In September 2014, several months after the Thai armed forces’ May 2014 coup, I suggested that this coup would be different from other ones in more recent memory, like the 2006 Thai coup—and that the United States should consider that this Thai coup would be harsher and longer-lasting. This time around, it seemed the generals were not going to be willing to follow the 2006 script, in which they quickly handed power to a transitional government, and then allowed elections fairly quickly, without really destroying the power of Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, or changing the structure of Thailand’s political system. I also believed that the generals, in 2014, would be willing to jail significant numbers of dissidents and major political figures. The U.S. government, I suggested, should be prepared for a long break before any resumption of real democracy in Thailand, which once had seemed like a democratic success story.
So far, these predictions seem moderately accurate; in fact, I think I underestimated how serious the armed forces were about putting off elections, radically changing Thailand’s political system, and trying to ensure that the kingdom returns to a form of limited, managed democracy. The coup has indeed cemented the army’s grip on power, and the Thaksinite political parties who ruled Thailand for most of the years between 2001 and 2014 have been relatively quiet since 2014, a sharp change from the environment in the year after the 2006 coup. Dissent in Bangkok and central Thailand has been muted and/or crushed, though the bloody insurgency continues on in the deep south and there have been isolated incidents of violence in the capital, such as the recent bombing at a hospital in Bangkok.
The armed forces have overseen a significant increase in the use of lèse majesté laws to silence critics, and the charter they oversaw could fundamentally weaken Thai democracy after elections are supposedly held next year. Unelected institutions will have enormous influence under the new charter, and it will be nearly impossible for any one party to gain control of the lower house of parliament, the way that pro-Thaksin parties did in the 2000s, even after the 2006 coup. The armed forces may indeed never really exit Thai politics, as some imagined they would in the 1990s and early 2000s.
If anything, three years after the coup the armed forces are in an even stronger position than I imagined they would be back in 2014. Although I expected the army to change Thailand’s constitution to undermine any comeback attempts by a pro-Thaksin party and to weaken the power of political parties, period, I still expected them to hold elections earlier than 2018, now the target date for a vote. I thought that political pressure, built up from two decades of democracy in Thailand, would force the armed forces to pass a charter and hold elections within about two years—by the end of 2016, I expected. The U.S. government took a relatively tough line toward the coup, as well, which seemed to suggest that the junta would pay, internationally, for behavior that dragged out elections indefinitely. I also thought that the army’s disdain for many of the regions that supported Thaksinite parties would result in more protests against the junta in parts of the north and northeast.
Instead, the armed forces have been ruthless in suppressing dissent—dissent against repressive policies and dissent over the continuing weak economic situation, which was noted in the World Bank’s March report on the faltering state of the Thai economy. The junta’s economic strategies, supposedly designed to shore up Thailand’s weak economic growth, have no clear plan for helping much of the north and northeast, and are unlikely to really improve Thailand’s competitiveness with neighboring states like Vietnam. Meanwhile, junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has recently suggested that elections could be put off even farther than 2018, if the country does not achieve a level of peace, although he remains unclear how that determination will be made. And the new U.S. administration has made clear that human rights will be a lower priority in U.S. foreign relations overall. This benefits the Thai junta, of course; Prayuth recently received an invitation for a White House visit, an honor he was not accorded by the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, the new king has added further uncertainty into Thai politics, inserting himself into Thai politics in a relatively direct manner, as I discussed in a recent post. Altogether, a distressing situation three years after the coup, with no clear end in sight.