Thailand: will they stay or will they go?
Thai history has not been kind to military leaders who overstay their welcome
When former Thai coup-maker General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s wife, Wannee, dreamt that her soldier husband would stay in power for a decade, her announced premonition set off the first ripple in what would build into a wave of indignation against sustained military rule.
That wave, a turning of the popular tide known as krasae in Thai, mounted and eventually crashed into violent street protests and a bloody crackdown that pushed Suchinda from power in May 1992 and the military out of politics for one of the longest periods in the nation’s coup-plagued history.
Fast forward to 2017, Thailand’s enterprising but repressed media is digging for a similar seismic revelation to press the current generation of military coup-makers to hold elections as promised in late 2018 and for coup leader cum premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha to refrain from clinging to power after the polls.
While there are certain parallels between the political situations in 1992 and 2017 – ones that certain plucky media outlets are bidding to accentuate – there are also important differences that militate against a recurrence of the krasae that dispatched disgraced soldier politicians unceremoniously back to their barracks in 1992.
Local broadsheets have recently hard focused on defense minister and junta No 2 General Prawit Wongsuwan’s rich collection of pricey wrist watches, inference that junta leaders who validated their coup and retrograde constitution on purging corrupt politicians are not as clean as they claim.
The current junta’s detractors have taken aim at Prawit rather than Prayuth, as the latter has maintained a relatively clean image despite wielding hot-tempered and suppressive dictatorial powers. Prayuth strongly resisted calls to dump Prawit, his former army superior who is known to command strong loyalty among the rank and file, at a recent Cabinet shuffle.
Anti-junta criticism, in the media and among sidelined politicians, has audibly amped with the lifting in late October of a year-end period of national mourning for deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The junta has been instrumental in steering a, so far, smooth royal succession, an untouchable role critics claim has given gilded cover for abuse.
But while the media has exposed massive irregularities in the construction of statues of past kings at a military-managed park, a suspect public land lease to super-rich Thai energy drink pioneer Red Bull and an opaque US$1 billion three-for-one submarine deal with China, none of the here-today, gone-tomorrow scandals have sparked an anti-junta krasae.
The lack of popular response is a testament to the junta’s ironfisted grip on power, underwritten by a hard ban on political association that deems any meeting of more than five people illegal. Invasive state surveillance has also ferreted out and suppressed potential anti-junta agitators before they can mobilize and take to the streets.
Significantly, the momentous events of 1992 were driven in large part by intra-military divisions among competing (Chulachomklao Military Academy graduating Class 5 and 7) elite factions that broke out into the open. In one historical view, the street violence that killed hundreds de facto pitted one rival military faction against another.
While today there is still clearly intra-military rivalry and tension, including between the elite King’s and Queen’s Guard regiments, recent reshuffles have aimed at more power-sharing and helped to close ranks after dangerous tremors in the immediate aftermath of the May 2014 coup.
That could change under new King Vajiralongkorn as certain elite fighting divisions are brought more directly under palace control.
Some see a budding rivalry emerging on elite factional lines between Prayuth and Prawit and army commander General Chalermchai Sittisart and assistant commander General Apirat Kongsompong. Apirat, who has strong personal ties to the new king, is also the son of one of the 1991 coup-makers.
While those tensions are still firmly in the background, elder military statesmen have recently raised their voices to suggest that Prayuth and Prawit have lost key support and risk overstaying in the name of restoring stability if they do not hold new polls as promised in late 2018.
Local media reported that former premier and army commander General Prem Tinsulanonda said at a December 28 meeting with junta ministers that Prayuth’s support was waning and that he had “used up almost all of his reserves.”
Prem, head of the previous and current king’s royal advisory Privy Council, was instrumental in unifying troops ahead of the 2006 coup that overthrew elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Yet his protégé, former army commander and coup-appointed premier General Surayud Chulanont, restored elected governance just a year after that putsch.
General Saiyud Kerdphol, the respected architect of the military’s successful counter-communism campaign in the 1970’s-80’s, similarly told Asia Times that Prayuth’s junta risks a backlash if it doesn’t soon restore democracy and return power to the people.
Saiyud raised a delicate parallel with former military dictator Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who was overthrown after a decade of strongman rule in massive street protests in 1973 galvanized by calls for elections and a return to constitutional governance.
His return from exile in 1976 sparked new protests, a military massacre and new coup.
Neither nonagenarian former soldier’s comments are expected nor intended to spark an anti-junta krasae against Prayuth’s strongman brand of military rule. But they are two of the few senior military statesmen in the country whose words carry moral weight in Thailand’s seniority-driven society.
The problem for other, less-esteemed Prayuth regime critics is that any expression of anti-junta sentiment in the current political environment is quickly construed as either supportive of coup-ousted, self-exiled ex-leaders Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, or an act of outright sedition.
Yet Thaksin is circling again with the royal funeral completed and new elections reputedly on the cards. Prayuth and Prawit clearly sense an electoral scenario where Thaksin’s coup-ousted Peua Thai is resoundingly restored at the ballot box and their plans to sustain a political role for the military are challenged as illegitimate.
They also no doubt recognize a return to democratic governance will open the way for possible political retribution, including new scrutiny of the scandals that have either been swept under the rug or self-exonerated during years of unchallenged military rule.
One Peua Thai stalwart claims to have compiled a long list for probity after democracy is restored.
In 1992, Suchinda underestimated the krasae building against his rule when he manufactured his backdoor appointment to the premiership after elections through a military-backed front party. That will be harder for Prayuth as the press and political parties look to pounce on any hint the junta aims to field a similar type of proxy party.
With that history in sight, Prayuth stated from the outset of the coup his intention to restore democracy, though the timeline for new elections has been repeatedly set back for various reasons. With last year’s promulgation of a new charter that sets a legislative timeline for polls, the junta’s only apparent escape now would be a major security crisis.
The bigger picture, now as then, concerns the monarchy. The junta recently justified maintaining its ban on political association after the discovery upcountry of a large cache of arms allegedly linked to known pro-Thaksin anti-monarchists – one in self-exile in Cambodia, the other believed to have been assassinated last year by Thai agents in Laos.
The junta can readily point to shadowy threats or undue pressure on the crown to delay elections for reasons of stability. Thaksin allegedly recently requested a royal pardon from the new king, according to a government advisor familiar with the calls. His plea to former King Bhumibol for royal forgiveness was met with silence.
Any move that allowed for the criminally convicted Thaksin’s return as a free man would be political dynamite. It was his sister’s government’s attempt in 2013 to ram through parliament an amnesty bill that could have ushered Thaksin’s return that set off the krasae of street protests that eventuated in her military overthrow.
It’s little remembered that Suchinda’s 1991 coup was justified in part on allegations that the elected government it overthrew had covered up an alleged assassination plot by Young Turk soldiers of top royalist generals in a bid to undermine the monarchy. Bhumibol’s iconic intervention to end the 1992 street chaos is more widely recalled.
But where the monarchy stepped in with moral authority to resolve the 1992 crisis and usher in one of the nation’s longest periods of uninterrupted democratic rule, 25 years later the institution could soon be at the heart of a new political push and pull that aims ultimately to keep soldiers in protective power and democracy at bay.