For a society that has overthrown two military dictatorships over the past two generations, what has been happening in Thailand is astonishing.
Headed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a retired general and former army chief, the current military government that seized power by force will soon reach its three-year mark in office without the kind of civil society resistance and opposition that ousted ruling generals in October 1973 and May 1992.
Whether the current Thai apathy in the face of military rule is attributable to a political culture that privileges order over liberty, and to what extent this phase of Thai political tameness extends, will be decided over the next several years.
Either Thailand will break out of its military repression and return to a system of liberalising popular rule with an open society, or it will descend firmly into military-authoritarianism in the guise of illiberal democracy, dressed up with ersatz elections and rigged rules.
The latter scenario is less unimaginable compared to the 1970s and 1990s when democratisation made considerable global inroads. Now in many parts of the world, from Malaysia to Turkey and even America, democracy and its open-society attributes are in retreat, while authoritarian tendencies are on the march.
Illiberal democracies that are equipped with political parties and elections, without the requisite basic rights and civil liberties, are having a field day.
Thailand’s case has been incredible because it once looked like a consolidating democracy only to degenerate into a full-blown military dictatorship that is having its cake and eating it, too.
Thai people everywhere must consider carefully if this is what they want. Let word spread that if they don’t do something individually and collectively about the dictatorship that hovers and towers over them, it will stay around indefinitely.
Not a week goes by without some kind of questionable government actions and top-down decision-making without public input and any semblance of accountability. The military government’s arbitrary and furtive cabinet resolution to buy Chinese submarines with vague justifications is only the latest.
Other schemes like setting up a national energy corporation and building a 14-kilometre “promenade” in a prime Bangkok area on top of the Chao Phraya River, the cradle of Siamese civilisation for 800 years, are on the table without any accountability or genuine public discourse.
As the ruling generals are accustomed to command and control, they badger and hector reporters, who are akin to the people’s proxies in the absence of elected representatives. Gen Prayut and particularly Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon answer media questions patronisingly as if journalists are a nuisance when they actually provide a useful check on government performance.
In the early months of the military government, the Thai public largely gave the benefit of the doubt to the generals who did put an end to endless street protests. There was also a once-in-a-lifetime royal transition to consider, and a military government seemed most suited to oversee this delicate interval.
But three years later, public support has waned significantly while military entrenchment has deepened. Yet the Thai people still have been docile and tame, taking a dictatorship very much in stride.
Several factors underpin Thai political docility. Being a predominantly Buddhist society facilitates acceptance and passivity in conjunction with not having been colonised in the past. The absence of colonisation precludes the need for a national liberation movement.
Former colonies with liberation movements have also put up with strongman rule, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar in Thailand’s neighbourhood. But these three countries have turned the corner and appear committed to democratic rule without a return to military coups in the foreseeable future.
Certainly, those in Thailand who dissent have been prosecuted and persecuted. Clearly, the quelling of dissent and spreading of fear are core reasons why Thais are putting up with military rule.
But this was the case leading up to October 1973 and May 1992 but it did not deter public resistance and opposition. Somehow, more Thais this time are cowering under dictatorship than in the past.
Related to fear is the lack of leadership. In social movements against military rule, only the Oct 14 uprising in 1973 was organic, spontaneous and broad-based. It was led by university students but they had wide support among other segments of society, including the media and merchants.
In May 1992, the catalyst in what was dubbed a “mobile-phone mob” was the leadership of former Bangkok governor and popular politician Chamlong Srimuang and the Bangkok middle class.
On the other hand, the protests over the past 12 years by both the yellow and red shirts were led, organised and funded by vested interests on both sides. Both movements had broad support among partisans, reflecting social divisions and polarisation, unlike 1973 and 1992 when it was a popular revolt against an entrenched and abusive military regime.
Thailand’s civilian political class is partly to blame. One side, largely led by forces aligned to and directed by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, succeeded in winning popular rule through the ballot box and having policy initiatives that catered to people’s demands and imaginations.
But they just could not avoid conflicts of interest and corruption. The other side, largely revolving around the Democrat Party, was less corrupt in terms of volume and value compared to the Thaksin regime but lacked policy innovations and failed to win popular support time and again.
The weakness of civilian rule has paid off handsomely for the military government.
If the Thai people are going to break out of the grip of military rule this time, their movement may have to be more spontaneous and involve a build-up similar to the culmination in October 1973.
This is not good for Thailand because it would likely involve a political catharsis and considerable turmoil. A better way would be some kind of civil-military compromise, as seen in Myanmar now and Indonesia in the recent past.
Nevertheless if the Thai people don’t do something about their military rule, they may well end up with a government they deserve.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
-The Bangkok Post