WHEN its tanks rolled into Bangkok in 2014—ousting an elected government that had been paralysed by protests—Thailand’s ruling junta promised that democracy would be back in a jiffy. Three years on, there is still no sign of the promised polls.
Instead, in mid-March, the generals treated diplomats and foreign journalists to a briefing on their “20-Year National Strategy”, a programme which, they insist, all future governments will be legally obliged to follow. It is only the latest indication that the men in uniform are here to stay.
The junta’s right to impose its master plan on Thailand is enshrined in its new constitution, which it rammed though in a referendum last year after banning campaigners from criticising the text. That document allows for fresh elections, which, after multiple postponements, are now expected in 2018.
But it also empowers a junta-stacked senate and several unusual committees to baby-sit incoming governments—which includes giving these bodies the right to intervene should elected politicians choose to pursue their own policies instead of sticking to the generals’ preordained plan.
Spin doctors had previously stated, to general mystification, that the national strategy would encompass “six areas, six primary strategies and four supporting strategies”. The latest explanation was similarly vapid: a clutch of admirable but vague aspirations, such as improving the competitiveness of the economy and promoting equality of opportunity, flecked with trendy phrases such as “green economy” and “human capital”.
The small print is to be filled out by committees, supposedly after public consultations. Cynics speculate that the details will be left woolly on purpose, to make it easier for the army to justify meddling whenever it likes.
Everyone agrees that Thailand could do with a long-term plan. Once one of South-East Asia’s economic stars, it has grown more slowly than all of its large neighbours for years. In a report released earlier this month the World Bank warned that Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam looked more competitive.
Well-connected tycoons dominate business; many schools outside the biggest cities are woeful. For years governments have splurged the largest part of their budget on the lucky residents of Bangkok and its industrial exurbs, helping to keep citizens in the outer provinces poor.
Insiders say the junta is more aware of these problems than the antics of Prayuth Chan-ocha, its cartoonish leader (pictured, at centre, in khaki), suggest. So far it has propped up growth through tax cuts, transfers and temporary incentives to boost consumer spending. But it looks incapable of instigating the contentious reforms that a 20-year plan should entail.
It has been successful at squelching opposition in Thailand’s rural heartland, but remains beholden to a narrow urban clique determined to preserve its privileges. It introduced an inheritance tax in 2015, but only after greatly diluting the original proposal; a plan to tax land is crawling along.
Moreover, the junta’s schemes increasingly appear hostage to the whims of Thailand’s new monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, whose motives remain uncertain. He has already wrong-footed the generals twice: first, by choosing not to accede to the throne for a month after his father’s death last October; second, by ordering changes to sections of the junta’s constitution that lightly limited the palace’s ill-defined powers. (Those redrafts are now awaiting the king’s approval, one of several ways in which bigwigs have continued to tinker with the charter even though the electorate is supposed to have signed off on it.)
Lately the king has been purging and promoting court officials. Perhaps 20 people have left his service; cryptic notes in the Royal Gazette say they were dismissed for foibles including “procrastination” and “arrogance”; one “lacked enthusiasm”.
In February the palace announced that Jumpol Manmai, a senior aide, had been sacked for “extremely evil behaviour”. He was later photographed with his head shaven, once a common punishment for Thais who offended the sovereign.
Some have taken this episode as a sign that the army and the palace are in fact rubbing along: Mr Jumpol was once thought close to Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister whom the generals and their backers abhor. But the junta may well worry that the king will seek to use an annual army reshuffle, due in September, to shake up their ranks too.
The only way to secure Thailand’s next two decades is to defuse the quarrel that lies at the heart of its political strife: a sporadically violent class war that has pitted well-off urbanites, royals and soldiers against the sometimes bumbling governments that the more numerous rural voters elect when they have a chance.
In January the generals announced that a “reconciliation panel” will hold hearings with some politicians, including members of Mr Thaksin’s party, Pheu Thai, which they have twice booted from power. The process is said to have started at the king’s initiative. The idea is that participants will eventually sign a new “social contract”.
But it is hard to see what such talks can achieve when the junta is still hounding Mr Thaksin and his supporters. Yingluck Shinawatra, another former prime minister who is Mr Thaksin’s sister, is still undergoing a slow trial for negligence while in office; this month the government said that a newly discovered “miracle of law” would allow it to claim 12bn baht ($360m) in taxes from Mr Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile, despite the expiry of the relevant statute of limitations.
Meanwhile the military insists that it is not an actor in Thailand’s politics, but a referee, and therefore need not take part in the reconciliation it is stewarding. In a remarkable feat of blindness, the soldiers still seem to believe that the dozen or so coups they have launched since the 1930s amount to a noble defence of the kingdom—and not the single biggest cause of its malaise.