Thailand's Junta
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Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives for a weekly cabinet meeting in Bangkok in April 2017. Photo: Reuters

Thailand’s junta prepares to delay the democratic dream yet again

Daniel Maxwell says the Thai public is souring on the military junta and wants its promised general election, but Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s grip on the office appears secure whether an election happens or is delayed

Four years after the military coup in Thailand, the public are eager for the  National Council for Peace and Order to deliver the promised November 2018 election. 
On coming to power, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha  assured people the country would return to democracy the next year. Each year since, there has been another delay and, in last October, he promised that  voters would head to the polls in 2018
But, in recent months, there have been signs that the election may be delayed until 2019. Prayuth has said  he is no longer a soldier, but a politician. He and his cabinet have travelled to battleground provinces in a manner  like campaigning, while traditional political parties are  banned from political activity

There are also reports that the junta plans to form a new party. A deputy leader of the Democratic Party said the possible election delay would help the junta, which needs time to establish its own party. Delaying the election to 2019 also gives them time to improve their popularity.

During the initial period of junta rule, the national council tackled pressing issues, including corruption. There were campaigns against illegal casinos, illegal logging and land encroachment in national parks, while corrupt mayors were arrested and rice farmers received the US$2.9 billion they were owed from  the rice purchase scheme under  Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. 
Supporters of exiled former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra display messages in support of her and opposition to the military junta in Bangkok in September. The protesters were rallying in front of the court which convicted Shinawatra in absentia for dereliction of duty in preventing misuse in the rice purchase scheme. Photo: EPA-EFE

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But the drive against corruption slowed and the generals became the focus of investigations, with the deputy prime minister embroiled in a scandal over his 25 luxury watches worth more than US$1 million. Public opinion toward the leaders was also tainted by the callous reaction and non-transparent investigation into the death of a young army cadet after punishment by senior officers. A new poll by Bangkok University now shows  only 36.8 per cent of respondents would back Prayuth, down from 52.8 per cent last year. 
Thailand’s education system stagnated years ago, and there have been no reforms to improve academic standards. National health care programmes remain desperately underfunded. 

An additional 12 months may help the national council make more progress, but it’s more likely that, by 2019, the country’s voters will have grown more weary of the generals. 

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But Prayuth does not require much public support to retain the premiership. Thailand’s 2017 constitution gives 250 military-appointed senators the authority to vote alongside the 500 members from the House of Representatives to select the next prime minister. Just 126 votes from the House of Representatives would be enough. 

The prospects of a democratically elected civilian government leading the country are more distant than ever.

Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Thailand delays democracy