CITIZENS OF Thailand would seem to have good reason these days to question the generals who have been running the country since staging a coup in May 2014. They might ask why the junta would have appointed a committee to draft a constitution reflecting its plan for a faux democracy, then induced another council they set up to vote it down, forcing a restart of the process. Thais could wonder, too, why the country’s economy remains stagnant, or why the regime has been so sluggish in responding to a terrorist bombing in central Bangkok last month.
Anyone who asks those sensible questions, however, is likely to be deemed in need of an “attitude adjustment” by the generals’ increasingly erratic leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Last week, two opposition politicians were taken into custody after criticizing the government’s economic policies; on Sunday a leading journalist, Pravit Rojanaphruk of the newspaper the Nation, was detained. The three were released Tuesday only after signing a commitment not to criticize the military’s political moves.
That would include the generals’ torpedoing of their own constitution. A handpicked committee spent nearly 10 months preparing a charter that would have restored a veneer of democracy while leaving the military in charge. Strict controls on political parties were aimed at preventing any more election victories by followers of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who have won every election in the past 15 years. An appointed senate would have had the power to block legislation, and a “crisis committee” packed with generals would have had the authority to step in and take control of the government any time it deemed it necessary.
As soon as the junta’s drafters completed this authoritarian framework, the junta-created National Reform Council voted it down. Nearly all of the council’s military and police representatives joined the negative vote, apparently acting on instruction from higher-ups. Bangkok analysts wondered what had happened. Did the military perhaps conclude that its constitution had no hope of being approved in a popular referendum? Was it wasting time on purpose, hoping that delay caused by the writing of a new draft would keep the present regime in place long enough to manage the looming transition from ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s most revered figure, to a successor?
As it stands, the elections repeatedly promised by Mr. Prayuth now will not be held until the end of 2016, at the earliest. That means, at best, more stagnation for Thailand, which began the century as a prosperous and promising democracy; at worst it could trigger an explosion of unrest and more terrorism. Anyone who dares to point that out inside Thailand, however, is likely to be subjected to a forced “attitude adjustment.” Asked who else might be arrested, Mr. Prayuth told reporters that “everyone whose comments cause division” was a potential target.
“If you let them blame me, the people and society will listen to them every day, and one day they’ll believe in the things they say,” warned the junta leader. We suspect many already do.