Thailand’s military government insists the army will not turn against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s ruling junta and is warning pro-election civilians to stop trying to split the regime, smear it with corruption allegations or protest in the streets for democracy.
The escalating confrontations threaten Prayut’s purported plan to manipulate a post-election parliament to extend his stay in power, which began when he led a bloodless May 2014 military coup.
“I am not interested in dragging things out,” Prayut said on March 30, responding to concerns that his government would again delay the election as his regime’s popularity falls.
Small, fearless, anti-junta demonstrations, meanwhile, have again appeared in Bangkok’s congested, sweltering streets calling on the regime to step aside.
One saw demonstrators wear paper Pinocchio facemasks resembling Prayut with an elongated nose, a poke at his various broken election promises. They have also demanded the armed forces stop supporting his coup-installed regime.
“The army is part of the junta,” Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan said. The army “will not separate” from the junta regime, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said Prawit who is also an NCPO member.
“It is unlikely that armed forces’ commanders would step down from being NCPO members,” echoed Air Force Commander Jom Rungsawang.
The NCPO includes the heads of the air force, navy, army and police, plus technocrats, influential royalists and others.
The two NCPO officials were speaking after hundreds of pro-election students and activists marched in late March from Bangkok’s prestigious and politically active Thammasat University to the army’s headquarters.
The groups, led by the Democracy Restoration Group and Start Up People student-led organizations, chanted: “Junta, get out!” “Down with the dictators!” “Election this year!”
“What I want to see first is the NCPO in jail,” Rangsiman Rome, a DRG leader, told the Bangkok Post in an interview published on Monday. “You have to realize that this is a broken country. It is not livable,” Rangsiman said.
The two allied groups plan bigger rallies in May, including on May 22 to mourn the coup’s fourth anniversary and May 19 to commemorate the military’s lethal crackdown on demonstrators in 2010.
Defense Minister Prawit has played down the gathering protests, saying that only “100 or so” participated on the march on Army headquarters.
He meanwhile continues to deny wrongdoing for having over 20 luxury wristwatches valued at more than US$1 million without officially declaring them as personal assets.
Dubbed by skeptical Thais as “General Bling,” he told an ongoing corruption investigation that a now-dead billionaire friend loaned him the wristwatches to wear at public events.
“I am a victim used by the opposite side to hit the prime minister in the leg,” Prawit said on April 1, claiming the wristwatch scandal is a plot to destabilize his lifelong ally Prayut.
Pro-election activists and politicians, on the other hand, say the allegations of corruption by various junta officials and supporters are symptoms of the military government’s hypocrisy and failure.
Prayut led the coup when he was army chief, declaring only he could end the high-level corruption that plagues elected civilian governments, including the coup-ousted Peua Thai party led administration.
“More Thai people are sick and tired of his [Prayut’s] government than at any time since the military coup in May 2014, but not enough are willing to stand up and stare down the military regime,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an academic and commentator at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“Corruption and graft will lead to crises and more coups. It is a familiar and vicious cycle,” he said.
Many Thais assume Prayut is conspiring to extend his control after the polls – now tentatively planned for February 2019 — by using a recent law which allows a hung parliament to appoint an unelected person as prime minister.
At the same time, Prayut is warning that the revolving sometimes deadly street protests which crippled successive elected government over nearly a decade could return if pro-democracy protesters continually denounce his regime.
New rounds of political chaos could delay the polls indefinitely. Prayut is also no doubt concerned that two fugitive civilian prime ministers — who he helped topple in separate military coups — are perceived to be immensely popular and that their backed candidates could sweep the polls.
The former premiers, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, were recently in Japan on an international tour while dodging separate prison sentences for offences committed during their administrations.
After a 2006 coup toppled Thaksin in which Prayut participated, Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 just before a court convicted him of financial conflict of interest and sentenced him to two years in prison.
Yingluck led a coalition to victory in a 2011 election but was forced out in 2014 by a Constitutional Court two weeks before her remaining colleagues were nullified by Prayut’s putsch. She fled Thailand days before being sentenced to five years in prison for negligence while overseeing a rice subsidy scheme.
The siblings’ Peua Thai party candidates “should be able to lead the party to another landslide victory,” Thaksin said in Japan on March 29, knowing it would rile the regime.
“If you want to believe [Thaksin], feel free to, but I do not,” responded Defense Minister Prawit.