In both internal and foreign policy, the military government is facing challenges. Indeed, the junta is sailing through dangerous waters, with two important tests for the government in both internal and foreign policy.
Sunday evening, February 1. The Siam Paragon department mall is Bangkok is the busiest shopping mall in Thailand, perhaps even in mainland Southeast Asia. Taking a glance at the frantic activity of the shoppers, the people streaming in and out of the skytrain station situated right next to the mall, no one would have guessed that this is the heart of a country still ruled by an iron-fisted military junta.
That is, until the two bombs exploded near the skytrain station.
Panic immediately ensued, with large amounts of shoppers streaming out of the mall. The police, with their headquarters just opposite of the mall, immediately closed in at the area. All was fine, they initially said; a power transformer had exploded- a common occurrence in Thailand. Nothing had happened. Most Thais went to sleep that night thinking that nothing had happened.
The next day, however, the story had completely changed. No, it wasn’t a power transformer that had exploded; it was two homemade bombs, located right near the skytrain entrance. But, the police insisted, the public were not to panic, even though the situation had been ‘mishandled’ initially.
This episode is interesting in many different ways.
A Test for Martial Law
It comes around nine months after the launch of the military coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra. The period before the coup was a tumultuous period, but after the imposition of martial law by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thailand has been relatively quiet. Dissent voiced against the junta has never yet turned into direct acts of violence, and protests so far have been small, peaceful, fast and easily put down by the authorities.
This makes the bomb case unprecedented in the context of the past couple of months. For half a year the military has been able to impose its will and rule the populace with no serious resistance to its rule. The last time a non-Thaksin sponsored government ruled in Thailand, under Abhisit Vejjajiva, bombings had been an almost daily occurrence. With the authoritarian tendencies of General Prayut, however, no terrorism, no armed resistance has ever been mounted. What this means is that a bombing at Siam Paragon is the first of its kind to happen under the watch of General Prayut.
With the motivation behind the bombing still unknown, it is possible to try to examine what might have motivated this bombing. The most obvious answer that might come to mind would be that the people behind the bombing, whoever they are, are choosing to test the junta’s power. The junta has time and time again stated that ensuring stability and peace are among its foremost priorities; with the economy still lagging and the reform process still bogged down, an attempt to show that the government cannot ensure the safety of its citizens can be interpreted as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the NCPO.
Assume that is the motivation. Who would have done it, however? This question is probably even more interesting. Immediately a few answers will come to mind: the opponents of the NCPO and the junta, such as the red-shirts and the allies of Thaksin Shinawatra. Perhaps it was Thaksin himself who ordered the bombing?
Still an unlikely prospect. Thaksin must know that there is no way that he can yet win a fight against the military junta and regain power. The government is already too entrenched, its firepower too great for anything that Thaksin can muster can hope to emerge in triumph against. What Thaksin probably knows, however, is that he does not have to win an armed fight. What he does have to win is a future election, one currently set for somewhere in 2016. It is in his best interest that an election is held as soon as possible, as if there is one thing that Thaksin knows how to do, it is to muster overwhelming grassroots popular support and win enough seats to form a majority in the House of Representatives.
Why, then, would Thaksin want to detonate bombs in the heart of Bangkok? Any resistance against the junta will simply provide the opportunity for Prayut to reaffirm the need for martial law, and any prolonged tumult will allow Prayut to postpone the election date even further (it has already been postponed once). We know that this is an outcome Thaksin doesn’t want, because we already know that Thaksin has told his subordinates to obey and cooperate with the junta for the time being. Therefore, it would contradict Thaksin’s current interests to launch an armed insurgency against the junta, one that he cannot possibly hope to win.
Others have instead taken to accusing the junta of planting the bomb there itself, in order to give its case for martial law more legitimacy. Some will point out that the bombs exploded not too long after the US government decided to criticize the Thai junta for its lack of democracy and continued adherence to martial law. However, it cannot possibly be in the junta’s interests for a show of violence to be conducted right in the heart of Bangkok. The NCPO wants to implement its reforms in a peaceful setting, not in a state of renewed civil conflict. A junta decision to try to give its cause more legitimacy by exploding the bombs themselves would be akin to encourage other groups to do the same: hardly in the best interests of the Prayut administration.
Of course, there are still other points that are interesting about this bombing. Firstly, there was what seemed like a cover-up attempt by the government (or at least the police) in the first hour following the explosion. Secondly, the timing of the explosion is very interesting: why did the people behind it choose late on Sunday night, as compared to an even more active time, like during the day? This seems to point that the intention was not to kill- but to warn.
