Thai junta unlikely to relax grip yet

As an ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej approaches his 87th birthday this Friday, Thailand's military regime is giving more indications that it intends to stay in power longer than previously stated.

As the inevitable royal succession looms for a country that venerates the King, the army has to all intents and purposes ruled out lifting martial law any time soon.

Speaking at a seminar on Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam said he did not think an election would be delayed until mid-2016 as indicated by some of his Cabinet colleagues the previous week.

The remarks were meant to reassure, but they suggested that the army's original timeframe for polls to return the country to civilian rule, late 2015, is unlikely to be adhered to.

The reason could be that the regime feels insecure. Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan on Nov 27 told reporters: "Right now, there are elements opposed to the National Council for Peace and Order."

The council is the regime's official name.

Meanwhile, the regime is continuing a wide crackdown on dissent.

University students have been arrested in recent weeks in the north-eastern city of Khon Kaen and in Bangkok, for flashing a three-fingered salute taken from the popular Hunger Games film series, to protest against military rule. The students were detained for some hours and then released.

In mid-November, Thai PBS TV network was also pressured to remove a talk show host because of the way she had framed questions on the coup when interviewing villagers and activists.

Soon after this, on Nov 19, Lieutenant-General Suchai Pongput, head of a government committee to monitor media, said: "We do not limit media freedom but freedom must be within limits."

In recent days, the regime has reminded establishments in Bangkok which hold public lectures and seminars that facilitating talk deemed critical of the regime may be a criminal act. "They are squeezing the space" for discussion and debate, a human rights researcher told The Straits Times, asking not to be named. "The junta is working to ensure that there remains a climate of fear," Dr Verapat Pareeyawong, a visiting scholar at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote in a Nov 27 e-mail to media.

Earlier on Nov 2, he wrote: "The months ahead look quite grim with a strong undercurrent for Thailand, and it won't get any better unless there can be an environment for open, peaceful and constructive dialogues."

The economic front is also gloomy, despite a slight uptick in tourism figures, thanks mostly to Chinese tourists.

The National Economic and Social Development Board on Nov 17 cut its growth forecast for this year to 1 per cent, the slowest among major South-east Asian countries.

In the meantime, a high-profile purge is under way, with corrupt senior police officers arrested, several of whom are relatives of Princess Srirasmi, wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and in the normal course of things the future Queen of Thailand.

The Crown Prince on Saturday revoked the royally bestowed family name of Akharapongpreecha from her family members, ordering them to revert to their original surname.

Princess Srirasmi still has her royal title, bestowed by the King. But whether she survives the purge remains to be seen.

Associate Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun from Kyoto University's Centre for South East Asian Studies, called the purge a "house cleaning ahead of the succession".

Given the fraught atmosphere in the country, analysts say, the military is very unlikely to relax its grip just yet.

This article was first published on December 1, 2014.
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