'Reform before election' call bolsters junta

Suthep Thaugsuban the leader of Thailand's opposition movement speaks during a news conference at a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, July 30, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

Just when it seemed like Thailand's military government was flailing, former protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban emerged from monkhood to demand that the administration complete national reforms - no matter how long it takes - before holding elections.

His call, made alongside co-protest leaders and in front of Thai television last month at a press conference of his new foundation, has helped bolster the position of the kingdom's generals. It has turned the spotlight on quarters in Thai society who want the military to remain in charge, despite growing criticism that it is outstaying its welcome.

A slowing economy has been gnawing away at the government's legitimacy. The finance ministry last month cut its full-year economic growth forecast for the third time this year, to 3 per cent.

Spending sentiment, already torpid, could weaken further when the drought hits farmers' earnings, hardening rural sentiment against a government that withdrew generous subsidies offered by the previous administration.

Meanwhile, large-scale infrastructure projects like the railway lines have been slow to break ground even as poorer regional countries narrow the gap on ASEAN's second-largest economy.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has hinted there are plans for a Cabinet reshuffle that might displace Deputy Prime Minister and economic czar Pridiyathorn Devakula.

Mr Suthep's launch of the People's Democratic Reform Foundation gives the junta "a breather", says Ramkhamhaeng University political scientist Pandit Chanrochanakit.

Yet his open-ended call for "reforms" could put General Prayuth in a bind, given that an extended term may increasingly show up the failings of his generals.

Mr Suthep, himself a former deputy prime minister from the Democrat Party, took to the streets in 2013 to topple the government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. In the seven months that followed, he and his supporters blockaded Bangkok's streets, occupied government buildings and sabotaged the Feb 2 polls last year to prevent the re-election of the Puea Thai party.

For the many who supported Mr Suthep's call for "reform before election" then, the work is far from done. Analysts say their main concern remains the resurgence of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's political network.

Today, Puea Thai and its "red shirt" support base have been laid dormant by a ban on political gatherings. Yingluck, who is Thaksin's sister, now faces jail if convicted by the Supreme Court of mishandling Puea Thai's controversial rice subsidy scheme.

Yet, she continues to appeal to the rural masses who form the bulk of Thailand's electorate.

Military rule has so far kept a lid on open confrontations due to the long-running split between the urban elite and Thaksin supporters. A series of deliberations about a draft charter that limits the power of elected politicians continues to stretch the wait before the next election, which could be in 2017.

In the meantime, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir apparent to 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is expected to lead tens of thousands of Bangkok residents in a mass cycling event on Aug 16 to celebrate his mother's birthday. It is being touted as an affair that will forge national unity.

Against this backdrop, Mr Suthep's emergence threatens to rekindle the bitter and divisive exchanges that preceded the military takeover. "It simply creates more tension," says Dr Pandit.

Red-shirt leaders, for example, have demanded an explanation for the go-ahead for Mr Suthep's press conference, even as the junta blocked gatherings to mark Thaksin's birthday on July 26. To this, Gen Prayuth has responded: "The same laws apply to all."

The Prime Minister may have to defend himself against allegations of double standards more often as Mr Suthep expands his public presence. Dissent may be harder to control. Unfortunately, the buttress of military power Mr Suthep offers comes with a price tag.


This article was first published on August 7, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.