Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha wears a face mask on March 24, 2020, at Government House in Bangkok amid the spread of the coronavirus in Thailand. Photo: AFP Forum via Bangkok Post/Apichit Jinakul

The following is excerpted from an August 2 presentation Asia Times made for the Asia Foundation to assembled ambassadors and other dignitaries in Bangkok.

BANGKOK – Many were initially reluctant to give Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government undue or premature plaudits for his government’s Covid-19 response on fears that official data was understating the true situation or that a hidden cluster of patients was holed up somewhere to be strategically released as part of the official count when politically expedient.

But there have been no reports of hospitals being overwhelmed with virus patients, or any surge in pneumonia or other fatal illnesses that could mask the pandemic’s true extent in the kingdom. Indeed, such a cover-up would be hard to pull off in a realm as social media addicted and plugged in as Thailand.

But while researchers and scientists grapple with why some countries have been more hard- hit than others – with health care, climate and culture, not least Thailand’s no-touch wai greeting and a national reticence that keeps viral aerosols out of the air – Thailand’s comparatively mild Covid-19 experience owes unmistakably in large part to governance.

Thailand’s handling of the crisis went from bungling, seen in Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s erratic and bumbling pronouncements and moves, to technocratic competence almost overnight as responsibility for policy-making and messaging was handed over to medical professionals and out of the hands of non-specialized elected politicians.

That shift, of course, coincided with the introduction of emergency rule, army and police enforced lockdowns and the effective reintroduction of Prayut’s trademark strongman rule.

Covid-19 new life

Assuming there is no drastic resurgence of the disease in Thailand, admittedly a big if, Prayut’s elected, military-aligned government is arguably one of the biggest political winners of the Covid-19 crisis regionwide, if not worldwide.

The coronavirus has somewhat perversely appeared to give Prayut new political life after appearing listless and frail, outmaneuvered by political rivals, under siege by student protests and perhaps even looking towards an early retirement exit as recently as late last year. Many were already predicting his government’s collapse and new elections by year’s end. 

But since the sidelining of elected politicians and re-establishment of de facto military rule via a state of public health emergency, Prayut has bounced back with vigor and new “save the nation” purpose. In his advocates’ estimation, Prayut has again played national savior, first by assuring a smooth royal transition and now second by beating the virus.  

The image of the ex-coupmaker with arms raised in the air triumphantly in front of Government House in March after the announcement of emergency rule could go down as iconic if powerful and now well-financed forces currently at work behind the scenes prolong his rule as envisioned for years to come.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha talking to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi about the Covid-19 novel coronavirus situation during a phone call in Bangkok, May 1, 2020. Photo: Handout/Royal Thai Government/AFP

Prayut will have a much harder time maintaining his success story narrative as the kingdom emerges out of lockdown to face the pandemic’s economic devastation, with the central bank projecting -8% economic growth, a bigger contraction than the 1997-98 financial crisis. Some private analysts are predicting even worse with a possible double-digit contraction.

Provisional reports suggest as many as one in four Thais have lost their jobs and it’s not clear that many of those jobs, particularly in the crucial tourism industry accounting for 20% of GDP, are ever coming back. But here, too, Prayut and his lieutenants are bidding to turn crisis into a political opportunity – one that could transform the face of Thai politics for years to come.

In a well-worn Thai military tradition, Prayut and his right hand man Deputy Prime Minister for Security Prawit Wongsuwan have arguably staged what has amounted to a self-coup inside their own ruling Palang Pracharat Party, one that has elevated Prawit to the party’s leadership at the expense of his economic czar, Somkid Jatusripitak, and his technocratic clique.

The reasons for the strongarm shift from Somkid protégé and Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana to Prawit boiled down to money and power, staying power that is.

Covid-fuelled juggernaut

One government insider says everyone in the Prime Minister’s Office is talking about “1-9”, shorthand for the 1.9 trillion baht (US$60 billion) the government will dole out in various guises mainly in the name of Covid-19 relief.

There is a numerological element at play, they say – 1+9 = 10, a play on King Vajiralongkorn as the Charkri dynasty’s 10th monarch – though there is apparently some mystical fudging as there are several billions of dollars more on the table for distribution in the name of Covid relief.

But the big picture point is that Prayut’s government has freed up at least $60 billion for discretionary crisis relief distribution. It’s an eyewatering, if not historic figure, all the more so when considering who will be empowered to allocate the funds and for what purposes.

After castigating democratic politicians as corrupt and dishonest nearly weekly on his national TV broadcast during his (2014-19) coup government, Prayut is now reliant on some of the country’s most notorious old-school politicians for his political survival, well-being and legacy as a “democratic” soldier leader.

