Argument

Thailand’s Military Is Getting Ready for Another Crackdown

The Biden administration must prepare to stand up for protesters.

Riot police in Bangkok
Riot police stand guard behind barbed wire in front of the 11th Infantry Regiment before an anti-government rally by pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on Nov. 29. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

The leaders of Thailand’s military-royalty complex are growing restless. The attempt to satisfy popular demands for a return to democracy by offering a military-controlled facsimile has failed. Thailand’s students and other young people have risen up, calling for genuine democratic reform, including popular control over the heretofore untouchable monarchy.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the clownish yet arrogant general who seized power six years ago, has dropped his pretense of accommodation with the protestors. After refusing demands to resign and using the appointive senate to defeat proposals for constitutional reform, he blamed pro-democracy activists for his own moves, claiming that “the government has been straightforward and earnest in trying to find a solution.” On the ground, with demonstrators harassed, beaten, and arrested, the government doesn’t look very earnest.

Facing surprisingly resolute protestors, he threatened: “It will be necessary for the government and the concerned security agencies to enhance our measures by enforcing all the pertaining laws against protesters who violate the law or infringe on the rights and freedoms of other citizens.” Left unsaid was the fact that these laws were passed to enforce military rule. His latest step was charging a dozen protest leaders with lèse-majesté.

This is the first time in two years that the government has invoked the draconian punishment for criticism of the monarchy. Often deployed for political purposes by the junta, the prosecution is intended to defeat efforts to challenge King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the long-time crown prince who succeeded his father in 2016, was formally crowned last year and now spends much of his time in Germany with a sizable harem. The German government is evidently annoyed but says no laws apparently have been violated.

His father was beloved by the public; Vajiralongkorn is not. After his coronation, he demanded constitutional changes to enhance his personal authority, grabbed control over a couple favorite army regiments, and took over about $30 billion in royal assets from the state. His miniature poodle, Fufu, was an air chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force before her death in 2015. He anointed a Royal Noble Consort, a royal office filled for the first time in a century, fired her, and then restored her. And apart from his personal failings, he is seen as an ally of the military, which has blocked any reforms.

The students’ challenge to monarchical abuses broke the biggest political taboo in Thailand. Alas, that is likely to become the pretext for another coup, formal or informal, renewing military rule.

The army has a long record of intervening in Thai politics. In 1932, a coup advanced democracy by overturning a once-absolute monarchy. But since then, the military has routinely imposed authoritarian rule, staging 12 coups. The latest round, represented by Prayuth, was a direct attack on the evolution of more democratic, even populist politics.

Prayuth, who took power in a military-led coup in 2014, has exhibited the sort of narcissistic tendencies so dramatically evident in outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump. Despite asserting dictatorial powers, the Thai general whined, wailed, and even whimpered. The media, he complained, “made me lose my manners and have ruined my leader image.” Although the lack of armed resistance allowed the military to avoid bloodshed, the touchy dictator once threatened to shoot journalists—and no one was sure whether he was joking. The junta even borrowed from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, summoning people to military bases for “attitude adjustment” sessions, though thankfully without mobs baying for blood.

Prayuth designed a constitution that created only faux democracy, ensuring the military’s continued rule. Then he arrested anyone who opposed its approval and made public assent the only way out of formal dictatorship, explaining that its rejection would extend the junta’s rule.

Elections were held in March 2019, and nominally civilian institutions fulfilled the military’s expectations by disqualifying opposition candidates and parties and manipulating vote results. Most dramatically, the regime prosecuted the young billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and outlawed his youth-oriented Future Forward party, which came in third while explicitly challenging the military, demanding cuts in the military budget. Relying on 250 junta-appointed senate members, Prayuth the generalissimo ended up as the prime minister, despite an earlier promise to retire once democracy was restored.

Today’s demonstrators have persisted in the face of increasingly harsh suppression efforts. A state of emergency was declared. Public gatherings were banned. Scores of protest leaders were detained. Public transit was closed. The increasingly desperate authorities even threatened to jail anyone who visited an opposition website or posted a protest selfie.

