Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha gestures to the public at Maharat Nakhon Ratchasima Hospital where victims of a mass shooting at a shopping mall were brought for treatment, Nakhon Ratchasima, February 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

When a deranged man destroyed a sacred idol at Bangkok’s world-famous Erawan Shrine, prompting enraged worshippers to kill the assailant on the spot, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is known to have viewed the incident as a bad omen for his rule. Presciently, his government fell six months later in a 2006 coup.

So when a renegade Thai soldier opened fire this month on crowds in a provincial shopping mall, killing 29 in the worst mass shooting in modern Thai history, some wondered if Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prayut Chan-ocha viewed the shock incident as a similarly ill omen for the longevity of his rule.

The killings have cast the military’s persistent overarching role – including over ex-coup-maker Prayut’s elected coalition government – in a new dim light as critics blast the brass for being more engaged in politics and business than overseeing their barracks and ensuring security.

If that criticism gains momentum while the economy tanks and the government’s big business backers visibly thrive, a new era of political confrontation pitting the conservative forces now propping Prayut and new genuinely progressive ones coalescing in the political opposition could break into the open sooner than most expect.

Prayut, an ex-army commander and staunch royalist, was under figurative fire well before the fatal hail of bullets. His government has been widely targeted for failing to curb, control and explain a hazardous smog that has for months enveloped the national capital, Bangkok, resulting in some of the world’s worst air pollution.

That’s been followed by viral criticism his government has prioritized commerce over health by leaving the kingdom open to visa-on-arrival Chinese tourists amid the coronavirus health emergency that has killed 2,000 in China and spread 35 infections in Thailand. Prayut has suggested anyone who “politicizes” the issue could face jail time.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and officials at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, January 29, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

The premier’s prickly threat points to the fast-rising economic risks his fractious coalition government now faces. Tourism authorities are estimating the country will lose untold billions of dollars to the virus, as Chinese tourist numbers collapse and other nationalities stay away from the kingdom’s now perceived as tainted destinations.

Thailand’s economy was already faltering before the viral panic, stalling to 2.5% in 2019, the slowest clip in five years. Officials and economists now warn 2020 will be worse, with research outfits slashing their growth forecasts to 1%, which may be wishful thinking if moribund consumption, exports and investment fail to revive.   

Noxious politics are partly to blame. Parliamentarians finally voted to pass a hotly contested annual budget on February 13 after the Constitutional Court took weeks to rule on a January botched vote. The ruling coalition’s exceptionally thin majority was exposed in horse-trading that only narrowly passed the spending program.

Delayed disbursals mean public investment won’t likely drive multiplier effect-powered growth until at least 2021, financial and economic analysts reckon, even as the Transport Ministry earmarks as much as 880 billion baht (US$28.2 billion) in new big-ticket infrastructure spending, including big outlays on modern trains.

One Bangkok-based business consultant wonders if the drastic fall-off in tourism, estimated at around 20% of GDP, could expose and aggravate other economic weaknesses, not least household debt levels now at 79% of GDP, the second highest rate in Asia, and what increasingly looks like an overbuilt and overpriced property sector.

The risks, he reckons, are accentuated by the fact that the kingdom’s big five banks are unevenly exposed to a handful of big borrowers, namely the “five family” corporations that contributed generously to Prayut’s Palang Pracharat Party’s (PPRP) election campaign and which benefitted richly under Prayut’s 2014-19 coup government. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (C) is flanked by CP Group chairman Dhanin Chearavanont (2nd R) and ThaiBev founder billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi (L) at Government House in a file photo. Photo: AFP Forum/Chanat Katanyu

Those corporate links will come under scrutiny if the opposition Peua Thai and Future Forward parties deliver as avowed at an upcoming no-confidence debate that will target PPRP ministers, including Prayut, while looking past other parties’ ministers who, with a shift in political winds, could jump to join a future anti-PPRP government.

Peua Thai stalwart Chalerm Yooboomruang wrote last month on Facebook that his party would target a land deal involving an alleged subsidiary of ThaiBev created just a day before it purchased Bangkok land from Prayut’s family for 600 million baht ($19.2 million), a sum he and others claim far exceeds the land’s underlying market value.   

Prayut has consistently denied any impropriety in the deal, which was first uncovered by a small muckraking local news site that came under hardknuckled pressure during military rule and was not followed up by any official investigation while corruption probes pressed to cow and silence coup-ousted Peua Thai politicians.

The deal has also raised eyebrows as it occurred just months before Prayut’s May 2014 coup, sparking speculation about whether ThaiBev executives, including billionaire founder and chairman Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, may have been tipped to the coup, after which ThaiBev’s businesses thrived under Prayut’s military rule. 

ThaiBev has not publicly commented on the allegations; the company’s chairman could not be reached for comment.

The Sirivadhanabhakdi family, which built its fortunes in the highly protected local beer and whiskey markets, has since the coup emerged as the kingdom’s largest property developer and private land-owner, with an industry estimated portfolio of 630,000 rai including major commercial and retail buildings in the capital city.

They include the “One Bangkok” integrated development being built in league with the Crown Property Bureau, the multi-billion-dollar land-holding wealth arm of King Vajiralongkorn. The 120 billion baht ($3.5 billion) development, seen by some as Exhibit A of a new 1997-style property bubble, is the largest ever undertaken in the kingdom.

Conceptual image of the “One Bangkok” development under construction in downtown Bangkok. Company Photo

Prayut and his PPRP ministers, if all stay in line, have the numbers to survive the no-confidence motion, though the damage to his government’s standing in the public eye will be determined by how effectively they parry and dodge the opposition’s promised stinging queries, including on alleged abuses committed during the coup era.

It will also likely recalibrate the balance of power inside Prayut’s unwieldy coalition, where competitive parties and opposed PPRP factions are jockeying for position and resources to the detriment of the good governance and intra-ministerial coordination needed to manage, among others, the pollution and virus crises.

Prayut, accustomed earlier to wielding dictatorial powers under an unchallenged junta regime, is now seen by diplomats, analysts and insiders as increasingly isolated atop both a fractious coalition that often endeavors to undercut his standing and a badly factionalized PPRP he nominally fronts but clearly doesn’t control.

One government insider points to the retirement and departure of his office’s previous secretary general, Wilat Arunsri, a trusted top brass colleague and meticulous administrator who had open-door access to and ear of the premier, as a particular blow to Prayut’s governance.

A renewed campaign to undermine Deputy Prime Minister for Security Prawit Wongsuwan, Prayut’s senior in rank while serving as elite Queen’s Guards and backroom operator who kept troops and others in line during military rule, is also contributing to Prayut’s isolation.

Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit takes a selfie with young supporters on the campaign trail. Photo: AFP Forum

The opposition Future Forward party is simultaneously pushing various envelopes aimed at undercutting Prayut’s power, including measures aimed at pushing the military back to the barracks. Various charges pending against the upstart party could backfire on Prayut if it is dissolved for dubious reasons and its energized followers take to the streets in protest.

Significantly, Prayut can still take refuge in strong royal backing, plain for all to see in a note of confidence the king sent the premier during a politicized oath-reading controversy, and arguably earned in Prayut’s firm and loyal management of a delicate royal succession from idolized King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Vajiralongkorn’s new reign.  

But as clouds of failing governance, economic weakness and ill influence all gather and swirl around Prayut’s administration, the conservative forces that have propped and backed his transition from a military to democratic leader may ultimately not be enough to ensure the survival of his increasingly star-crossed rule.  

[Reporting from Bangkok]