Scot Marciel, who is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the US State Department gave testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific last week. Below are some excerpted highlights with comments:
Over the past decade, however, Thailand has grappled with an internal political debate that has increasingly divided not only the political class but society as a whole. Describing this complex debate would take more time than we have today, but in the simplest terms it is between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose approach to politics and governance gave him significant influence but also made him a polarizing figure. The debate also reflects deeper conflicts between different segments of society based both on socio-economic status and on geography. For the past ten years, Thai politics has been dominated by debate, protests, and even occasional violence between these groups competing for political influence. These divisions led to a coup in 2006 and again, unfortunately, last month.
This latest coup came at the end of six months of renewed, intense political struggle between rival groups that included months-long demonstrations in the streets of Bangkok and occupations of government buildings. Efforts to forge a compromise failed, and on May 22 the armed forces staged a coup. Military leaders argued that the coup was necessary to prevent violence, end political paralysis, and create the conditions for a stronger democracy.
Our position during the past decade of turbulence, and specifically during the recent six months of turmoil, has been to avoid taking sides in Thailand’s internal political competition, while consistently stressing our support for democratic principles and commitment to our relationship with the Thai nation. On numerous occasions, we publicly and privately stated our opposition to a coup or other extra-constitutional actions, stressing that the only solution in a democracy is to let the people select the leaders and policies they prefer through elections. We consistently communicated that message directly to Thai officials, at high levels, through our Ambassador in Bangkok and during the visits of senior State Department officials to Thailand, as well as through both high-level and working-level military channels.
When the coup nonetheless took place, we immediately reiterated our principled opposition to military intervention. Beginning with Secretary Kerry’s statement on May 22, we have consistently criticized the military coup and called for the restoration of civilian rule, a return to democracy, and full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. We have told Thai officials that we understood their frustration with their long-standing political problems, but also stressed that coups not only do not solve these problems, but are themselves a step backwards.
Initially, we held out hope that – as happened with the 2006 coup – the military would move relatively quickly to transfer power to a civilian government and move towards free and fair elections. However, recent events have shown that the current military coup is both more repressive and likely to last longer than the last one. The ruling military council has continuously summoned, detained, and intimidated hundreds of political figures, academics, journalists, online commentators, and peaceful protesters. It continues to censor local media sources and the internet, and has in the past weeks blocked international media as well. Actions by military authorities have raised anxiety among minority groups and migrant workers living within Thailand. For example, recent reports indicate that close to 200,000 Cambodian workers have fled Thailand out of fear that the military council will crack down on undocumented workers.
The military government has said that it will appoint an interim government by September, and has laid out a vague timeline for elections within approximately 15 months. Its stated intention, during the period of military rule, is to reduce conflict and partisanship within society, thereby paving the way for a more harmonious political environment when civilians return to control. Meanwhile, the military government has begun a campaign to remove officials perceived to be loyal to the previous government. Many board members including chairs (mostly appointed by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) of Thailand’s 56 state owned enterprises have been strongly encouraged to resign their positions in favor of military-selected replacements. Rapid, sweeping changes are being proposed in the energy and labor sectors, and greater foreign investment restrictions are being considered in industries like telecommunications.
We do not see, however, how the coup and subsequent repressive actions will produce the political compromise and reconciliation that Thailand so desperately needs. We do not believe that true reconciliation can come about through fear of repression. The deep-rooted underlying issues and differences of opinion that fuel this division can only be resolved by the people of Thailand through democratic processes. Like most Thai, we want Thailand to live up to its democratic ideals, strengthen its democratic institutions, and return peacefully to democratic governance through elections.
BP: So we have another coup and we will have a new constitution and then another election sometime, but coup supporters seem to believe this will be the coup that will solve problems where previous coups have failed. As opposed to the softer coups of 1991 and 2006, this coup is more repressive and BP agrees it is likely to last longer. Coups – whether soft or hard coups – are part of the problem. Someone always intervenes and the cycle is reset again.
Paul Chambers in WSJ:
Why did the 2014 coup take so long to happen? It could have been carried out when demonstrations began in November 2013. However, in late 2013 and early 2014 Thailand’s generals and palace courtiers were divided about what course of action to follow. With no clear instructions, the troops stayed in barracks.
By May, however, arch-royalists composed of persons from the palace, privy council, judiciary and the Eastern Tigers faction coalesced to jettison the Yingluck government. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) was established shortly thereafter, headed by Army Commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Most of the NCPO army leaders are members of the Eastern Tigers faction, though some belong to Wongthewan.
Today, Gen. Prem’s arch-royalist military faction continues to dominate the military in conjunction with the Eastern Tigers. The 2006 coup placed this clique in the military’s top positions while the 2014 putsch sustained and reinforced their power.
