IT’S been a tumultuous week in Thai politics. One more in a line of many.
The conviction of former Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra on charges of negligence has effectively ended the political career of one of Thailand’s most charismatic opposition leaders. And More than three years on from the coup that deposed Yingluck, the military junta seems more entrenched than ever and is showing little sign of wanting to relinquish power.
Despite promises to hand over the reins within 18 months of seizing them by force, the military still holds ultimate power and the country is yet to return to its democratic status.
Elections have routinely been met with postponements and delayed, despite the junta promising the country would go to the polls no later than the end of 2015.
Given the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October and the mandatory 12-month mourning period that follows, elections cannot be held until during this time and are now slated to take place next year.
But with the promise of an election looming in 2018, self-appointed prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha is showing signs he may not be ready to surrender power just yet.
In recent months, Prayuth has been engaging in what can only be described as a campaign tour. Visiting the rural far reaches of the country, shaking hands with civil servants, and having photo ops with farmers.
According to Reuters, Prayuth has visited six provinces since August, including places traditionally considered important battlegrounds for elections. Such trips with his cabinet will now be monthly.
To put that into perspective, in the previous three years, he had only taken two such trips outside Bangkok.
The start of a new Facebook page appears to be attempting to paint the military strongman as a kinder, more electable leader. Pictures of him greeting children, giving alms to monks, and mingling with the everyday man are garnering social media buzz the likes of which would make any politician happy.
With political activity suspended until well after the cremation of the King, Prayuth is really the only person who can capitalise on this impromptu display of “patriotism”, claiming the tours are to make people “love the country” and flatly refusing to acknowledge it has anything to do with his own popularity.
But having the political playing field to himself is something Prayuth should be comfortable with, as he has made repeated efforts to dismantle any credible form of opposition and oppress dissent.
Immediately after Yingluck Shinawatra was sentenced on Wednesday to five years jail for her role in a rice subsidy scheme, a new law was introduced to prevent the former PM from appealing against her conviction.
The law, which requires Shinawatra to appear in court in person to appeal, came into immediate effect on Friday. Given that she fled the country last month to avoid incarceration, the new measure has essentially ended Shinawatra’s political career and deprived the Thai political landscape of one of its most charismatic and popular figureheads.
Being the opposition in Thailand is no easy feat. Those politicians who lead just a few years back are rarely heard from, and for fairly good reason. Any opposition that is voiced can be quickly and effectively shut down under the military’s strict draconian lese majeste and computer crime laws, both of which have been used regularly to quash any sign of dissent.
Prominent “red shirt” leader – supporters of the Shinawatra family – Jatuporn Prompan was jailed in July for charges dating back to 2010. Despite two courts dismissing the charges in 2012 and 2014, the Supreme Court revived the charges leading to a one-year sentence for defaming a former prime minister.
While Prayuth cannot technically run for election, as to do so he would have had to resign by July, the junta has done a good job of ensuring there are mechanisms in place that allow them to retain power in some capacity or another.
The constitution, penned by junta-appointed charter drafters, does give him an opening to claim the seat of prime minister. The generals have used this version to give themselves powers — long after they have formally stepped down — to choose MPs and even prime ministers.
If the winning party fails to get enough votes for its candidate in the 500-member lower house of parliament, an “outside prime minister” can be brought in. This person would have to gain the approval of at least half of the lower house, and also the support of the 250-member upper house which is almost exclusively junta appointed.
In a recent weekly national address – which all free television channels are required to broadcast – Prayuth had a message for those critics who think he will try to stay in power.
“We do not wish to control politics or democracy for the next 10 to 20 years. For those who think that of us, I do not consider them to be Thai,” he said, as reported by Khaosod English.
But his attempt to reassure critics of his commitment to democracy fell flat. Especially as he went on to claim that the ruling junta had gained an air of legitimacy in the international community and that people valued “peacefulness and orderliness” above all else.
Buoyed by an invitation to the White House from US President Donald Trump, it is understandable where he gets this idea of international support from. And with a current approval rating of 53 percent at home, it might be enough to keep Prayuth Chan-ocha around for a few more years yet.