But the demonstrations continued, attracting an ever-broader swath of Thai society and sparking increasing agitation outside of Bangkok, as well as greater attention abroad. The government recently blockaded one area of the city with shipping containers to bar protestors, which the latter avoided by simply shifting the rally’s location. And Prime Minister Prayuth shifted back to generalissimo in threatening tougher action and initiating lèse-majesté prosecutions against protest leaders.

The latter step is an act of desperation. Earlier this year Prayuth said the government had not used the law “because the king was kind enough to instruct that it should not be used.” However, that forbearance, by the king, government, or both, is obviously over.

Nevertheless, a large crowd recently gathered at the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king is the largest shareholder. The protest highlighted demands that the king turn over to the public the billions which fund his luxurious and licentious lifestyle. (Even the British and Saudi royals do not have an office of Public Consort.) One of the protest leaders summoned on lèse-majesté charges, Parit Chiwarak, told the New York Times “I am not scared. I am more worried about the country if they are still using this 112 [which penalizes lèse-majesté offenses] in politics like this. This will cause the monarchy to deteriorate further.”

Indeed, public dissonance is rising in multiple ways. The king has become the target of hostile graffiti, which would have been inconceivable directed at his father. Increasing numbers of Thais refuse to stand when the royal anthem is played, as it is before movies and sporting events. Reviving a widely hated tool against peaceful protestors is likely to reinforce the belief that the junta and monarchy have merged into a single oppressor. It will reinforce public support for the protestors’ demand for Resign, Rewrite, Reform—ousting Prayuth, redoing the junta-friendly constitution, and creating a genuine constitutional monarchy.

No doubt, the regime hopes that the protests will fade, but so far the youth movement has shown extraordinary dedication and resilience, with new leaders arising when old ones were arrested. As repression has grown, so have demonstrators’ demands. A debate by the rigged parliament over constitutional reform achieved nothing other than to showcase the failure of military rule to satisfy people’s democratic aspirations. Even another election would solve little, since the public knows the system was concocted with the express purpose of maintaining military rule. In short, Prayuth has failed as both generalissimo and politician, leaving a mess that his uniformed colleagues might feel they must clean up.

Which leaves another crackdown, and possible full-blown coup, as the most likely option. Tougher tactics against protests and more widespread prosecutions. Abandonment of the pretense of parliamentary rule. And almost certainly the defenestration of Prayuth, whose power base within the army has shrunk, offering small satisfaction to his critics in the opposition and military alike.

The Trump administration would do nothing, other than offer a friendly welcome to the new strongman. However, the Biden team, which has indicated its commitment to promoting human rights, will soon be in charge. If there is a coup, then what?

America’s influence is limited: Governments rarely dismantle themselves in response to foreign, even U.S., criticism. Washington could press for restoration of democracy while limiting arms sales and military cooperation. Doing so would not be cost-free. Unhappy at criticism from the Obama administration, Prayuth improved ties with China, but economics made such a step likely in any case. Some trade-off between promoting freedom values and tightening security ties is inevitable. The cost seems moderate today: Bangkok was an important U.S. ally during the Vietnam War, but today not so much.

Moreover, backing, or even silently accepting, an ostentatious return to dictatorship would sour future ties, positioning Washington against the coming generation. It was the Thai military’s intolerance of dissent evidenced by the attack on Future Forward that convinced so many young Thais that they had only one option, protest.

For the future, certainly, Thanathorn and other youthful leaders are a better bet than Prayuth, especially since escalating brutality against students might turn currently hesitant parents against the regime. This moment is more likely the beginning than the end. “It’s a long saga, but this student-led protest movement is a culmination of Thailand’s struggle to arrive in the 21st century,” contended Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Ultimately, the abusive business, court, and military elites are responsible for today’s political crisis. Their credibility has waned as demand for political reform has waxed. No wonder, Thanathorn declared, that this “is the most exciting time in the history of Thailand.” With the military regime out of options, another bout of repression seems likely. If so, people of good will around the globe should back the Thai people’s campaign for liberty. So should Washington.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

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