Where Somkid and Uttama may have represented a certain technocratic buffer to full-on budget pilfering – one seen when Prayut backtracked and stumbled on how long individual household relief checks would be delivered after Somkid said the state couldn’t afford three months of handouts – Prawit’s circle and entourage is more in the tradition of old-fashioned pork-barrel politics.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak heads a faction inside the ruling Palang Pracharat Party. Photo: Facebook

With $60 billion in play, funds are just as likely to be deployed to consolidate political control and transform PPRP into an electoral juggernaut built to last and sustain strong military influence over politics than to provide relief to ordinary Thais’ economic suffering.  

There is already talk that funds from discretionary budgets could be used to coax defections from the coalition partner Democrats, who appear to be listing under Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit’s bland and faceless leadership.

The nation’s oldest party is still badly split, with a technocratic core that still believes it has the democratic and moral high ground on PPRP, and a larger group of machine politicians who need budgets to feed their constituencies and win elections in the southern region where PPRP stole votes last polls.  

Others suggest Covid funds could be mobilized to coax opposition Peua Thai politicians into the fold, something that would have seemed unimaginable even a year ago, not to mention in the wake of Prayut’s 2014 coup.

But with ex-premier and Peua Thai de facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra losing his relevance and voice in exile, and his once agitating party now listless and rudderless under unimaginary leadership, it’s a distinct possibility that the party’s many traditional patronage politicians might be willing to jump ship if the price is right.

The endgame could be a much bolstered PPRP-led parliamentary majority (currently 275 of 500 lower house seats) and a democratic system that is largely reliant on Prawit’s guided largesse. It is hard to understate what a reversal this represents, considering that many had left Prawit for politically dead and on his way out due to ill-health just months ago.

Indeed, some coalition partners had suggested after the March 2019 polls they wouldn’t join PPRP if Prawit played a prominent role in government, which explains why Prayut is contemporaneously serving as national leader and defense minister, the latter a position Prawit has served in other governments.

Love him or hate him – and many do – Prawit’s avuncular staying power is by now a military cum political force to behold. The general renowned for his impeccable taste in expensive watches and backroom dealings has maintained his political relevance since the early 2000s, when he served as army commander under Thaksin, only to overthrow his little sister Yingluck’s government a decade later in a 2014 coup.  

Prawit has bridged political divides and created new ones at moments opportune for sustaining the military’s political power and influence. Unlike Prayut, he is more pragmatic than ideological. He brokered from behind the scenes the defections that allowed for Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government to rise in 2008.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (R) and then-Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan during their coup government days at Government House in Bangkok, January 4, 2017. Photo: Twitter

And he was the chief strategist who willingly played the fall guy role during Prayut’s coupmaker government to shield the leader from criticism while greasing the patronage wheels on lucrative positions and procurements that kept his coup government in stable place for five full years, despite strong local and international calls for a speedy return to democracy. 

As one military insider put it: “Prawit makes sure everyone gets what they deserve.” Love him or hate him, Prawit matters – now perhaps more than ever.

Overreach risk rising

Whether this grand Covid-19 financed plan works all depends, of course, on the premise that Prayut and Prawit do not overreach in what will be an increasingly volatile political landscape as the economy slips deeper and deeper into the abyss.

The democratic opposition, still led by banned politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his affiliated new Move Forward party, the inheritor of the court-dissolved Future Forward Party, are likewise poised to try to turn crisis into opportunity.

There are already signs of PPRP overconfidence and excess. Few analysts believe that last month’s disappearance of exiled anti-military and anti-monarchy activist Wanchalerm Satsaksit in Cambodia was not somehow orchestrated by Thai security forces, though obviously Prayut and his ministers have denied it.

Whether he was abducted for criticism of Prayut or the monarch, the apparent cross-border operation fits a pattern of exiled disappeared activists that is now clearly in the international spotlight. Rights groups and activist political parties in Europe are known to be investigating some of the recent anti-royal activist disappearances, including in Laos; their findings have the potential to be history-changing bombshells.

But the bigger risk for PPRP – the one Thanathorn’s opposition will be keen to exploit when the time is right – are popular perceptions in the months ahead that funds earmarked for Covid-19 relief are misdirected for political purposes and not filtered down to suffering Thais. There has already been at least one scandal involving a party heavyweight hoarding facemasks. Expect many more to come.  

One wag suggests that the so-called “Buffet Cabinet”, known for its budget-pilfering corruption that contributed to the 1991 military coup staged richly in the name of “protecting the nation” from corrupt elected politicians, could look like a picnic in comparison considering the massive amount of discretionary funds now at the PPRP’s disposal.

Commuters, wearing face masks amid fears of the spread of Covid-19 wait for a canal boat in Bangkok on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

Whether revelations of Covid corruption drive Prayut’s government towards the authoritarian tactics his coup government used to stifle dissent and rule unchallenged will be an important democratic litmus test.

Prayut, at least previously, relished the transition from military to democratic rule and some insiders say he wants his legacy to be defined largely by his tenure as an elected, not coup-installed, leader.

