Thai military’s grip on power won’t ease any time soon

Pavin Chachavalpongpun says the latest postponement of a long-promised general election underlines the junta’s fear of the Shinawatra family’s lingering influence, at a time when the new king is still settling in

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 4:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 8:12pm

Last week, Thailand’s junta-appointed legislature voted to delay the implementation of an election law that would effectively postpone the general election to 2019. This is the fourth time the generals have broken their promise to return power to the voters.

If investors’ confidence is shaken, it might threaten the Thai economy and the position of the military government. But, for the Thai junta, current political uncertainties may threaten its long-term political interests.

The postponement possibly derives from the fact that, following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thai politics is in flux. Thais may have already welcomed their new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, but his long absence from Thailand has created a power vacuum filled with challenges, particularly from the opposition.

Therefore, the military relies mostly on its delaying tactic, which also gives the junta room to manoeuvre, to continue battling a perceived threat from the Shinawatra faction.

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For over a decade now, the Shinawatra family has served as an excuse for the military’s seizure of political power. Within eight years, the military staged two coups, toppling Thaksin in 2006 and his sister Yingluck in 2014. Both are currently fugitives from Thai law.

The fear of what remains of the Shinawatras’ political influence has been intensified by constant rumours of their intimate ties with King Vajiralongkorn. The royal transition is still ongoing, with no fixed plan for a coronation. The volatility of the situation has driven the military to hold on tightly to power. General elections, as the junta sees it, could shift the political landscape to the benefit of the Shinawatras.

Meanwhile, the new king himself has shown no sign of any support for the return of democracy. Since ascending the throne in December 2016, he has been preoccupied with consolidating his own power by requesting that certain provisions of the constitution related to royal affairs be amended. The amendments, for example, will allow him to travel overseas without having to appoint a regent to function on his behalf and to fully take charge of the super-rich Crown Property Bureau.

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King Vajiralongkorn has never suggested that the military must step down soon to pave the way for democracy. Indeed, he needed the army to secure his enthronement. Thus, a palace-military alliance has been renewed.

The military is set to continue playing a prominent role in Thai politics in the months to come. There seems to be no exit to the Thai stalemate any time soon.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies