Is 2017 a make or break year for Thailand?

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In Thailand, elections and a return to civilian-led democracy is on the horizon. For now, the country is stable and calm, but for how long will that remain the case?

By John Pennington

2017 is set to be an important year for Thailand. King Maha Vajiralongkorn smoothly succeeded his father Bhumibol Adulyadej in December 2016. Nearly four months on, the situation in the country is calm for now.

Elections scheduled for 2017 were postponed to allow the country more time to pass election laws and amend the constitution. The new elections are now expected to be held in 2018, almost four years after the coup of May 2014. Since then, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta, has been in control, interim Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha heading up a 231-strong National Legislative Assembly.

Further delays to elections will be unacceptable

The NCPO have postponed elections every year since the coup. The Thai public responded with pro-democracy and anti-corruption protests, although the NCPO swiftly reacted with arrests and detentions.

Almost three years on from the coup, with a new king on the throne, and a constitution which lays out the framework for democratic elections, any further delays are now unacceptable. Anti-junta campaigns have died down since people defied bans to protest in 2015 and 2016, but Thailand cannot remain in limbo for much longer.

The junta’s hard line against Yingluck Shinawatra could cause instability

In October 2016, the junta seized former Prime Minister Yinguck Shinawatra’s assets and fined her 35 billion baht. Overthrown in 2014, she was charged with criminal negligence. “In terms of the order, it is not right and it is not just,” she said. If found guilty, she could face up to 10 years in prison.

The junta deny they are singling out the Shinawatra family in a bid to limit their influence but experts don’t believe them. “It is par for the course of the military coup which was to put down the Thaksin (Shinawatra) challenge once and for all,” Chulalongkorn University political science professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, said.

Yingluck remains popular, and the junta know they must tread carefully

Immediately following the coup in 2014, Yingluck was arrested, although she was released soon after. She remains a divisive, yet well supported figure, particularly in the poorer north and northeast of the country. Her imprisonment could easily lead to her supporters stepping up protests against the regime.

The junta are well aware of this. As Yingluck headed off on a recent tour of rural Thailand, government spokesman Colonel Whintai Suvaree admitted, “The public might rebel if they think she is being treated unfairly.”

The junta has taken a consistently hard line against Yingluck and her allies. By doing so, they have exacerbated the political and social divisions that are responsible for the continued political instability. Reconciliation is unlikely in the near future.

The junta has failed to impose itself among Shinawatra’s support base

Rural Thailand delivers the Shinawatras the majority of their support base, yet they receive little support from the junta. It is perhaps unsurprising that the junta recently met with officials from Pheu Thai, Shinawatra’s party, as part of reconciliation talks.

The junta were recently forced to put plans for a new power plant on hold following protests by residents and their attempts to arrest Phra Dhammajaya, leader of Thailand’s biggest Buddhist sect, met with failure. Such failures serve only to increase pro-Shinawatra, anti-junta sentiment.

All the while, Thailand’s economy is slowing. Growth has stalled. Unemployment is going up. Inflation is low but the cost of living is high. The links between political instability and economic instability and lack of confidence are clear. Since 2010, Thailand’s economic growth rate has decreased from 5.4% to 3.1%.

Reconciliation talks may go nowhere

Reconciliation talks between parties on both sides of the divide are underway but there is no guarantee they will work. For example, political party representatives were not allowed to discuss the constitution before it was passed. They were not allowed to fully express their concerns.

However, if they are productive, then Thailand as a country will benefit. Critics claim that the new constitution, rather than returning Thailand to a true democracy, will simply further entrench the military’s control. Reconciliation talks achieving very little is a real possibility, further fanning the flames of discontent and increasing the chances of anti-junta protests.

The new king is not prepared to allow the military to rule unchecked

The new king has attempted to consolidate his own power base by rejecting amendments to the constitution proposed by the military. For example, he does not want to have to name a regent when he is not in the country. That would check any designs Prayut has on effectively ruling in Maha’s absence. Analysts report that Prayut’s grip on power is slipping.

However, this has increased the risk of further instability, mainly from incumbent elites who feel that their interests are under threat as Maha confers responsibilities on younger men. Such intervention from the new king is a marked difference from the way his father operated. Lengthy power struggles between the monarchy and the military will further delay elections and bring about more ill will towards those in power.

The coming months could define Thailand’s future

As it has done for much of the 21st century, Thailand, a country of many competing factions, teeters on the edge. In the coming months, the country could witness protests and anarchy or progress towards democracy, prosperity, and equality.

With so many parties involved in the maintenance of an uneasy peace, it is the actions of those holding power and influence in the coming months that will determine which side of history the country will end up.

Although the consequences of those actions, may not be fully seen until next year or beyond, 2017 looks sure to be the year that makes or breaks Thailand. The monarchy, the military, and the politicians all have a responsibility to set aside their differences and push for the former.