by Marque A. Rome
Several observations can be made, I think, regarding Thailand’s new military government, its strategy against possible opponents, and the effects of that on the nation’s near-term prospects.
1) The 10.00 PM – 5.00 AM is now changed to Midnight – 4.00 AM, but a curfew remains in place because the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, wishes to forestall reaction of those displaced from power by the coup. A Red Shirt video of speeches on 19th May from the stage on Aksa Rd. includes clear warnings to Red Shirt supporters that martial law would be declared at 6.00 AM the following morning. Speakers noted that the law would be invoked nation-wide. In the event, martial law was declared at 3.30 AM. This suggests to me that the time was advanced because Red Shirts knew what was not meant to be divulged. A mole, in other words, inside the military was feeding them information.
Thus, I suppose, to prevent possibility that disgruntled elements would try to stage their own coup by taking over television and radio stations around the country, the military acted first. For the same reason, the curfew continues. News that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s officer candidate school Class 10 fellows in the military, many of whom have shown sympathy for his cause, had been ordered by the NCPO to report for questioning may be indicative that army moles have not been eliminated, and that top brass are somewhat uneasy about the officer corps — to say nothing of ordinary conscripts, many of whom hail from parts of the country hitherto having little sympathy for efforts to unseat the government.
How strong is Thaksin’s support now? It’s hard to say. But recall that in national elections — later nullified by court order — on 2nd February, though turn-out was only about 43 per cent, five-sixths of those who bothered to vote selected his Peua Thai Party. They voted Peua Thai despite the bungled rice-pledging scheme that cost farmers some 120 billion baht, despite massive protests in Bangkok triggered by sneaky moves to bring Thaksin back to Thailand and restore his lost 46 billion baht, and despite successive, and well-publicized, court decisions accusing government ministers of corruption, abuse of power, unconstitutional government, etc.
They voted Peua Thai despite forecasts from people inside and outside government and from every quarter of the political spectrum that the elections would be nullified.
So it may be assumed that strong residual faith subsists in Thaksin and his political machine fewer than four months later. It may even be reasonably adduced that the coup did not deflate his followers hopes but galvanized them as a casus belli for further action.
2) The Shinawatra clan and others detained by the military can be viewed, in a way, as hostages to the good conduct both of their supporters and of those in Thailand and abroad who oppose Gen. Prayuth Janocha’s decision to act. Good conduct, in this case, means not only foregoing a call to arms but leaving well-enough alone and not declaring establishment of a rival government, whether in Thailand or abroad.
The Red Shirts’ legal advisor, American lawyer Robert Amsterdam, has been urging precisely that for the last few months. Amsterdam, in an interview with Linda Lopresti on the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) Radio Network Breakfast Show yesterday, repeatedly described Yingluck and others detained by the military as “hostages” and said forming a government in exile with former members of her cabinet was being considered. He also called for direct United Nations, Australian and other governments’ “intervention” in Thai affairs and said the coup had no legitimacy in Thai or international law — a palpable falsehood as, indeed, most Thai laws were promulgated while the country was under military government rule.
In reporting his and the military’s actions to the country’s “supreme institution” for approval, Gen. Prayuth noted that they accorded with Thai democratic traditions, which is undoubtedly true as democratic rule in Thailand resulted from a military coup.
Jatuporn Prompan, the fiery Red Shirt leader now detained by the military, has also talked openly in the past about continuing the Peua Thai government by moving the capital temporarily to another Thai city or setting up a government in exile. He has called in no uncertain terms for his supporters to “shed blood and sweat in opposing imposition of un-democratic government” and stated publicly — and to considerable applause from those present — that neither he nor his followers will cease fighting so long as they have life in them.
Which side is going to succeed in this game might depend upon who can gain the sympathy of Thailand’s 33 million farmers, the nation’s “backbone” as they are frequently referred to in the Thai language press. In military terms they might be thought of as “a mass of maneuver”. A mass of maneuver comprises troops commanders hold back until the critical point in battle is reached, when both sides are fully engaged. They then throw them in at enemy weak points, aiming to break through and rout opponents.
Thaksin’s base of support is undoubtedly located in the north and northeast of Thailand. He and his proxies have, over the years, done all they reasonably could to engender loyalty among the population there, where the economy is largely agricultural. As a strategy, this was nothing new. Governments, whether military or elected, have long budgeted more money on provinces in these areas than, strictly speaking, was their due. Why? Because their loyalty was always suspect. Chiang Mai was long an independent kingdom associated with Burma, not Thailand. In Isan, the northeast, people speak a dialect of Thai not fully intelligible to speakers of standard Thai.
Thus it has been thought prudent to purchase, in effect, the loyalty of these provinces via lavish public works projects. This succeeded to a certain extent, but money went mostly into the pockets of local chieftains and the bulk of the population remained quite poor relative to that of Bangkok.
Thaksin was the first Thai leader to channel money into pockets of rice farmers, and he did it not by subsidies but via programmes such as One Tambon One Product (OTOP), the million baht village funds, and the recent rice pledging scheme, that allowed farmers to capitalize on their own industry. He gave them a taste of entrepreneurial success thereby, and they liked it, and they want more of it. That’s why they support him and his parties.
Which leads us to point number
3) Gen. Prayuth announced this week in his speech after receiving royal cognizance of the military’s actions that farmers who participated in the rice pledge programme would be paid their arrears. He ordered the bank set up to administer the scheme to prepare 80 billion baht for disbursement over the next five days till month end. Recall that a direct reason for collapse of the Yingluck government was bankers’ reluctance to afford loans for the project, that it was thus declared bankrupt, and that Suthep and his PDRC excoriated the rice pledge project as economic suicide.
But now the very people PDRC protesters have demanded since November take over and set the country straight are paying up, and that without public hand-wringing, new taxation or dodgy loans — with no drama.
Well…perhaps a little bird caught someone’s ear with explanation that one era’s ‘base of support’ might be another’s ‘base of insurrection’ unless popular programmes continue. What better means of stealing Thaksin’s thunder than co-opting his rice scheme and then doing at a stroke what Thaksin’s government failed to do for nearly a year — pay the farmers?
It’s a shrewd move, to be sure, but will such political expediency buy loyalty?
When Thaksin was prime minister, from 2001 – 2006, he tried desperately to win the affection of southern Thailand. He tripled the price of rubber; ended the moratorium on issuance of chanohd title deeds on off-shore islands; and, when the tsunami struck in 2004, a tragedy affecting millions along the Andaman coast, personally led operations to repatriate the thousands of stranded tourists, discover and identify the many more thousands of corpses, and renew affected areas. His efforts with regard to the tsunami won applause from all quarters of the earth — except southern Thailand.
Beyond question, Thaksin and his associated governments did more to improve the lives of southern people and bring them into the mainstream of Thai society than the feudal-minded Democrats ever dreamed of, yet southerners hated him then and hate him now. He couldn’t buy their loyalty.
How the current game will finally play out, I think, largely depends on whether the people of Isan and the north prove less malleable in their political tastes than those of the south. If this appeal to their pocketbooks succeeds in shaking the loyalty hitherto accorded Thaksin, then unrest will not likely be an issue.
It took just over a year to re-instate constitutional government after the last coup. This time the military is adamant more sweeping reforms be completed before elections are held, but I expect we shall see something at least resembling constitutional government (e.g., an appointed cabinet of technocrats and council of notables) within weeks if popular unrest continues to subside.
That’s a big IF, however, and, with news censored and anyway hard to come by from the rural north and northeast, it is hard, I think, to evaluate what the temper of the times is out there.
Yet that may be where the fate of Thailand is decided.