The U.S. diplomatic initiative in Thailand after the impeachment of former Prime Minister Yingluck raised many questions.
The post-impeachment blast by a U.S. envoy, expressed in the heart of Bangkok, probably did catch the junta by surprise, but taken in the context of events since the coup it hardly constitutes a definitive policy shift by the U.S. government.
The junta’s prickly response to the U.S. does not indicate either paranoia or oversensitivity or, as social media often likes to allege, that Prayuth has lost credibility.
Before the impeachment, the U.S. had appeared to largely come to peace with the coup. U.S. policy appeared to be tacit acceptance (or disinterest, depending on your opinion of the Obama administration’s foreign policy). The surprise raising of the issues of fairness and elections by the U.S. in the wake of the impeachment points out the piecemeal and after-the-fact U.S. policy towards events in Southeast Asia (along with the now perennial question regarding what the vaunted “pivot towards Asia” really means).
In their response to the U.S., the junta is using the strategy they used after the 2014 coup. Then, U.S. officials spread word that the U.S. might reconsider its 2015 Cobra Gold exercises with the Thai military. The junta took the initiative and pushed back, forcing a quick reversal and assurance that Cobra Gold 2015 was still going to take place. The junta’s subsequent courting of China forced the U.S. into a long silence and seeming acquiescence towards the goals of the coup-makers.
Thus, the current public push-back by the junta against the U.S. displays a confidence in dealing with criticism on a public stage and a belief that the U.S. has no option but to back down just as they did after the coup.
Within Thailand there is little sign of public restlessness (the Thai public is not quick to spontaneous political anger in any case) and, most importantly, there is little reason for Thaksin to want any trouble now.
The real story is that Thaksin and Pheu Thai Party have gone underground with little indication about a Yingluck successor or the direction of the party. Both the Nation and Bangkok Post printed establishment fantasies about what this means on their front pages (Members in the dark on future of Pheu Thai and Shinawatra clan faces end of a political era).
These are the perennial interpretations that “Thaksin must be finished.” This is the false hope that Thaksin would be abandoned by his allies and was expressed after the 2006 coup, the 2007 political party disbandings, the 2009 and 2010 sieges of Bangkok, and the surprise 2014 coup. However, it is no more true now true than it was then (although the present junta is attempting a show of resolve this time: The Yingluck Ruling in Context).
Since it has been clear from the beginning that the junta’s overriding goal is to eliminate Thaksin influence, there is no reason for Thaksin or the Pheu Thai to make their move and thus provide a target for the junta’s “reforms.”
The Thaksin strategy remains not to do anything to give a pretext for the junta to slow new elections and in the meantime hope for an interim economic slump to keep the rural Thaksin voters focused to sweep the next elections. The election victory will then be used once again to dare the military, courts etc. to check them as they edge towards amnesty and their own reforms.
Other than the outlines of the new rules of government and the constitution that will be completely rejected by the Pheu Thai and Red Shirts, the things to watch for are:
* real junta missteps such as corruption scandals, protecting their own, misuse of government aircraft (this has been a complicating scandal for past juntas)
* the state of the economy
* a violent pretext to delay elections and extend military rule
* or simply a growing confidence in the absence of public rancor that would allow Prayuth to stay in power and thus demonstrate to the political world that Thaksin is finished
The pro-Thaksin political clique’s biggest complicating fear is the call to enable Prayuth to remain in power for up to four years to complete his reforms. This idea has been prominently featured in the Thai press, but is yet little written about in the local English-language press or the international press (which cribs its information from local English-language sources anyway).
If the pro-Thaksin political front continues to display cohesion and thus the certainty of sweeping the next elections (however it is rigged by the junta’s “reforms”), then the greater the impulse will be to push for continued military rule. Every week stories are floated in the local press that seem to be testing the waters with the public for prolonged military rule.
It is important to note that this was never the military goal in the first place. The roots of the ongoing political conflict are clear. It has nothing to do with Thailand’s monarchy or the awakening of the proletariat or old elites hating the poor or not wanting “real” Thaksin-style democracy. It is all about Thaksin’s ability as a savvy and ambitious billionaire to amass power in such a way that it stepped on the prerogatives of other existing bases of power to exert their influence.
If continued military rule looks likely, the pro-Thaksin clique will have to make some tough choices. The junta is attempting to create a new political reality that says that Thaksin is finished. Their message is that political power brokers who want to participate in the spoils of government have to abandon Thaksin and play the game with the junta. If a political shift to the junta’s new order appears to be happening, or if continued military rule (and election delays) look likely, then the impulse towards flexing the muscle of the Red Shirts will rise.
Red Shirt rallies do not only warn those in power. They warn Thaksin fair-weather political allies that he has the muscle to keep them on his side. Those that transgress will feel the grassroots power that they can assert (just ask Newin Chidchob).
These eventualities are still far away. Thaksin is still betting on new elections and time is his friend as it provides chances for junta missteps and the inevitable erosion of public confidence. He will have to ensure that the international community is lined-up to oppose continued military rule and election delays.
The junta has to entice the Pheu Thai political fence sitters to make a move. However, we may never see an open split with Thaksin. Just as Prayuth’s rumored detente with Thaksin in 2013 was always an open question, it was also an attempt to appear to be on all sides and on no side. Pheu Thai allies and faction leaders, particularly Sudarat and Banharn, are masters at this. What we will see and know in public is just the echo of deals emanating from behind-the-scenes.
For now, the political world is in stasis. The junta is confident it can produce the result it wants and Thaksin is certain that intervening events and elections can contravene anything the junta puts in place.
Update: An article testing the waters for a longer Prayuth term in power: Prayut govt ‘may stay on longer’
2Bangkok.com Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.