Four years since a junta-led coup brought General Prayuth Chan-ocha to power in Thailand, the military government appears to have found an unlikely role model for some lessons in democracy: exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
With the junta under growing pressure to hold elections – it has promised a vote in February 2019, but has postponed polls on several occasions – it has ramped up spending in controversial development policies that appear tailor-made to appeal to rural voters, the same demographic that once cemented Thaksin’s power base.
Ironically, some of the programmes bear an uncanny resemblance to the schemes rolled out between 2001 and 2006 by Thaksin, who at the time was attacked by Thai elites and the military for populism.
Before he was overthrown in a 2006 coup, Thaksin had focused his development strategy on rural areas, offering low-interest loans and other incentives to stimulate small and medium-sized enterprises in the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) programme, which is still in place today. This made him very popular in the north and northeast to the extent that the parties he supported have won every election since 2001 – despite the tycoon living in self-imposed exile since being sentenced in 2008 to two years in prison for corruption.
Observers say the junta has borrowed from Thaksin’s playbook with its latest programmes, which appear equally geared towards rural populations.
“It is a campaign to make the army party popular among the Thai people,” said Rangsiman Rome, a pro-democracy activist and leader of the Democracy Restoration Group who was arrested on Tuesday for taking part in demonstrations marking the fourth anniversary of the 2016 coup that brought Prayuth to power. “They are trying to copy Thaksin because they want people to feel positive about the government’s policies and vote for Prayuth.”
One of the most controversial policies is the Thai Niyom Yangyuen programme, roughly translated as “sustainable Thainess”. The scheme is aimed at gathering information in villages about the main development needs of the country. However, the programme also includes “attitude adjustments” and the dissemination of (only vaguely defined) ideas such as “national unity” or “Thai-style democracy”.
“Thai Niyom is not nationalism or patriotism,” Prayuth said in a January national address. “Reform must be based [on the concept] of Thainess without ignoring global practices and international norms. This is the meaning of Thai Niyom.”
Although most Thais, Rangsiman said, are still unclear what exactly Thai Niyom means.
Since the policy was launched in February, thousands of officials have visited villages across the country to teach technology and literacy, but also Thai-style democracy, a term coined by Prayuth. “Our country cannot afford any more conflicts. We certainly must have democracy. But it is Thai-style democracy. We must not break the rules,” he said. This so-called Thai-style democracy is reflected in the new constitution, Thailand’s 20th since 1932, which was approved by referendum in 2016. The new legislation establishes a senate fully nominated by the military and allows a non-MP to become the prime minister during a five-year transitional period after elections.
The programme, which has a budget of 100 billion baht (US$3.1 billion), also includes small grants for development projects of up to 200,000 baht. But the programme may have backfired because while it officially closed on May 20, many villages are still waiting for their projects to be approved.
“We submitted a project for road construction and a radio transmitter but haven’t received an answer,” said a financial adviser of a project in Chonburi province.
The government also announced a five-year, 700 billion baht national reform plan to develop provincial areas, and embarked on a 20-year plan to modernise the country dubbed “Thailand 4.0”.
“No matter what system the government comes from, a democracy or a coup d’etat … most governments in the world tend to overspend,” said Piti Srisangnam, an economics professor at Chulalongkorn University. “Governments that came into power through a coup also need to do it, because they don’t want people to feel that they make the economy go in the wrong direction”.
These policies come amid mounting pressure for the military to call elections – which have been promised for February 2019 after being postponed several times since the military overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, on May 22, 2014.
The policies of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the official name of the junta government, “don’t have very broad support”, said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a scholar of Thai politics at the University of Bristol.
“Their economic policies and the forest encroachment policy are purposed for urban Bangkok elites, or the old establishment, but they hurt the majority [of people]. And that is why after four years, the NCPO [knows] that if they hold an election, they are going to lose,” he said.
Critics say the programmes are a way for the junta to spread its political message to circumvent its own law prohibiting electoral campaigning, which it banned in 2015, while it silences rivals. This week, three politicians with Pheu Thai, a party linked to Thaksin, were charged with sedition for holding a press conference last week which criticised the NCPO policies.
The government last month also approved the State Financial and Fiscal Discipline Act. The law bans the implementation of populist programmes.
Nevertheless, the new law cannot be implemented in practice since it doesn’t state any penalties for wrongdoers, Chulalongkorn University’s Piti said. “[If they approved penalties], this would create a deadlock for themselves.”
For Rangsiman, many of the junta’s economic policies are ill-defined and rushed, and might have long-term consequences. “Thaksin’s policies were more clear and people saw many things change. This is why people like Thaksin. But Prayuth doesn’t have a clear policy. We know nothing about the future that people will get.” ■