Does Military Rule in Thailand Mean No Future For Democracy?



In a move that should surprise no one, the head of Thailand’s military has been appointed as the nation’s new Prime Minister.

The writing has been on the wall since we wrote about the kingdom’s slip into military rule back in June, but last Thursday, August 21, General Prayuth Chan-ocha was elected as the latest Prime Minister by Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly, a legislative body that he dissolved at gunpoint earlier this year and re-populated with handpicked army loyalists.

His election was approved by 191 MPs out of the 197-member body, with 3 abstentions and no votes against his election. This appointment is merely the formalization of the political reality in Bangkok today.

This Monday, the 60-year old Chan-ocha received the assent of the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This blessing should intimidate and silence the general’s opponents in Thai civil society.

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws are severely restrictive of free speech. Those laws have been repeatedly, and successfully, used since the junta dissolved Thailand’s prior parliament in May of this year. It is likely that Chan-ocha and his new government will use those laws to quell the voices of the opposition who are opposed to the head of a military junta seizing power.

King Bhumibol did not attend the official blessing ceremony because he was at a Bangkok hospital. However, the king did release an official statement in the Royal Gazette.

Hospitalization is becoming more and more frequent for the king, who will be 87 in December. Chan-ocha may well be the last Prime Minister King Bhumibol appoints. This is important from the view of succession planning, for despite the nearly religious devotion of Thais to their king, there is little love lost for his son, the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The Prince, who was educated entirely abroad in England and Australia, has lived what some consider a playboy lifestyle (not helped by video surfacing of the Prince’s wife wearing only a g-string at a birthday party for the Prince’s poodle, Fufu).

The Prince was in England visiting former Thai Prime Minister and fugitive from a corruption conviction, Thaksin Shinawatra, during the military coup this year. The Prince’s ties to the Shinawatra family and their Pheu Thai party are diametrically opposed to Chan-ocha’s supposed top priority, which is to “destroy” Thaksin’s political party and prevent the Shinawatra clan from returning to the front of Thai politics.

At 60 years old, Chan-ocha is on track for retirement from the Armed Services next month, but will serve dually as head of government and head of the military in the mean time. Having selected and trained the officer corps that will lead the army following his official retirement, it is expected that his influence among the military will not wane. Similarly, with the hand-picked members of the ruling military junta and a rubber-stamp legislature, Chan-ocha is likely to reign unopposed, so long as he stays in favor with King Bhumibol. Even with the vast array of legislative, military and royal support, Chan-Ocha has his work cut out for him. His junta has officially stated its goal of restore the nation to democracy; with elections reportedly planned for next year, and will need to be furiously “working to remove all traces of Thaksin’s influence” if he hopes to be successful by then.

Should the rooting out of the Thai red shirts (Thaksin’s loyalists) prove more of a challenge, or if His Majesty’s health should fail, it is highly unlikely that Chan-ocha would allow elections to go ahead in the face of adversity or uncertainty at the polls. The military have held power regularly throughout Bhumibol’s reign, and while they have repeatedly both intervened and stepped aside with the King’s blessing, it is unlikely that they would be on such good terms with Vajiralongkorn.

What course of action should Chan-ocha take? If he truly cares about restoring democracy, rather than paying it lip service as a cover while he consolidates power (which, to me and the rest of the world appears to have already happened), he needs to resign his position as general immediately. He ought to call for elections post-haste, although it won’t happen.

Because this is unpalatable to Chan-ocha, an acceptable compromise measure could be to dismiss the currently serving officers from the assembly and hold elections for posts, as well as to the currently vacant 23 seats (the constitution allows for a maximum of 220 seats). Chan-ocha should also forbid retired or current military officers from running for office.

It would go a long way in demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law, rather than militaristic authority, if Chan-ocha would staff his new cabinet entirely with civilians. This compromise is still far too undemocratic, but it would ease the path to a true democracy next year if the Prime Minister is used to working with MPs who don’t defer to his ideas based on his former status as head of the military.

To quote Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If General Chan-ocha is to save his fledgling regime from charges of corruption and the ignominious place in history of being the Prime Minister who killed Thai democracy, he needs to reduce his power base within Thai society.


About Rob Sharp

Rob Sharp is an international law junkie with a particular interest in comparative law, sovereignty and state responses to terrorism. On the lighter side of things, Rob enjoys travel, college football, and reading. Rob has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley and a JD from Notre Dame Law School. Rob returned to his birthplace of London in his second year to participate in NDLS’ Concannon Programme of International Law.
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