“Oust me if you dare!”, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yelled at reporters in an angry outburst during a policy report. “Oust me if you can! I’m not challenging you, but I’m not quitting”.
It was quite a change in tone from a few years ago, when the prime minister, casting himself in the mould of a reluctant coup-maker, insisted that every day he was tempted to quit but stayed on only in the national interest. Now it is an open secret — if it can even be called that — that Prayut is actively seeking a continuation of his term in office. The question of whether or not he should remain at Government House is the central theme of Thailand’s upcoming election.
Last month, I wrote an explainer article on Thailand’s 2019 general election. I intended to follow up soon after with another article endorsing one political party, but I found it surprisingly difficult to choose who I am willing to back. Perhaps it is the weight of being a first time voter that makes me hesitant; more likely, it is because of the array of choices that are available in this election. And so I have decided that I will first begin with a process of elimination: by writing about the parties which I oppose.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am and remain opposed to Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies, and I have written for years about their corruption, lack of regard for the rule of law and and divisive politics. The narrative that Thaksin voters support the self-exiled billionaire simply because they have been bought off is oversimplified and that there are legitimate reasons for why an empowered rural class feel that successive iterations of Thaksinite parties represent their interests against what they see as an entrenched urban elite. However, Pheu Thai’s corruption, cronyism and incompetence represents much that is wrong with Thai politics. The party, as its Amnesty Bill debacle showed, is still very much committed to Thaksin’s return, something which will surely spark a new round of acrimony. Thaksin himself is no testament to democracy; rather, he demonstrates the very perils of the democratic system. Pheu Thai is not the answer.
But to reject the Thaksinite parties simply to embrace the continuation of Prayut’s rule would be tragic.
There were reasons many, including myself, welcomed Prayut in 2014 after his military coup, including the possibility of meaningful reform and a return to stability, even at the cost of democratic suspension. Was this naive, given that the 12 successful military coups in Thai history has failed to yield a sustainable democracy? Perhaps, but I also maintain that I was in ninth grade when the coup happened, innocently unaware of Thai democratic history. I therefore make my case not as a staunch opposer of Prayut but as a former supporter who has gradually grown disappointed.
Support for Prayut often revolves around three core arguments. First, there is the competence argument: that Prayut and the military junta are somehow better at governing than the average politician. Second is the character argument: that Prayut’s personal character makes him uniquely suited for the role of prime minister. Third, and most frequently made, is the democracy argument: that the NCPO regime represents a feasible long-term alternative to democratic rule. Let us examine all of these arguments in turn.
One oft-evoked reason for supporting Prayut is the perception that he has been able to accomplish more than other prime ministers in recent history. This argument inevitably raises up the issue of political stability. Thai politics has been distinctively tumultuous in the past two decades, with repeated color-coded protests and riots. Prayut’s five-year tenure did indeed halt such protests and create peace and order.
But to say that creating peace is a sign of competence is hardly a compelling argument if that peace is ordered by political power that grows out of the barrel of a gun. The cost of stability has been human rights violations, particularly that of the right to freedom of expression. Thailand has been given a time-out, perhaps, but a lid has simply been put on a boiling kettle. If the raison d’être for his government is to generate lasting stability, it has failed. Prayut has done nothing to resolve the structural causes of political instability. Both reds and yellows are key stakeholders in Thai society and the country cannot move forward without building a degree of political compromise and reconciliation that Prayut could have done much more to foster. Silencing dissenters and banning political activity only creates more anger. This is not competence — it is brute power. That power will not remain. An elected Prayut would lose his ability to use Section 44 (the constitutional clause that grants him absolute power). To argue that only Prayut can maintain peace, then, is a fallacy.
The economy could on paper be pointed to as a relatively bright spot for the junta. GDP has recently averaged a respectable 3-4% and exports are at an all-time high. The government has done much in forward-thinking economic planning, approving numerous infrastructure mega-projects and working to build the Eastern Economic Corridor scheme. But with rising unemployment, surging household debt and increasingly expensive living costs, the population are not feeling the effects of Thailand’s economic growth. Income inequality, instead, has only risen under Prayut’s tenure. Economic equality is key for social cohesion; other countries, such as the United States, have shown that failing to address rising inequality is a recipe for dissent. It is difficult to take pride in an economy that works for the few, not the many.
Prayut’s foreign policy, on the other hand, has been encumbered by the authoritarian nature of his regime. Western powers largely froze relations with Thailand after the military coup, with re-embracement returning only after the decidedly less ideological Trump took office. This forced Prayut to largely play the role of a Chinese supplicant. In a recent interview with Time, he stated that “China is the No. 1 partner of Thailand”, while lamenting that Washington is “busy with its own issues”. This was unwise and a contradiction of a century of Thai diplomatic tradition in balancing between great powers. Thailand remains the oldest ally of the United States in Asia and to become solely reliant on China would have dire consequences.
In sum, Prayut’s record is decidedly mixed.
In recent times, no military figure has personified his regime to the extent that Prayut has. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who launched the 2006 coup, appeared in committee settings and stepped aside quickly after the coup. By contrast, Prayut’s extended tenure and his position at the front and center of the government has allowed us a long opportunity to observe his character.
