Today marks one year since the Thai junta came to power in a coup d'état.
The move was ostensibly made to save the country from deadly street violence that had crippled Thai politics and left dozens dead and hundreds injured during more than six months of clashes. The junta, attempting to placate international concern, promised speedy elections (initially, within five months) and a roadmap for reforms to break years of political deadlock. The promised elections have been continually pushed back. This week the junta said they would again be postponed by a further six months, to August 2016.
The elusive elections are just one of the junta's failed promises. After a year at the helm, the junta is going nowhere fast. Thailand, the region's second biggest economy and a relative bastion of stability in Southeast Asia's tumultuous political landscape, is stumbling into a long period of dubious dictatorship.
The junta's promise to break the political deadlock was cautiously welcomed by foreign governments and many Thais. Yet it has, in the past year, monopolised the political space and silenced dissent. In August it stuffed the legislature full of military officers (70 active, 36 retired). It was only last month that it lifted martial law, which had been in place since just before the coup — its lifting was likely only to avoid an odious one-year anniversary. In place of martial law is the draconian Article 44, which all but ensures military dominance over the political process. The Article rightfully earned the title of a 'Dictator Law' among commentators.
The junta has continued the 'lawfare' strategy of the Yellow Shirts in retroactively impeaching former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for dereliction of duty in her government's failed rice subsidy scheme. It was indeed bad policy, but the process seems more of a witch-hunt to appease powerful Yellow Shirt supporters than it does due process. The symbolism is heightened by the reprieve given to Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader who had an equal hand in entrenching political deadlock and deepening street violence. He has spent the last year in the monkhood, until this week when he said he would drop the cloth and return to 'people's politics'. A divisive figure, his return to the political stage would be an agitation and a harbinger of trouble.
The past year has also been marked by renewed battle against insurgents in the country's deep south. In November, the junta, seeking a military solution to a political problem, gave 2700 HK33 semi-automatic assault rifles to civilian militias in the deep south. That approach has likely contributed to the uptick in unrest this year. In April, violence reached its highest level since the coup. In the past week alone there were 36 bomb attacks in Yala township. That follows a car bomb in April in the popular tourist destination of Samui. The junta has been keen to suggest violence in the south is linked to Red Shirt opposition linked to former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. That's unlikely, though there are many among the increasingly disenfranchised Red Shirts who are waiting in the wings to recommit to street protests.
Of recent note has been the entrenchment of trafficking and people smuggling rackets along Thailand's south and south-western borders. Earlier this year the US dropped Thailand to the lowest tier on its Trafficking in Persons Report 2014; it is now in the company of Syria and North Korea. This is significant given the reported collusion and bribe-taking between trafficking and smuggling rings and Thai law enforcement. This kind of high-profile corruption doesn't help investor confidence in Thailand's spluttering economy.
Bangkok's foreign policy has also taken a hit. After coming to power as prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha's initial visits abroad were made up of an unglamorous list of non-democratic states: China, Laos, Vietnam and transitioning Myanmar. The chilly diplomatic welcome to office from the US and EU countries saw a shift closer to China and Russia. As political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak noted this week, 'Thai foreign policy will remain hostage to domestic politics.'
These problems have all been amplified by Prayuth's bizarre sense of humour and governing style. His press conferences are often headline grabbing (short list here; longer list here). In December he flung a banana peel at a journalist. In another conference he said that he would 'probably execute' troublesome journalists. The junta has arrested youths for displaying the Hunger Games-inspired three-finger salute – army officials said they had been detained for 'attitude adjustment'. Others have been detained for 'eating sandwiches with political intent' and reading Orwell's banned novel 1984.
Despite the record, many Thais still think the junta is the best of a set of bad options (though it must be noted, reliable polling of Thai views on the junta is not available). The vacuum of criticism has emboldened the junta, which is drafting a new and dubious constitution. The draft document hands immunity to the generals that led the coup and guarantees the military's place in politics.
In August, Prayuth's appointment as PM received the official blessing of the King. These may be the last blessings the ageing monarch gives to anyone. The King's passing will be followed by a period of mourning where political manoeuvring is restricted, if not altogether banned. The junta's hold on power during this period will be welcomed by many, but the junta has fashioned itself as the successors to the powers held by the revered peacemaker, King Bhumipol. That will cause problems in the real succession for the throne.
One year on, the junta has strengthened its grip on politics. There are few signs of a return to democracy; the junta is going nowhere fast.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama.