Unhappy Ending

The future is not bright for the leader of Thailand's coup.

Christophe Archambault/AFP
Christophe Archambault/AFP

"That song is really catchy," a friend who sympathizes with the recent coup told me over dinner in Bangkok. "Every time I hear that song I want to throw up," exclaimed a politician who supports Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former premier (in power from 2001 to 2006) about whom Thailand remains deeply polarized. Both comments were unsolicited. Neither had to explain which song they meant: Thai coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s "Return Happiness to Thailand" is in everybody’s head, whether they like it or not.

On May 22, members of the Thai military seized power from the embattled government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. The ruling junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), took two months to come up with an interim constitution and three months to name a prime minister — none other than Prayuth himself. Thailand’s "haves" — including Bangkokians, who make up roughly 13 percent of Thailand’s nearly 70 million people, the middle class, and the elite — mostly support the coup. But many of Thailand’s "have-nots" deeply resent it, especially the upwardly mobile urbanized villagers from the populous north and northeast, who form the bedrock of electoral support for pro-Thaksin parties.

The coup has been largely a Prayuth affair: Besides the song he wrote in early June, in which he exhorts his fellow citizens to "have faith" in the military, the general has his own Friday night television show, on which he lectures his fellow Thais on topics ranging from education to how to raise their kids. (The show, broadcast on every Thai TV station, is called "Returning Happiness to the People.") His fellow senior officers, including Supreme Commander Thanasak Patimaprakorn, who is nominally Prayuth’s superior, find themselves at the beck and call of the army chief. His office even vets their schedules before they can confirm appointments, two people familiar with the matter told me.

According to a former Thaksin minister, "the boss," as he called him, had told everyone to lie low and to wait for the military to begin alienating people. That may have already begun.

Despite the soft lyrics of his song, Prayuth is not setting out to win friends. After an initial flurry of overt resistance in the first couple of weeks from anti-coup groups — mainly "red shirts" loyal to Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai — the opposition has largely gone underground, as a result of the junta’s harsh crackdown on dissent. There were reports of people in Bangkok being arrested for sitting around reading silently in groups of four — since gatherings of five or more were not permitted. A foreigner was detained for wearing a T-shirt supporting peace. Students were arrested for eating sandwiches in public, which, like the Hunger Games‘s three-fingered salute, had become an unlikely symbol of resistance. Human rights lawyers have claimed that at least 14 of the hundreds detained have been tortured.

The military has summoned all sorts of people, ranging from opposition politicians to critical academics, to army bases for chats with military officers about "how to promote national happiness." Until late June, it even summoned people through live TV announcements.

Meanwhile, the junta has begun the process of forming a government. Prayuth’s Cabinet list, announced on Aug. 31, may prove to be a turning point in the junta’s credibility: It comprises military men, ex-bureaucrats, and a few economic technocrats, most of whom are highly conservative and embedded in the existing system. Prayuth awarded key posts — including defense, foreign affairs, interior, justice, and education — to NCPO members. Instead of appointing a credible civilian as foreign minister, the junta opted for Gen. Thanasak, who as an NCPO representative will probably be received only grudgingly in many major capitals. At a time when Thailand badly needs to improve relations with the international community, this is especially disappointing.

The new Cabinet will operate in conjunction with a similarly lackluster National Legislative Assembly, a puppet parliament that has so far proved to be a collection of complete yes-men, and a soon-to-be established National Reform Council, charged with working alongside a Constitution Drafting Commission to transform Thailand’s fractious politics. Given their mediocre membership and military oversight, it is hard to see how these bodies will be able to generate creative solutions to the country’s complex problems.

Despite the calls for national happiness, many Thais are beset by national anxieties. They fear losing competitive advantage to more stable and dynamic Southeast Asian neighbors. But above all, they fear an uncertain future once 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes from the scene, since there is no popular consensus about who should succeed the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

Where does Thailand go from here? Ideally, Prayuth will realize that only a speedy return to electoral politics will satisfy popular demand, and call elections for the second half of 2015 following a relatively minimalist reform process. But under this scenario, a pro-Thaksin party — armed with Thailand’s most effective campaign machinery — will probably return to power.

More likely scenarios include some combination of the following: an extended delay in holding elections; constitutional reforms that permanently ban many former politicians from holding office; or a new military-backed political party. There may even be a new election system altogether — one that moves away from the principle of one person, one vote. It would perhaps include some form of Hong Kong-style functional constituencies, where occupationally related bodies select representatives, or a gerrymandered proportional representation system.

Even some anti-Thaksin groups — including the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which, under media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul, spearheaded the 2006 and 2008 "yellow shirt" protests against the Thaksin government — have become disenchanted with the NCPO and are reaching out to the pro-Thaksin side. If the NCPO tries to decapitate Thailand’s political class — including the Democrat Party, which helped create the conditions for the May 2014 coup by boycotting the February election and backing several months of street protests — the junta could face growing pressure to hold elections sooner rather than later.

A theme of NCPO pronouncements has been an intolerance of dissent — because disagreements are bad for Thai society. The military has been requesting the cancellation of public meetings on controversial topics; it called for the disbanding of a seminar on the interim constitution held at Bangkok’s Thammasat University on Aug. 8 "to prevent the resurgence of differences in political attitude."

Since late 2005, Thailand has suffered from a debilitating degree of political polarization, an intolerable number of street protests, and an obnoxious culture of reciprocal aggression and defamation across the pro-Thaksin/anti-Thaksin divide, which has intermittently spilled over into violence. Such an intense level of conflict needs to be managed, contained, and reduced. But any such reduction needs the active participation of warring factions; it cannot be achieved at gunpoint, or by endless didacticism and moralistic hectoring.

Here, ironically, lies the best prospect for national happiness. If the military succeeds in driving Thailand’s once-warring civilian factions together, that could achieve sufficient unity for the country to revert to business as usual. For now, the more bumbling and inept Prayuth and his new Cabinet appear to be, the better. Thailand’s happiness may then return before too long, though not perhaps according to the coup leader’s song.

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