First is the question of integrity. Prayut depicts himself as a ‘clean’ figure dedicated to uprooting corruption. This image was tarnished when he failed to address his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan’s watch scandal, an instance that made a mockery of Prayut’s “zero tolerance for corruption” campaign. Thailand’s corruption rankings has declined under his rule. Prayut himself may not be personally responsible, but to say that he has not presided over the same culture of corruption in government is false.
What about honesty? Prayut seems like a straight-talking military man, but has been depicted in the international media as a Pinocchio-like figure. The key reason is how he repeatedly broke pledges to hold elections, year after year. But his dishonesty goes beyond his election-delaying tactics. Prayut continues to rhetorically lambast ‘populism’ and Thaksinomics, while employing economic tsar Jatusripitak, himself a former Thaksin associate, to develop exactly the same type of fiscally indisciplined populist policies that Prayut claims to despise. It can only be surmised that this change in heart has come about now that Prayut needs to earn votes. And on his political future? Prayut denied having political ambitions countless times after taking power, and insisted he was only ruling reluctantly. But power, of course, is addicting, and he has since done a u-turn on that front.
Then there is the issue of temperament. A legacy of Prayut’s military years is his hot temper, leading to frequent clashes with reporters and aggressive use of language. Prayut has joked about executing journalists, swore at the media. An attitude fit for a junta chairman, perhaps, but it is difficult to see how Prayut can thrive in a true democratic setting. Those who despised Thaksin’s associates as uncouth and perceived Yingluck’s gaffes as internationally embarrassing would be hypocritical if they fail to see the same in Prayut’s demeanor. It is blindingly obvious that on the world stage, Prayut does not hold up.
The final reason many favor Prayut is the democracy argument — or, to put it more specifically, the anti-democracy argument. Although not always made so bluntly, the core of this argument is that Thailand is not “ready” to be a democracy, because its populace cannot be trusted to make decisions. At best, democracy in Thailand can only at best take the form of a guided ‘Thai-style democracy’ where ‘good people’ rule with wisdom. Implicit in this is a strand of Thai exceptionalism, where only a uniquely Thai system of governance can be used to run Thailand.
Where, then, has that Thai exceptionalism taken us? In a world where coups have become increasingly less frequent and military dictatorships increasingly rare, Thailand remains one of the world’s few remaining bastions of military rule. This is hardly the exceptionalism we seek to be known for. We must pause to ask: why can all other countries democratize, while we cannot? Why is it that almost 90 years after the promulgation of Thailand’s first constitution, our democratic institutions are still unable to stand on their own?
Thailand is not exceptional. It is not a place where democracy is uniquely untenable. The fact that our democratic institutions are weak is not because of providence but due to the choices that political actors have made.
But these are issues of the past. The second question that we must raise is about the future: what kind of country do we want to be? Let us compare two alternate visions for Thailand. One is what the NCPO has in mind: a guided democracy where elections mean little and the military continues to remain deeply embedded in political life. A 20-year national strategy produces a straitjacket for future elected governments, while the appointed senate allows military to continue to dominate legislative affairs. Elected governments are weak and subject to the whims of the courts and generals. This hybrid democracy places non-elected, unaccountable institutions firmly in the driver’s seat.
Another vision is that of a liberal democracy, where the military returns to the barracks and governance is left in the hands of elected civilians. Democracy is hard. It is messy. And it is increasingly contested around the world as authoritarianism rises in popularity. I am acutely aware of the flaws of democracy, but here I evoke the cliched Churchill quote: that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. It is the only system that can produce accountability. It is the only system that will place power in the hands of those the electorate believes are the most qualified to run the country. And it is the only system that will produce the political compromises necessary to move Thailand forward. Repressing dissenting voices forever is unsustainable. Sooner or later, the lid will burst from the kettle.
I hesitate, of course, to say that there is no alternative to liberal democracy. There will be those who say democracy should not be an end in itself, and with them I concur: the goal of democracy is to produce good governance and accountability. But those who further say that Thailand needs a semi-authoritarian state like Singapore, I say: Prayut is no Lee Kuan Yew. The idea of having a system where the military academy qualifies you to run a pluralistic and unimaginably complex society is absurd.
This election is more than just about a personality or a party. To keep Prayut in power is to approve of this new, semi-authoritarian Thailand. To approve of that would be a mistake.
A vote for Prayut is symbolic of many things. It is a vote of confidence in Prayut’s record, his character, and in the his vision for the country. In none of those three qualities am I confident. To be confident in them would require willful blindness to the prime minister’s glaring flaws. I cannot support his return to the premiership.
The new divide in this election is not simply between red and yellow. It is also between pro-Prayut and anti-Prayut forces. To translate this position into action at the ballot box, then, means not voting for parties that have affiliated themselves with the prime minister. Multiple parties have voiced support for Prayut’s return, including Palang Pracharath, the Action Coalition for Thailand and the People’s Reform Party. Those parties will not have my vote, and I urge you not to lend them your support.
We can be grateful for Prayut’s service to the country. However mixed we may view his record, and however suspicious we may be of his ambitions, we can thank him for steadfastly steering the country through the royal succession and his attempt to build what he believes is a better Thailand. Being prime minister is a difficult job, and he has done it for five years.
Now, however, is the time to move on.
At the next election, vote for parties unaligned with Prayut.