Although it is difficult for us to be able to infer who was behind the explosions -perhaps pro-Thaksin groups that do not take orders from Thaksin- we can still see that it is a warning, a test, for the junta. If anything, it is a sign that there is serious resistance, and that the junta cannot pretend to ignore it and think that repeatedly turning on the ‘Returning Happiness to the People’ song will make it go away.
After all, there are many reasons any pro-Thaksin extremist would be itching for activity. Not very long ago, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was retroactively impeached and may now be facing criminal charges in court for corruption during the implementation of the disastrous Pheu Thai rice scheme. While this decision was highly popular among former PDRC (I, for one, agree fully with this decision- criminals cannot go unpunished, after all), it did not help further the cause of reconciliation between the two conflicting factions of Thailand.
Secondly, the US government’s recent actions has not been of any benefit for the internal stability of the country. Top US diplomats have decided to again criticize the military junta for its lack of democracy and imposition martial law. While this has led many, including Thailand’s own government, to question what right the US has to meddle in other country’s internal affairs, the comments also prompted harsh rebuking from the government and a staunch defense of the continued imposition of martial law.
This staunch defense is now being tested, with the bombings.
And with this, it is even more likelier that martial law will be in place indefinitely. The deputy foreign minister of Thailand questioned whether the United States would take responsibility for whatever ensued if the military junta chose to restore civilian law.
It is indeed a good time to ask that question. If a hundred more bombs like these were detonated across Bangkok, what responsibility would the United States, who called for the abolishment of the martial law, take?
Martial law is, however, only effective to a certain extent. At its core, it remains simply the tool for the junta to maintain peace and order for the moment, but in the long run it will have to be abolished. Martial law may be able to prevent resistance from happening in the streets, but it cannot control people’s minds, thoughts and feelings. And it is not foolproof. It cannot completely destroy resistance. With the existence of dissenters willing to use violence to test the junta very proven with the detonation of the two bombs at Siam Paragon, then the junta must not be fooled with this false temporary stability and peace.
A Test for Foreign Policy
The second test that the military junta is undergoing right now is a test for its foreign policy.
Thailand has been famed in its history ever since the early Bangkok era for its ‘balancing act’- to balance multiple great powers off against one another in order to preserve the survival of the nation itself. During the reign of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn, these two powers were the British and the French. During World War 2, they became the Allied powers and Japan. Ever since the start of the Cold War, Thailand became a firm ally of the United States.
The Cold War has long since ended, however. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the commencement of the era of American unipolarism, but even the era of unipolarity is coming to an end. The rise of China has shifted the political landscape, especially in east Asia, decisively.
It is not difficult to see why China would at this time be a much more likable ally for the United States. After all, China does not mind being friends with authoritarian governments, given its own dictatorial nature. China is increasingly becoming the dominant power in Asia, given its rise and the relative decline of US military power in the region and the inability of the Obama administration to complete fully its ‘Pivot to Asia’ and shift its focus firmly from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. The United States has certainly not been behaving in a manner that lends itself as a friend of Thailand, after all, continually calling for a democracy in a country where democracy has become dysfunctional and calling for the abolishment of martial law in a country where the absence of martial law would lead to enormous bloodshed.
The consequence is that the Prayut administration’s recent actions have been relatively hostile to the United States. After the damning comments made by a diplomat about the state of Thailand’s government, the National Legislative Assembly responded by summoning the current top US diplomat to attend a meeting and answer questions to be posed by NLA representatives. The government also sternly defended its own record and rebuked the US comments. Thailand announced that China will be joining in the Cobra Gold military exercises- where previously China was simply an observer, and an exercise that the US has threatened to call off previously.
Cooperation with China has not been limited to the military, however. PM
Prayut has made multiple trips to China in recent months, making numerous agreements with the Chinese government on economic cooperation, including Chinese investment to build new railways in Thailand (a much needed initiative).
But the government must act carefully. The United States will not restore its diplomatic relations with Thailand back fully until democracy is restored. However, in the meantime, while it is tempting to move ever-closer to China, Thailand must not become overdependent on it. Whether or not the balancing act between two great powers can be continued by General Prayut will be another test of his foreign policy.
In short, the junta is currently sailing through increasingly precarious waters. Problems with international recognition, mounting resistance from the inside: compounded with economic issues, the difficulties of political reconciliation and the continued debates about reform, it is difficult for any government to maintain popularity in such a situation. National reconciliation and political reform are topics that merits another post all to themselves.
Indeed, the honeymoon period with the NCPO and the government has long since passed. General Prayut and his administration must now prove that he can make good on his promises and steer the ship through these difficult seas, maintaining order and stability while also astutely maneuvering through diplomatic decisions, and at the same time implement the process of reconciliation and reform while solving the economic issues of the country.
It’s a tall order. We can only hope that the government will succeed.