Thailand’s economic tailspin: why long-term military government would be a disaster

The military government in Thailand has announced that elections will take place after a year-long mourning period for King Bhumibol. But the elections appear to lack democratic values.

By Oliver Ward

In the wake of the King’s death on October 13th, the military government under Prayut has postponed hopes of an election until the country’s year-long mourning period is over. Also, despite rumours from the political elite that the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 64, is ready to make his succession in December, no official coronation ceremony can take place for at least 12 months.

And when the long-awaited elections do arrive in Thailand, they will only carry the illusion of democracy. Prayut has threatened to execute journalists, blocked defamatory websites and many critics, such as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck´s brother) and former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, are living abroad in exile.

With this flight of political opposition it looks inevitable that Prayut will win an election. But what can we expect from the junta once they are “elected” and retain power?

Economic stagnation

Since the turn of the millennium, Thailand has had three military governments. Each time, social stability has been maintained while economic growth has stagnated or declined.  But historically, this stability for Thailand means budget constraints and pressure on anti-government critics. The military governments of Surayud Chulanont and Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2006 and 2008 respectively, both pursued the same political objectives; appointing well-known and trusted businessmen to posts in the government while suppressing dissent.

Prayut’s government is cut from the same cloth. Reports have been emerging of the Thai army arresting their critics under sedition laws and military repression has become a daily fact of life. Various dissident websites are blocked, and Thaksin Shinawatra went as far as saying in an interview that he would not feel safe returning to Thailand out of fear for his life.

So could economic growth be achieved under a Prayut government that restricts freedom in this way? Without supporting and trusting networks outside of his cabinet’s small political circle meaningful bureaucratic reform would be impossible – leaving behind an inflated and centralised state government.  This would stunt technological innovation, and the only growth policy that could be rolled out would be an effort to attract foreign investment. Even in the most optimistic scenario, this could only produce low to moderate growth.

It seems obvious then that Thailand will continue to pin its hopes on the tourism industry. But after the August bombings of holiday resorts by suspected Malay extremists it could see a drop in tourist numbers, and with it a crumbling economy.

The erosion of democracy

Following a public referendum in August, the country agreed on a new constitution which has only served to strengthen the incumbent government. The amendments have included the formation of extra-parliamentary bodies which have the authority to remove political opposition if they are deemed unsuitable or their policies are considered unconstitutional. It is essentially a judicial form of the lèse majesté law. The power held by the King under Bhumibol, and his ability to prosecute his critics, has legally passed to the junta and Prayut.

Meanwhile, a string of legal lawsuits against pro-Thaksin politicians is already underway as the junta look to shore up their power in the wake of the king´s death. Once the military legitimizes their government through superficially free elections, the one-party state is consolidated and any semblance of a strong democracy with political discussion will evaporate.

A more modern monarch?

Though his voice waned as his health deteriorated, King Bhumibol played an active role in Thai politics. He threw his weight behind governments where appropriate and enjoyed success in his agricultural reforms and development projects. However, with education improving in Thailand and a more progressive mindset, many people are ready for a more modern, constitutional monarch.

Bhumibol’s son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not command the same respect as his father. His lifestyle so far has caused concern for some members of society, and a cable leaked by Wikileaks suggested the Thai privy council worried about his lack of political savvy and inability to manage finances.

And so, despite his clear role in the Thai system, the military regime may not be able to shelter under his authority when legitimizing their government as government past did with his father. Bhumibol earned his near demi-god status after decades of hard work. The Crown Prince is not there yet.

All things considered, this continued oppression and uncertainty have put Thailand in an economic slump with no guarantee of a way out following next year’s elections. And if the incumbent government does take victory and cement their power through constitutional change, the authoritarian regime once justified by civil unrest looks to be a permanent fixture.