Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures during a news conference after a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, January 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Is Thailand headed back to democracy or an even longer period of military rule?

Coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said this week that elections would be held in February 2019, the latest in a series of setbacks and delays since his initial vow to hold polls by late 2016. Now as then, the former army commander left open the potential to push back the date for reasons of security.

The country’s enterprising news media is currently consumed with the notion that popular sentiment has decisively turned against Prayuth’s nearly four-year-old authoritarian regime, which ruled until recently with barely a peep of dissent or resistance.

Influential papers are trying to recoup command of the national narrative, with some counting down daily on their front pages Prayuth’s earlier vow to hold new elections by this November. Papers have also given sympathetic coverage to percolating little pro-democracy, anti-junta flash protests staged recently in the capital.

The narrative that arguably matters more, however, still concerns the monarchy, which despite last October’s cathartic cremation of deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej and subsequent lifting of a black-clad period of national mourning is still in transition to new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, or Rama X, the tenth monarch in the centuries-old Chakri dynasty.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the royal cremation procession of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace, Bangkok, October 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

The cultural, societal and political significance of the succession from Bhumibol, who many Thais considered a god king, to Vajiralongkorn, who has cut a more modernist profile, cannot be overstated. Importantly, Thailand’s traditional elites and royal courtiers have loyally bowed to the new reign’s legitimacy, both in symbol and personage.

Vajiralongkorn’s new palace is still under construction, an emerging new order on monarchical institutions that has inevitably ruffled certain royalist feathers. Palace insiders found to have used their royal positions for personal gain, for instance, have been unceremoniously purged. It’s unclear how far that housecleaning may go, though some speculate it could sweep deeper after Vajiralongkorn’s formal coronation.

There is still much to be done to consolidate Vajiralongkorn’s new reign, including a still undecided formal coronation date and the building of new palace grounds envisioned to span areas of old town Bangkok where parliament and a zoo now sit. The new king is also still assembling his elite guard, with infantry fighting forces and soon also elite police brought directly under his royal command.

The succession, including extensive preparations for holding last year’s spectacular royal funeral, has been undergirded by Prayuth’s strongman rule. But the official end of the period of mourning has opened a Pandora’s box of cries for more openness and democracy, with concerted baying from the media, political parties and increasingly emboldened activists.

Oppressed and resentful, they all sense blood in the water with the recent ‘watch-gate’ scandal surrounding Defense Minister and junta No. 2 Prawit Wongsuwan’s undeclared collection of luxury wrist watches, estimated to be worth over US$1.2 million. The scandal has dimmed the junta’s graft-busting credentials, a key justification for staging its coup, though clearly there were already doubts with the country’s recent slippage on international corruption rankings.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan attends an announcement of the junta’s accomplishments at Government House in Bangkok, September 15, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

But Prayuth can’t quit Prawit, and vice versa, due to their long-time personal bond harking to their early days as soldiers in the military’s elite 21st Infantry regiment Queen’s Guard.

Significantly in Thailand’s seniority-obsessed culture, Prawit was Prayuth’s superior in the military’s hierarchy. Along with Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda, the top brass soldiers literally speak their own slang-tinged language in private, according to people familiar with the parlance.

In power, Prayuth has played the straight man while Prawit has operated from behind the scenes to satisfy important military, bureaucratic and business constituencies, not least through his command over military procurements and influence over government appointments, regime insiders say. Those positions are often hammered out over a now famous “table” at a Wongsuwan family compound in Bangkok’s Lad Phrao district, the insiders say.

That perceived monopoly of power has peeved many traditional elites who, while not philosophically opposed to repressive military rule, would prefer Prayuth cut ties with Prawit to improve his royalist regime’s optics. That said, many openly wonder about the symbolic significance of Vajiralongkorn’s recent gifting of a wrist watch to Prawit, though one defense ministry advisor said the timepiece was engraved with a royal message of encouragement.

The junta’s staying power so far has relied on its ability to restore and maintain stability after years of debilitating street protests that pitted opposed political camps, namely those aligned or opposed to coup-ousted, criminally convicted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. While claiming political neutrality and a desire for reconciliation, the junta has reserved its toughest punishments for Thaksin’s family and camp.

The junta’s stability narrative has so far resonated with certain urban elites and segments of the middle class who feel firm rule is good for business and the economy. It’s not clear yet that Bangkok’s business elite, including super-rich family-run conglomerates that have benefited since the coup, have turned on the junta or necessarily crave a return to democracy’s more diffuse, less centralized power allocation.

Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman and CEO of Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group, on November 12, 2014. Photo: AFP/Toru Yamanaka

Top Thai companies such as Charoen Pokphand, ThaiBev and Central Pattana, among others in the Sino-Thai big business elite, have expanded their enterprises and market positions extensively under a junta that has maintained and even implemented new protection for the firms’ interests while grasping for innovative new strategies to modernize and expand the economy.

