BANGKOK — Eleven months after overthrowing a democratically elected government, the military junta that seized control of Thailand is growing comfortable in power — and many Thais, battered by 15 stormy years of democracy, are not complaining.
The junta has given Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief-turned-prime minister, almost unbridled power and has let its road map for returning to a system of “Thai-style democracy,” involving a new constitution and elections, veer off course. Officials are talking about a poll in early 2016, though recent murmurs suggest they may need two or three years to return stability to Thailand, a U.S. ally that once had one of the most dynamic and competitive economies in Southeast Asia.
“If the situation remains like this, I can tell you that I will hold onto power for a long time,” Prayuth told reporters late last month. “Why is there all this fuss about elections?
“Will anyone die” if there are no elections? he asked.
The opposition is lying low, figuring the best way to be effective is to give the generals enough rope to hang themselves; on the streets of Bangkok, there is little discernible dissatisfaction with Prayuth’s putsch.
“I think General Prayuth is what we need right now. We need someone who’s going to be strong,” a coffee vendor in central Bangkok said as she mixed condensed milk into the strong brew at her cart. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of getting “in trouble,” even as she spoke positively of the junta’s actions.
“Anyway, we really don’t have a choice. All those politicians are not an alternative. They are not qualified for the job,” she said, waving her hand dismissively at the mere mention of the various parties that have been jockeying for power.
Many Thais are disillusioned with democracy after the Shinawatras: Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire who won election as prime minister in 2001 but was overthrown in 2006 and fled into exile amid allegations of widespread corruption, and his sister (and proxy) Yingluck Shinawatra, who Prayuth ousted in May. Yingluck has since been impeached and banned from politics for five years.
Thaksin remains a polarizing figure. He is viewed by his opponents as corrupt and, as Matthew Wheeler of the International Crisis Group characterizes it, as being “the incarnation of all the dangers of democracy.”
Indeed, after two coups in a decade and chaotic protests on the streets of Bangkok, many people are relieved that there is stability and relative calm. And for people like the coffee vendor, a mother of three trying to make ends meet, the new security rules have no effect on daily life.
But the junta, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has given itself such sweeping powers that analysts use words such as “antediluvian” and “baroque” to describe it.
This month, the junta lifted the martial law it had used to suppress dissent, only to replace it with a more draconian constitutional clause that gives the coup leader unfettered powers to do whatever he sees fit “to strengthen public unity and harmony” and to suppress any act that “undermines public peace and order.” The news media here call it “the dictator law.”
A new constitution, which would not require the prime minister to be elected, is due to be submitted to the junta’s national reform council by Friday.
“The junta wants to turn back time,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch. “They want to go back to having an invited prime minister with an NCPO junta.”
The junta has used military tribunals to try protesters and pro-democracy activists, with no right of appeal, and has suppressed political parties and banned gatherings of more than five people.
The hot-tempered Prayuth has admonished the media vigorously at every opportunity — from throwing a banana peel at one reporter during a media event to threatening last month to execute journalists who “do not report the truth.”
There also has been a sharp increase in the number of people being charged with lèse-majesté — the strict laws that punish those who say anything even slightly critical of the monarchy.
Indeed, the unspoken backdrop to the coup is an apparent desire to ensure continuity amid concerns about the ailing 87-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the throne since 1946 and is treated as something close to a deity.
Thailand is hardly a stranger to military coups — the one in May was the 19th since the monarchy relinquished absolute power in 1932 — but the latest seems momentous, analysts say.
“This is not like many of the recent coups, which were really about military entrepreneurialism,” said Chris Baker, an academic who has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years. “This time, the people were pushing it. The professional elite were howling that they had had enough of democracy. Doctors, bureaucrats, big business were all behind this.”
Even among political opponents of the junta, there is little sense of urgency about holding elections and returning to democracy.
“I’ve been trying to tell people to be patient,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, commonly called the “red shirts,” who was a member of parliament in Yingluck’s party until last year’s coup.
“If you’re in a theater, you shouldn’t just watch the first five minutes of the film; you should stay until the end. We should give Prayuth time until his road map has been carried out,” Jatuporn said in the headquarters of Peace TV, where he had hosted a daily show critical of the junta — until the junta shut it down.
The red shirts are operating on the theory that giving Prayuth time to fail is their best option.
The opposition Democrat Party is proceeding with similar reticence.
“The earlier we can return to normalcy, the better, but we need to get it right,” said Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the anti-Thaksin Democrats and prime minister for three years until Yingluck’s election.
“I don’t want Thailand a year from now, or two or three years from now, to still be debating the constitution,” he said in an interview at his party’s headquarters, referring to the junta’s efforts to draft a new constitution — Thailand’s 20th since 1932.
The junta has restricted political parties’ activities and fundraising and has put Abhisit on trial for murder over a crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010, while he was prime minister, that led to 90 deaths.
The main reason for the Democrats’ subdued behavior, like the red shirts’, is a sense that they should bide their time and let the junta continue with its road map — with the expectation it will fail to return Thailand to democracy or strong economic growth.
Thai politicians are merely being realistic, Abhisit said. “If we say that the road map is not good enough and we should have quick elections, does that get us back to democracy more quickly? Or does that lead to more uncertainty and another coup?” he asked.
But 15 years of political turmoil is taking its toll on the country.
“A big part of the Thai population just doesn’t believe in democracy or elections anymore,” said Sunai of Human Rights Watch, adding that this was not the way to push the military back into the barracks.
“The military might get intoxicated with power and make mistakes,” he said. “But more likely, we will see economic mismanagement and corruption in the Thai economy.”
Growth in the country’s economy has ground almost to a halt, with tourists and investors taking fright. That could help unite disparate political factions — a nightmarish scenario for the junta.
“The economy is important and could eventually bring people out to create a united front,” said Wheeler of the International Crisis Group. “People are feeling economic pain, so there’s at least some chance of getting away from red and yellow identity issues,” he said, referring to the color of the shirts worn by pro- and anti-Thaksin factions.
Jatuporn, the red-shirt leader, also sees this as a possibility. “At that time, there will be no colored shirts,” he said, smiling. “The people of Thailand will join together.”