Thailand’s Stunted Transition

BANGKOK – One year after Thailand’s 12th military coup in its 83 years under constitutional rule, and as the controversial trial for criminal negligence of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra gets under way, the country’s future is perilously uncertain. In the months ahead, the military-enforced calm will coexist with growing anxiety about what will follow King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s nearly seven-decade-long reign. Will compromise and mutual accommodation – extremely rare in recent years, enable Thailand to reshape its contested political order – currently underpinned by an elite-driven, monarchy-centered hierarchy – to reflect better the principles of electoral democracy?

Three key factors have defined Thai politics over the past year. First, unlike tried and tested post-coup arrangements from the past, the junta that seized power last May, the National Council for Peace and Order, chose to rule directly, with the coup’s leader, General Prayut Chan-ocha, assuming the premiership, rather than appointing a recognized and capable figure to the position.

Four-star generals also fill top ministerial positions, from commerce and transport to labor and education. Even the foreign minister is a general, rather than a career diplomat. The government’s few technocrats, including the deputy prime minister and the finance minister, are holdovers from the previous coup government of 2006-2007, and they complain that they lack authority.

This approach has produced an incoherent economic strategy and vague, sluggishly implemented policy targets. But it is unlikely to change. Thailand’s new military leaders view themselves as a kind of cleanup crew, tasked with eradicating corruption, keeping politicians in line, and restoring the old order, underpinned by a symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy, with the bureaucracy handling day-to-day governance.