Still, Prayuth and Prawit have grown increasingly confident and comfortable in their political roles, with the former recently announcing he now considered himself more politician than soldier. Their spokespeople assert the regime has put the kingdom back on a stable track with long term development plans after nearly a decade of political chaos and paralysis under weak elected governments.

Proponents also note the regime has weathered foreign storms, with the US and EU recently quieting their previous drum beat calls for a speedy return to democracy. Some even suggest the regime is reluctant to restore potentially destabilizing democracy ahead of Thailand taking over the Asean regional grouping’s rotational leadership in 2019, a potential golden opportunity for Prayuth to put a firmer stamp on his so far lacking foreign policy legacy.

Not all Thais, however, have bought into junta rule. Recent pro-democracy protests have appeared to be more organic than manipulated by sidelined political parties that remain barred from conducting their own political activities. While junta officials have shown relative restraint in suppressing the protests they deem as illegal, that could change if they mount in size, volume and pulling power.

A planned rally to commemorate the military’s lethal crackdown on ‘Red Shirt’ demonstrators in May 2010, a fateful episode where Prayuth was a top commanding officer, could be one such turning point. So, too, could any indication that Thaksin is leveraging into protests to push his political and personal agendas, including his continued calls for a royal pardon that were ignored by the previous monarch.

Thaksin Shinawatra (L) at a press conference with his family, then wife Pojaman (2nd L) daughter Paethingtan (2nd R) and son Panthongtae (R), February 28, 2008. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

The junta has recently ramped up repression of Thaksin’s family, driving his younger sister, coup-ousted ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, from the country on a criminal negligence conviction. Authorities have moved swiftly to seize her in-country assets, including her Bangkok residence. They have also revived money-laundering charges against Thaksin’s media owner son, Panthongtae, in a bank fraud case from 2004 that could drive him too from the country.

Some wonder if the regime is baiting Thaksin into a combative response it can leverage to justify pushing back its election time table, on the pretext the country isn’t reconciled enough to resume democracy. While Thaksin has so far not taken that bait, he did vaguely insinuate in one report quoting one of his advisors that the regime may delay polls for “unspeakable” reasons, likely meaning the still incomplete and unfolding royal succession.

For now, the junta, its rubber stamp National Legislative Assembly and appointed Constitution Drafting Committee seem willing enough to self-manufacture a legal logjam or constitutional crisis over organic laws related to the election of MPs and senators that could provide legal pretext for buying the regime more time in power. If a charter rewrite is deemed as needed to unwind the gathering legal tangle, polls could be pushed back to 2020 or even 2021, legal analysts predict.

What has become clearer is that the junta’s initial designs for holding polls that safely catapulted Prayuth to the head of a national “unity” government will not be a shoo-in in any election scenario, now or later. The main Peua Thai and Democrat parties have in less-than-conciliatory tones criticized Prayuth’s apparent aim to maintain power after polls, meaning neither will likely support his candidacy as a compromise premier in a post-election deadlock scenario.

Nor is the junta as insulated as it would no doubt like from the politics of revenge if it loses power at the ballot box, particularly if as many predict the coup-ousted, Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai romps to another win. It’s a significant risk in view of the various scandals, not limited to Prawit’s timepieces, that have broken into view but eventually faded without consequence under unchecked military rule.

A pro-democracy activist holds a fan during a protest against junta rule near Democracy Monument in Bangkok, February 10, 2018. Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

Most suspect a junta-influenced anti-graft body will in coming weeks give Prawit a light slap on the wrist for failing to declare his luxury watch collection. If that decision sparks new anti-junta protests, as some foresee, it could ironically give the regime the ammunition it needs to intensify, not relinquish, its iron-fisted grip on power, again in the name of public order and social stability.

Some sense a more severe wave of military repression, flexed to date mainly through asset seizure threats and “attitude adjustment” sessions, could be unleashed if the situation is perceived as spinning beyond the regime’s control. But Thailand’s democratic spirits, history shows, rise in cycles and Prayuth’s junta could now be sleepwalking into the same mistakes of its protest-toppled military predecessor regimes that misread sentiment and fatefully overstayed.

That history shows that street convulsions are often only quelled through royal interventions. Some diplomats and analysts already foresee less heated scenarios where Prayuth (and perhaps Prawit) is elevated to Vajiralongkorn’s royal advisory Privy Council in recognition of his loyal royal service and replaced by an appointed statesman premier who is viewed as more politically neutral.

Royal guidance worked in the aftermath of the kingdom’s 1992 protests and lethal crackdown, where a coup-maker premier stepped down and an interim technocratic regime was installed before democracy was restored. That fatherly intervention is still widely viewed as one of Bhumibol’s top crowning moments. Whether Vajiralongkorn would be willing to assume a similar role in calming tumult and restoring peace is an open and increasingly intriguing question.

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