But many are already unnerved by the government’s decision to extend emergency rule for a third month, even as it moves to allow all sundry of businesses, including bars and soapy massage parlors, to reopen. It was lost on few observers that Thaksin’s anti-military “Red Shirt” protest leaders were jailed last week for their roles in a 2007 protest in front of the former king’s now-deceased chief advisor Prem Tinsulanonda.

It sent a clear signal to Thanathorn’s camp that any reversion to street protests will be met with stiff legal retribution – and that any attempt to pull the monarchy into the political fray, as some activists have done with recent protests and exposes about the country’s royally contested 1932 democratic revolution, that they could be next to land behind bars.

The Thanathorn-led opposition clearly lost traction as Prayut’s government successfully appealed to unifying notions of Thai nationalism to contain the coronavirus.

The question moving ahead, as was the case before the pandemic, is will conservative forces move to pre-empt Thanathorn’s threat through legal means, sentencing him to prison on any number of still pending charges, in the hope he follows in the exiled footsteps of Thaksin and Yingluck and flees rather than goes to jail to serve as a democratic martyr.

Thanathorn made clear during a presentation to foreign journalists in early March that he and his movement see the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as a “historic” opportunity to push for democratic change in Thailand. He has rightly kept his powder dry while the government manages the health crisis, but will no doubt seek to amp the volume of his resistance as the virus fades and economic ills coalesce.

As seen in the US, mass unemployment and a political spark can lead to street-level chaos that once unleashed can be difficult to contain or to know who, what and where it might target next. The future of the monarchy is obviously at play here. 

One already foresees a spark if mooted plans to remove and relocate Democracy Monument, commemorating the 1932 revolution that overthrew absolute monarchal rule, are carried out in the name of royal renovation of the capital’s historic Ratchadamnoen Avenue. Watch that contested space.   

Land of black swans

It is clear that both Prayut and Thanathorn see opportunity in the crisis ahead. At this point it’s not clear if Thailand is headed towards a new era of even stronger military-guided democracy, a period of hotly contested but still relatively stable democratic politics, or an historic and seismic democratic uprising that dislodges the military from politics.

What is certain is that Thailand’s politics will fundamentally change due to and in the context created by the Covid-19 pandemic. I foresee three likely possible scenarios in the months ahead.

Scenario 1: The odds in Thailand are, as always, in favor of conservative elite-backed military-led forces. This scenario sees PPRP consolidate the strong political control mentioned above while allowing enough budgetary largesse out the door to convince the population the government is doing as much as possible to ease their economic pain.

There are already certain signs they are playing their cards right in that regard with tourism vouchers that have allowed Thais to travel freely after weeks of stifling lockdown. While the economy is poised to tank, few financial analysts foresee a collapse of the national finances, big banks or top corporates, all of which are cashed up and able to absorb the blow as projected so far.

If the economy starts to show early shoots of recovery – most economists so far foresee a strong positive bounce in 2021 – then Prayut could take credit for again saving the nation. That would undercut the Thanathorn-led opposition’s message of a corrupt and callous government that has ignored the people’s economic plight and could potentially be leveraged into votes at the next polls.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, on arrival at the Office of the Attorney General in Bangkok on February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

Scenario 2: The PPRP openly misallocates funds for political purposes and the Thanathorn-led opposition pounces on the opportunity to paint the government as more corrupt – or worse considering the amount of money in play – than the elected government it overthrew in 2014 and bays for a return to the polls.

This scenario keeps politics in parliament and the media and does not spill over into debilitating street protests or that could lure the military out and motivate a suspension of democracy and rights in the name of stability.

Rather than crackdown on media exposes and political opposition, Prayut and Prawit take the democratic challenge confident in the belief they will win after manufacturing sufficient defections from other parties in the regions and constituencies where they were previously weak.

Thailand heads to the polls in 2021 in a historic election that more clearly pits old and new political forces.

Scenario 3: Exposés of brazen PPRP corruption in distributing and pocketing relief budgets break previous Thai records for large-scale corruption and graft – a corruption feast rather than picnic – and popular pressure builds for political change.

Thanathorn’s movement leverages into the popular discontent and launches nationwide street protests that result in chaos and potential bloodshed in the streets. Unlike 1992, there is no royal mediation of last resort and the country enters uncharted waters pitting establishment and progressive forces in a potential fight to the finish.

Recent events like Wanchalerm’s brazen disappearance, Prawit’s political resurgence from the grave, and the European media’s critical response to the Thai monarch’s presence in Germany after residing there for years without a peep are impossible to predict. Thailand, as ever, is a land of black swans.

But what seems clear for now is that politics will come to a certain head in the months ahead and likely before year’s end, one that will determine the kingdom’s longer-term trajectory more firmly in one political direction or the other.