjaman na Pombejra, has reportedly become more influential in the leadership selection process, even though she does not have a formal role. The objective of the party apparently is to rebuild its past networks and align PT with the Thaksin brand for the first time since 2014 (possibly recognizing an opportunity in the political vacuum). But even this may constrain rather than help the party. It could reduce the infighting and defections but hurt its ability to attract new voters — something that the young opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit may be more effective at, although he is banned from running for office. The ruling State People’s Power Party is cobbled together from former junta members and allies and PT politicians, and is unlikely to become an institutionalized party.

As in the past, the way out of years’ long instability is either one faction dominating, which could mean a return to military control and suppression of dissent, or a compromise, possibly expressed through a constitutional rewrite. Parliament’s efforts to offer charter change to the protesters has been met with skepticism, but in it Prayuth may see his best opportunity to save the current system; whether the military and monarchy are willing to yield ground to achieve the same goal remains to be seen, however.

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