By casting Mr. Thaksin in the role of bogeyman, the senior brass has rationalized a leading role for itself. But Thailand remains highly polarized over Mr. Thaksin’s hold over popular politics and repression only increases sympathy for him. The military is itself divided with many lower ranking officers supporting the former prime minister.
This dynamic will make it impossible for the military to return real power to an elected government in the foreseeable future. Even if civilian government resumes, the generals will continue to exercise control from behind the scenes. The hard choices that could lead to reconciliation and political development are unlikely to be addressed until the next monarch is securely on the throne.
First, the social order campaign has provided a popularity boost to the junta, but to maintain this beyond six months will be difficult. Most Thai governments enjoy a three to six month honeymoon period. The Bangkok Post in an editorial:
There should be little surprise that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has garnered public approval for its first month in office. The Suan Dusit Poll reported last weekend that 72.7% of those questioned thought “the country has a better atmosphere”. It’s rather a typical response. A month after Yingluck Shinawatra was appointed prime minister in 2011, polls gave her a 73% approval rating. The 2006 coup-maker, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, scored 84% approval in the first Suan Dusit poll.
However, to be successful in a social order campaign when you are cracking down on so many things simultaneously won’t be easy. Announcing a crackdown and succeeding are two different things. While some, like Veera of the Bangkok Post, are overjoyed that mini-vans at Victory Monument have been removed, moving the vans a number of kilometres away will inconvenience anyone who uses them and has it really solved the traffic problems at Victory Monument?* An announcement of a crackdown is popular and easy to do, but for those crackdowns that affect ordinary voters expect views to change (it is not as if the junta is consulting with various groups to find the best solution; it is imposing the solution). Cracking down on mafia though will be more popular, but again it is easier said than done.
Second, on the timing, Prayuth on Friday:
On the Roadmap and a timeframe for NCPO’s national administration, it has now become clearer. Phase 1 has lapsed 37 days since 22 May (as of 27 June 2014). On constitutional issues, a provisional constitution has been drafted for the purpose of national administration in accordance with a principle of good governance. The aim is to establish the National Reform Council to reform the country in all dimensions and pave way for an adoption of a Constitution, which will be drafted by principally taking into account recommendations of the National Reform Council.
The drafting of the provisional constitution has been completed and it is being vetted by legal experts. It will be sent back to the NCPO for re-examination in case any amendment is needed. After the NCPO has finished with necessary amendment, the draft provisional constitution will be forwarded for Royal Endorsement and should enter into force by this coming July.
· In the Phase 2, after the invocation of the provisional constitution in July, it will take approximately one month for establishment of the National Legislative Assembly and the Cabinet which could carry out duties in September 2014.
· As for the National Reform Council, since the members of the Council will be selected from all sectors from every province, it will take approximately 2 months from the date the provisional constitution entered into force. It is expected that the National Reform Council will start performing their duties in early October 2014.
· According to the provisional constitution, reforms led by the National Reform Council will include areas such as political, economic, social, environmental, energy, judicial process and other matters.
· The National Reform Council will draw up recommendations for the constitution drafting committee, and the committee has to finish drafting the Constitution in around 10 months from the date the National Reform Council is established, or in around 12 months from the date the provisional constitution is announced, which is by July 2015.
· In Phase 3, after the Constitution is in force, it signifies that Thailand has a fully democratic regime with His Majesty the King as Head of the State. Nevertheless, the NCPO needs another 3 months to organise the election of Members of Parliament. National administration will be under the framework of the new constitution, which is an outcome of all-inclusive reforms. The NCPO wishes that a free and fair general election be held under the constitution, to lay a strong foundation for a fully functioning democracy devoid of political conflicts. A reform process takes time. But by 2015, we should have an elected government in place. We need to live in the present, learn from the past, and move forward together to the future.
BP: No mention of a constitution referendum – as flagged here – but will the junta really not have a referendum? No doubt they view that passing a referendum will be difficult, but it would be a colossal political mistake not to have one as it would would give the junta some semblance of legitimacy. Not holding a referendum will hand an issue to those opposed to the coup (although still unlikely to see protests in the next 2-3 months as view we need to wait until we see who makes up the NLA and National Reform Council as well as who is the PM and in the Cabinet and only then do you have the chance of pushback by coup opponents and the chances of protests will only increase if the proposed constitutional reform limits the value of votes of rural and urban poor by allowing for functional constituencies/professional organization constituencies or other similar measures). From what BP understands, the junta will review the draft interim constitution within the next day or so it could still be changed to allow for a referendum.
The above timeline by Prayuth is very optimistic and seems for public consumption only. It is hard to see an elected government before 2016 UNLESS the junta itself is somehow removed….
*Although, having said that, after writing the above, the actual implementation as described in this article is quite different from the initial plan and seems much more practical so maybe the junta did listen to the criticism….