Thai Junta Seeks a Silent Spring

8 MINS READFeb 4, 2015 | 13:48 GMT
Thai soldiers patrol at the Army Club in Bangkok on May 20.
Thai soldiers patrol at the Army Club in Bangkok on May 20.

Now in its eighth month of military rule, Thailand has begun 2015 amid an atmosphere of simmering discontent. This month will mark the beginning of what has been Thailand's annual spring protest season, a time when northern and northeastern rice farmers have proved more willing to leave their fallow fields to take their grievances to the streets of Bangkok. This year, however, the protest season is likely to be a period of relative calm. Since taking power in May, the military junta led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has imposed martial law, a move that has largely succeeded in preventing the opposition Red Shirts from mobilizing.

This pressure has also compelled the dominant opposition leader, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to lie low for the foreseeable future. Most important, the junta appears firmly in control ahead of the impending royal succession process. This limits the risk that the looming death of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej will open up a competition for the throne that could further inflame Thailand's myriad internal political flashpoints. In spite of a relatively placid near term for Thailand, the long-term risks of domestic instability and economic uncertainty are still quite high.

On Jan. 23, the military-appointed legislature retroactively ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's younger sister, and indicted her for failing to prevent irregularities in her government's disastrous rice-pledging scheme. Yingluck is now banned from office for five years and faces possible jail time. Most likely, however, the government will allow Yingluck to join her brother in self-imposed exile in keeping with the traditional treatment of ousted Thai leaders. In either case, the move furthers the military junta's goal of dismantling the Shinawatra family's political machine and signaling to the opposition movement that it should move forward without Thaksin, whom the Bangkok establishment has long seen as the true threat to Thailand's political order.

In past protest seasons, Thaksin proved capable of mobilizing his Red Shirt supporters to fight back against establishment attempts to eradicate his influence in Thai politics. Mass Red Shirt uprisings in 2009 and 2010 ended in bloody military crackdowns, while escalating violence between pro- and anti-Thaksin camps in May 2014 gave the military the pretext to stage the recent coup. Although they showcased Thaksin's enduring power, these uprisings ultimately failed to pave the way for his return. The opposition's muted response to Yingluck's Jan. 23 impeachment indicates that the military has succeeded in reducing Thaksin's options and pacifying his supporters for the immediate future.

Thaksin's Narrowing Options

Since deposing Yingluck's Red Shirt-backed Pheu Thai government in May, the Thai military has systematically cracked down on open displays of dissent. At the same time, it has worked to weed out opposition sympathizers from the bureaucracy and security forces while methodically stripping Red Shirt organizations of their ability to meet and mobilize. For example, following visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel's criticisms of military rule, the junta detained several Red Shirt leaders the week of Jan. 26 for what it called "attitude adjustment sessions." Prayuth, the prime minister and coup leader, also banned public discussion of "sensitive topics." On Feb. 2, authorities arrested six more people for allegedly distributing anti-monarchy materials online in violation of Thailand's strict lese majeste laws. Amid these swift crackdowns, all indications suggest Thaksin is waiting for martial law to be eased before challenging the military again.

Instead, Thaksin's strategy for now is to preserve the Red Shirts' still overwhelming electoral strength by lying low until the next round of elections, expected to be held in 2016. He is counting on hopes that the junta, like past Thai military regimes, will overreach, begin to struggle with the technocratic aspects of governing and end up mired in its own corruption scandals, which would undermine its popular support. In December, Thaksin reportedly told associates visiting him in Beijing not to oppose military rule and instead allow the junta to bear the brunt of fixing Thailand's numerous economic woes. At this point, another mass Red Shirt uprising would simply give the junta a pretext to further delay elections and allow the Bangkok establishment to paint the opposition as law-breakers bent on eroding the foundations of Thai society. As long as Thaksin remains the foremost leader of the opposition — and despite some Red Shirt disenchantment with the Shinawatras, no other opposition leader has emerged to challenge him —- his strategy will hold, especially because most potential rivals are likewise eager to return to formal roles in government.

