As Prayuth's Thailand teeters, is an election, coup or bitter stalemate next?

Demonstrators take part in a protest against the government's handling of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug 10, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

Thailand ’s combustible politics are ramping up on the streets, online, and in parliament, piling pressure on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha as he struggles to manage the pandemic as well as a once-in-a-generation economic wipeout.

But experts warn this pro-democracy momentum could force the hand of the former army chief, who is more inclined towards control than compromise.

Some fear the near-daily protests – which are leaving parts of downtown Bangkok shrouded in plumes of tear gas, with broken glass underfoot – have started the countdown towards a crackdown, martial law, and another coup.

“General Prayuth may launch a coup d’etat against himself simply to cancel democracy and declare martial law,” said prominent political commentator Voranai Vanijaka of the premier, who headed the junta that ruled Thailand after the army seized power from a civilian government in 2014.

The kingdom has a long history of bloody military crackdowns to quash pro-democracy movements, often using violence on the streets as a pretext for an army-led reset.

“Another scenario is a coup by a faction of the military dissatisfied with his management, his rule of the country,” Voranai added.

On Sunday, a nationwide “car mob” – in which people rally on the streets in vehicles – called by “red shirt” leader Nattawut Saikua is expected to draw large crowds, as fears mount that clashes between protesters and police will soon claim lives.

But parliamentary moves to remove Prayuth were also afoot, Voranai said, with the opposition tabling a no-confidence vote in the hope of triggering a dissolution and a fresh election. General elections are due in 2023, but could be brought forward by a year.

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In a bitterly divided country, Thais from all political camps are increasingly outraged over the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 6,700 deaths recorded since April amid a months-long virtual lockdown of the capital Bangkok and its surrounding provinces.

Just seven per cent of the population has been fully inoculated, with vaccine hesitancy spreading over fears of the efficacy of the China-made Sinovac jab, which Thailand has ordered in large volumes, while the more trusted AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are in short supply.

Prayuth appears to be losing some support among the Bangkok business elite.

“Where are the vaccines?” wrote Piti Bhirombhakdi, scion of the Boon Rawd Brewery – the billionaire makers of Singha lager – in a Facebook post on Monday. “I just can’t take it any more, I don’t care if you like me or want to buy my products.

"I’m doing my duty as a Thai person who wants to see things get better.”

There are similar gripes from partners in Prayuth’s ruling coalition, who have their own anxious constituencies to keep onside.

“Now it’s all about gaming for the next elections,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, a visiting fellow with the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“We’re seeing the battle of the vaccines emerging in Thai politics, where political parties and politicians are brazenly trying to appease their constituents with ‘good vaccines’. There’s no unity within the coalition of the government.”

Rising tensions

The Prayuth-led 2014 coup against the government of then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was meant to end eight years of instability that followed another coup in 2006 – when a military power grab saw the ousting of Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin as premier.

Prayuth’s aim was to shift support to the side of the conservative establishment and boost the monarchy, headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

This worked for several years, with the help of emergency laws, an army-written charter – which allowed Prayuth to hand-pick the country’s 250 senators – and a 2019 win in an election held on terms favourable to his party.

But this led to the emergence a year ago of the articulate and angry youth-led protest movement that has called for the resignation of the prime minister, a new constitution, and – crucially – for the monarchy’s powers to be curbed.

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The movement has refused to die, despite court charges against many of its main figureheads, many for defaming royalty – which carries up to 15 years in jail per charge.

As clashes erupt on the streets and car mobs clog the capital’s roads, calls from the ultraroyalist camp to squash the protests are becoming more shrill.

“We need martial law,” royalist Arnond Sakworawich, a lecturer at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), tweeted last week.

“Have the army carry guns to control the protesters … arrest them and bring them to military trial right away, this is the only way to control the pandemic.”

A Thaksin comeback?

The pro-democracy movement has pulled the role of Thailand’s powerful monarchy into the heart of a debate over how to establish a fairer, more democratic society.

The country is among Asia’s least equal societies, with an economy divided up by monopolies in everything from groceries to alcohol and construction led by clans of billionaires.

The pandemic has exposed the kingdom’s structural problems, according to Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law scholar at Chulalongkorn University, with unexpected consequences for the rich who have been left scrambling for limited vaccines alongside ordinary Thais.

“Covid-19 makes people realise how vulnerable they are and how dependent they are on the patronage system,” Khemthong said. “If you can’t find a hospital bed because you tested positive, it’s time to call in your old favours … which takes you further away from fairness and democracy.”

The debate has also exploded across social media, with Clubhouse becoming the main forum for political discussion. Chats on the app are being hosted from inside cars during car mob rallies, linking a public trapped at home during the pandemic to demonstrations on the streets.

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Old political players are also reinventing themselves as online stars, including former prime minister Thaksin.

From self-exile overseas, his weekly Clubhouse forum draws thousands, re-energising his dormant base of red shirts but also impressing younger listeners who barely remember his premiership.

A once unthinkable political comeback by Thaskin, who has not set foot in Thailand for more than a decade to avoid jail over a corruption charge, is also being increasingly discussed as the country scrabbles for a saviour.

“Another possible way to change Thai politics right now is for Thaksin to come back,” said academic Punchada of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “He’s been (on the front foot) all this time, so if the people really ask for his return, it would be legitimate.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.