Volume 21 Issue 11 November 2017

The power tussle between the Shinawatras and Thailand’s establishment has dominated the political milieu for over a decade. Bangkok’s military elite and royalists have viewed the influential political dynasty cultivated by former prime ministers Yingluck Shinawatra and Thaksin Shinawatra with scorn. Over time, this long-standing struggle did little to dent the popularity of both siblings among the neglected rural and urban poor.

However, circumstances took a surprisingly bleak turn when the military junta toppled the caretaker government led by Yingluck in 2014. Since the bloodless coup, the military-led government has found countless grounds to victimize the supporters of the Shinawatras.

On September 27, 2017, the verdict delivered by Thailand’s Supreme Court against Yingluck serves as an attempt by the military junta to weaken the dynasty through political persecution. The court sentenced Yingluck to five years in prison over her failure to prevent the “fake and corruption-plagued” sale of rice under a rice-pledging scheme. The judgment was delivered in absentia as she had fled the country in late August.

The verdict was initially expected to be delivered on August 25. But Yingluck, who has repeatedly denied allegations of mismanaging the rice subsidy scheme, did not turn up at the court. Although her lawyer cited health reasons for her absence, the court was reluctant to accept the excuse. The verdict was initially delayed and an arrest warrant was issued against Yingluck.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister of Thailand and the junta chief, grew increasingly suspicious and immediately tightened border checks to prevent Yingluck from leaving the country. These measures proved to be largely ineffective as the former PM managed to slip out of the country. At first, little was known about her whereabouts. With time, Prayuth Chan-ocha capitalized on the situation to equate Yingluck’s departure as a form of political suicide. On September 28, he insisted that she had fled to Dubai where her brother has gone into self-imposed exile to evade a jail sentence for graft allegations. He vowed to bring her back to the country through diplomatic channels and police assistance.

A day before the verdict, Prayuth hinted that he knew about Yingluck’s whereabouts but chose to remain evasive until the judgment was issued. In order to prove the veracity of his claims, the PM said that he had “spies” who had provided him this information.

Copious attempts were made to investigate Yingluck’s getaway. DNA sampling was carried out from a Toyota Camry bearing a fake number plate that the former PM used to escape. A strict deadline was also issued for the relevant authorities to release the results for the DNA tests. Police officers were detained for interrogation.
While tangible steps were put in place to give Yingluck’s escape a criminal complexion, the rumour mills churned out a different story. It was widely believed that Yingluck struck a deal with the military elite as it would not have been politically expedient for them to put the former PM behind bars. However, the military-led government appeared to be using her absence to taint her political image and sully the reputation of the Shinawatras. This can be evidenced from the junta’s attorney-general’s statement on October 6 that Thaksin would be charged with royal insult and computer crimes.

Through these politically-motivated cases, the junta dealt a critical blow to the opposition. Without Yingluck, the opposition lacks adequate strength and would fail to criticize the military government’s political conduct in a trenchant manner. This could potentially give the junta a free rein in determining the affairs of the state and clamping down on pockets of dissent.

Experts on Thai politics have touted Yingluck’s departure as a critical achievement


for the military. Paul Chambers, who belongs to this set of analysts, is of the view that by pulling the former PM out of the equation, the junta has rid itself of “a potential thorn in their side who could become a martyr if jailed, or a powerful politician again if she is not.”

A major sticking point involved the military junta’s plans to delay the polls. Although the ruling junta had pledged to conduct elections in 2018, a series of amendments to the constitution guaranteed a significant role for the military in matters of governance. Prayuth has remained largely non-committal in announcing a date for the elections. He repeatedly stated that the elections may either be conducted next year or be postponed until 2019. This was not the first time that the junta chief had gone back on his word. Ever since the military takeover, the PM had promised an election and duly announced its postponement at least four times.

During his meeting with US President Donald Trump on October 3, Prayuth presented a timeline for the polls. As per the prime minister, the election date would be announced in 2018 without any further hurdles or delays. However, it would take 150 days to organize the polls as a string of laws need to be promulgated before the elections. The process is likely to be completed by November 2018. If this timeline is anything to go by, there is a strong likelihood that the polls would be conducted in March or April of 2019.

Academics and analysts have voiced objections over these unjustifiable delays. Even former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva believes this legislative process is little more than a pretext to further postpone the elections. Abhisit strongly believes that concerns over the relevant legislation are unreasonable. He urged the regime to stop producing circumstances that would make it unfavourable to hold elections.
Sirote Klampaiboon, a political scientist, echoed these sentiments. He maintained that it was possible to swiftly amend the relevant legislation as only a handful of revisions were required. Attasit Pankaew, a critic on political affairs, has argued that while a timetable may have been specified in the constitution on delaying polls, the people’s sentiments must be given significance in these matters.

Other analysts believe that an unnecessary delay in the elections could be viewed as a sign of political instability and reduce investor confidence. However, this largely depends on the manner in which these delays are justified by the government and how susceptible the public is to the explanation provided.

America’s growing proximity with Thailand could also serve as a disincentive for the military junta to follow the people’s agenda. Instead, there is strong likelihood that the military-led government will use its new-found foreign relations with an estranged ally to its advantage.

As Trump received Prayuth at the White House, he informed journalists that the US will begin exporting more to Thailand. Establishing trade ties will close the gap that was created between both countries when Obama drifted away from the country after the 2014 coup. Trump’s plans to bolster trade with Thailand could be billed as a concerted effort to push the country away from Chinese influence. After obtaining Washington’s seat of approval, it is unlikely that the junta will prioritize elections. Instead, it will find ways to justify delays and ignore the wishes of Thailand’s people.

In the absence of a strong opposition, it would be difficult to maintain checks and balances in Thailand’s foreign policy and ensure that electoral promises are fulfilled. The military junta would inevitably emerge as a powerful political player that has suppressed its competitors and overlooked the public mandate. This will undoubtedly have drastic consequences on the spirit of democracy and add to the disparities within an already polarized society.

The writer is a journalist and author.

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