Thaksin also may expect that the looming royal succession process will give way to a power vacuum that could expose rivalries within the military and the police, a development that would fundamentally upend the established political order. At the core of Thailand's cyclical unrest over the past decade has been the declining health of King Bhumibol, whose popularity and judicious application of power over his 68-year reign have allowed the monarchy to play a balancing role among Thailand's various political powers. However, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the scandal-plagued heir apparent, does not share his father's esteem in the public's eye and is even regarded by many royalists as unfit to rule. Some instead prefer the more popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. It has long been believed that Thaksin will try to exploit these divisions and his own personal connections with the crown prince to pave the way for his own return one day. However, it appears the military has positioned itself to control the direction of events in a way that preserves its own power.

Military Control of Royal Succession

The junta is set to guide the succession process. In November, the military arrested several senior police officers of the Central Investigation Bureau who had been using their palace connections to protect their vast network of black-market enterprises. Two of the arrested were given 12-year prison sentences Jan. 30. The head of the criminal police ring is the uncle of Princess Srirasmi, the third wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Shortly after his arrest, the prince divorced the princess and stripped her and much of her family of their royal titles.

The arrests and the divorce served the junta in several ways. Cracking down on corruption in the police force and severing police-palace ties eliminates a possible powerful rival faction within the Thai security forces. (Thaksin began his career as a police officer and still has a strong support base in that institution.) Had former Princess Srirasmi taken the throne with her husband instead of losing her title, the police would have been given a powerful, direct line to the monarchy. This was just the latest of several recent moves by the junta to weaken the police force.

The princess's removal may also prevent some of the chaos that could stem from the royal succession process — disarray that could benefit Thaksin. Like the crown prince, the former princess was seen as scandal-tainted and deemed unfit by Bangkok elites. Her son, who had been publicly touted as a long-term heir to the throne, is believed to have health issues that would likewise make him unsuitable. Stratfor sources say that the divorce — and Srirasmi's presumed replacement with another of the crown prince's consorts, with whom he has another son — would make the crown prince's ascension more acceptable to the military-dominated privy council, which will oversee the succession process.

Many royalists fear that the crown prince's poor public standing will erode the power of the monarchy over the long run and prevent the palace from continuing its traditional stabilizing role. However, the junta's centralization of power could enable it to take on such a role for itself. Moreover, it stands to benefit from a weak monarch that depends on the military for power. This would fit a historical pattern. When King Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946, he did so as an unknown figure mired in the scandal surrounding the sudden death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol. Similarly, King Mahidol was initially chosen precisely because he lacked an existing base of power independent of the military and Bangkok elites. By reaching an accommodation with the current prince — and while deploying the more popular Princess Sirindhorn to maintain the prestige of the monarchy — the junta could secure a similarly favorable power dynamic and preclude a destabilizing power struggle for the throne.

Long-Term Uncertainty

Ultimately, the military will not ease its grip on power until after the royal succession takes place and it feels confident it has permanently purged Thaksin's influence from Thai politics. After King Bhumibol's death, Thailand will enter a period of state-enforced mourning, one that the military will likely use as justification to further strengthen martial law and delay elections. The junta is also in the process of rewriting Thailand's Constitution, a process tentatively expected to conclude in late 2015. Recently leaked details indicate that the military plans to permanently undermine the electoral advantages of populist leaders such as Thaksin by establishing a fully appointed Senate — the upper house of the National Assembly. The leaks also suggest a move to strengthen the courts and create mechanisms for the military to easily retake control of the government when it deems necessary.

Eventually, Thaksin may find himself left with few options except a risky mobilization of the Red Shirts to try to block the adoption of the new constitution and disrupt the military's centralization of power. Until then, however, he will continue his wait-and-see approach. In spite of projected economic benefits from low oil prices as well as robust junta-led efforts to strengthen trade ties and attract investment from throughout East and Southeast Asia, the markets remain skeptical that the military can maintain order. Continued sporadic acts of violence like the Feb. 1 pipe bomb attack in central Bangkok will do little to reassure investors or tourists. The Thai economy has continued to fall behind regional rivals, and economic missteps on par with those of past Thai military governments could quickly erode the junta's legitimacy with the public — as well as elsewhere in Thailand's rivalry-ridden military.

Amid this gloomy economic situation and the declining health of the king, Thailand will continue to be mired in an era of deep uncertainty that will deter investors and test the foundations of the long-established political order, however deftly the junta appears to be handling the most immediate threats of another stormy spring.

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