Nurturing Democracy in Thailand

The rise of the Move Forward Party and its dynamic leader Pita eclipses the Thaksin family aura, giving Thailand a chance at democratic transformation

3 mins read
A supporter holds up a sign with the party’s number at a Move Forward rally that drew thousands to Pak Nam in Samut Prakan. (Photo: @MFPThai Twitter)

It looks like democracy is about to trounce the military-monarchy nexus in Thailand one more time. But appearances are deceptive in a country where the military has subordinated the political class. In south and south East Asia Pakistan, Myanmar and Thailand refuse to jettison the Khaki brigade who rule these countries either directly or indirectly. Thailand has never been colonized and has emerged as the region’s second most prosperous country and one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. Bangkok was the hub of 13 coup-de-tats and 9 coup attempts in 90 years after Absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932 and replaced with constitutional monarchy. From 1948 to 1991 most Prime Ministers were Generals. For more than 10 years now the two PMs were Generals.

Recently the military crafted a constitution inspired by fellow Generals in Myanmar that is designed to ensure the military dominates the hybrid government and Generals in Saville Row suits call the shots. But a slip between the cup and lip has led to a landslide victory for civilian political parties in Thailand- like in Myanmar in 2021 that triggered the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi. In the May elections, no ordinary Generals but three Army Chiefs between 2004 and 2020 were PMs, Deputy PMs and Interior Minister. Yet they were hollowed out by civilian youthful leaders hugely popular among people, especially youth seeking reform and change. They planned to rotate among themselves as PMs.

The Move Forward Party under the Harvard-educated businessman turned politician Pita Limjaroenrat and the Thaksin family-backed Pheu Thai Party led by Paetongtran Shinawatra bagged 151 and 144 seats in the 500-member lower house. Pita turned out to be the dark horse, defeating the favourite Shinawatra scion-led PTP. A coalition of 8 parties is expected to garner 376 seats in a 750-member two-tier Parliament for a majority. The top two parties along with the Bhumjaithai party along with 5 other parties would form the coalition to select Pita as the new PM. The session of parliament in July will ratify the Prime Minister and the coalition government through a majority vote. Thailand’s complex but military-weighted constitution ensures the military wins. There are fears that Myanmar may be replicated in Thailand. In a sense, therefore, the election was a referendum on the military in which the junta suffered a humiliating defeat.

MFP has got a mandate for transformation as Pita canvassed for removing the military from politics, ending conscription, restoring full democracy, scrapping Article 112 on Lese Majeste, overhauling the economy, establishing rule-based diplomacy and establishing a humanitarian corridor between Thailand and Myanmar while attempting to implement Asean’s five-point consensus on Myanmar. But dismantling the established military-monarchy order will not be easy.PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha gracefully conceded defeat, acknowledging the power of people’s vote and adding that he respects democracy and hoped Thailand will be peaceful. His statement has an ominous ring to it. Pita is pledged to reform Lese Majeste introduced in 1908 and reformed in 1976. It carries a penalty of 28 years in jail – 15 years per charge of insult and disrespect to monarchy. No one in Thailand openly discusses King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Rama X of the Chakrai dynasty and monarchy. Conversations are in code. In 2017, Prayuth succumbed to the King’s desire to exercise greater control over the military by altering the constitution to place key military units under Royal control. People do not venerate the present King as much as they did his father but he is the King.

Thucydides’ law will come into play during power transformation. The military maintains several leverages – like the handpicked senate, election commission, dissolving the main opposition party and courts. These are the military’s non-traditional tools for combating threats that challenge its domination and control of politics. But international as well as domestic safeguards could act as a deterrent to the orderly transfer of power to the elected government. The writing on the wall is that though Pita has got the mandate, the transition may not take place as he has struck at the Palace and Monarchy as well as the military. Other graffiti suggests that he may strike a deal to go slow on reforms targeting Monarchy. Already corruption charges have been levied against Pita which he has denied. He is also accused of constitutional violation (?) which could disqualify him from parliament.

The Supreme Court has 60 days to confirm the results declared by Election Commission. After the 250-seat Senate’s vote to determine the final vote tally, the elected government will have to prove its majority in 90 days. The Generals will not want to attract the wrath of the West after their counterparts in Myanmar did an about-turn on democracy. It is therefore better to let the coalition government run for now say, for two years, and let infighting among the coalition lead to disruption and break in law and order or simply manufactured disorder. A valid pretext is essential in the rules-based order for military intervention and restoration of what Generals call ‘disciplined democracy’. This has been historically the cycle of action-reaction to ensure that the military grip over politics is more direct than indirect. The rise of MRP and its dynamic leader Pita eclipses the somewhat controversial Thaksin family aura and gives Thailand another more potent chance for democratic transformation.

Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

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