Unique military dictatorship
- In Thailand, the army proposes and the king disposes—not the other way around
Feb 12, 2019-
When last Friday Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, a sister of the king of Thailand, applied to be a candidate for prime minister in upcoming elections, she threw an already intricate political scene for a loop. Ms. Ubolratana would run for Thai Raksa Chat, one of two parties affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, both former prime ministers who were democratically elected and then deposed in military coups, he in 2006 and she in 2014.With that, Ms. Ubolratana seemed to directly take on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who heads the junta that staged the 2014 coup, and himself a candidate for prime minister on the ticket of the pro-military Phalang Pracharath Party. Mr. Prayuth, who seised power vowing to “worship and protect the monarchy,” has fended off a return of the Shinawatras—who remain popular, especially among the rural poor, despite convictions for corruption.
Within hours, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun was declaring that his sister’s nomination would be “inappropriate” and that it ran against the “intention of the Constitution” because members of the royal family were “above politics.”
A frenzy of commentary erupted on Thai social media.
Beyond this theorizing and all the jostling yet to come, the extraordinary developments of last week—actually, of the last months—reveal that Thailand is a military dictatorship like no other. It is a military dictatorship under royal command.
Whatever happens after the voting in March—whether civilian parties win, or military forces do, or some combination of both form a government together—the election will not bring democracy back to Thailand. What this election will do, however, is lay bare the mechanisms that really drive Thai politics. Contrary to a commonly held view, the military is not in charge. In Thailand, the army proposes and the king disposes, not the other way around.
After repeatedly delaying the next election, Mr. Prayuth seemed to bank that his party could do well in the contest and earn some measure of popular legitimacy. He might even remain prime minister. Under the military-drafted Constitution of 2017, after a general election, the prime minister is to be chosen by a simple majority of the legislature. Since the Constitution also provides that the senate’s 250 members are to be selected by the junta, it would appear that Mr. Prayuth’s party (and allies) could get to name the next prime minister if they
win just 126 seats out of the 500 in the lower house.
But the military only nominates senators; the king must validate the selection. The royal signature is required before almost all executive appointments and pieces of legislation can go through—in other words, the king of Thailand has veto power on most major matters. And it’s impossible to predict how that power might be used.
Still, one pattern has emerged so far: King Vajiralongkorn has defied expectations by steadily—and, one could say, aggressively—exerting these royal prerogatives since he ascended to the throne in late 2016, following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
First, he delayed the promulgation of the 2017 Constitution by refusing to sign it—a condition for its entry into force—until the text was amended as he requested. One of those changes redefined the role of the Privy Council, a powerful advisory body headed by Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda—a key ally of King Bhumibol and a former prime minister—stripping it of its power to act as regent.
King Vajiralongkorn also radically changed the composition of the Privy Council. And he has obtained amendments to both the Sangha Act, which governs the Buddhist monastic order, and the law that governs the Crown Property Bureau, the body that manages the royal family’s huge wealth. All of these changes have strengthened his authority.
Mr. Prayuth faces other challenges as well. Last month, King Vajiralongkorn named Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, a member of his personal guard, to the Crown Property Bureau—this, after having already appointed General Apirat as the new army chief, even though such promotions traditionally are the preserve of the military. King Vajiralongkorn also delayed signing the junta’s decree announcing the March election, publicly putting the generals in an uncertain and awkward position in the meantime.
Perhaps more significant, he has deprived the military of one of its main tools of repression: Thailand’s extremely severe lèse-majesté law. The junta had been using it—in military courts operating under its control—to prosecute political opponents. But the king instructed the army to stop, and no new case appears to have been filed in 2018.
With these moves, King Vajiralongkorn isn’t just putting in place his own version of his late father’s system of rule—what some academics have called the “network monarchy”: an alliance of royalists, senior bureaucrats and business people loyal to the king. He is entrenching, through long-lasting legal changes, a deep monarchical state.
The implications for the upcoming election are plain. The other pro-Shinawatra party on the scene, Pheu Thai, has won every election since 2001 and it may well win again in March (despite deciding not to field candidates who would compete with its ally Thai Raksa Chat—whose own chances now seem slim after Ms. Ubolratana’s attempted candidacy). But even if Pheu Thai then manages to form a government—with or without other, minor, parties—its fortunes will be in the hands of various oversight bodies dominated by the military.
The Constitution empowers the National Strategy Committee, which oversees a 20-year strategic development plan, to challenge any government that fails to comply with the plan’s objectives. The constitutional court can also dismiss any government, as well as dissolve any political party, for even minor regulatory breaches: In 2008, it removed from office a popular prime minister for hosting cooking shows on television, deeming that petty payments he received in compensation violated a rule against cultivating extracurricular business interests.
And there can always be a coup. The king’s new army chief, a key player in the 2014 overthrow, hasn’t excluded the possibility of another military takeover in the case of unrest—read: should that be necessary to protect the monarch. In the past, the Shinawatras have seemed too popular, and perhaps too effective at delivering some public services.
And so it is that on the eve of a long-awaited election, Thailand’s curious political system—the military tutelage of civilian politics, but under royal command—seems more entrenched than ever.
— © 2019 The New York Times
Published: 12-02-2019 11:03