KGOU

Chambers: Thailand Military Junta Wants Elections In Order To Strengthen Grip On Power

Feb 23, 2018

Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has called for elections several times since he took power following a military coup in 2014. And he has found a way to delay them each time.

Most recently, after initially proposing an election for November 2018, Prayuth pushed the vote back to February 2019.

Paul Chambers, lecturer and special advisor for International Affairs at the College of ASEAN Community Studies, told KGOU’s World Views that he believes the former general will move forward with elections this time.

“I think the new electoral system favors the military so much, behind the scenes, that it works in the military's favor to return to democracy,” Chambers said.

Chambers says the new Thai constitution, written by the military junta, ensures no political party can receive more than 50 percent of the vote.

“You'll have all these coalition governments and it’s always easy for someone to cajole one of these parties out of the ruling coalition and then bring another coalition to power. So basically [it’s] a very weak elected rule and that means that the monarch and military continue to dominate the country,” Chambers said.

Chambers says it is possible that a new military political party will form, even though the junta denies this. If a military party materializes and Prayuth is appointed the party’s leader, he could maintain his position as prime minister through an election.

Additionally, the military junta is developing a 20-year strategy, and elected governments must adhere to the strategy. Chambers says a committee, which includes members of the current junta leadership, sits above the 20-year strategy. The committee will audit the elected government’s progress on the strategy four times per year. If elected officials are not following the strategy, the committee can kick them out of office.

“This is sort of a military junta behind the scenes. There is certainly an elected government. But what a lot of Thai professors have said is, Thailand is following the Myanmar model, where you have a very strong military sort of behind a charade democracy. And that way, the military in Thailand, as well as the monarchy, can have the support of the West for supposedly supporting a liberal democratic system,” Chambers said.

Interview Highlights

On the backstory behind Thailand’s military takeover

In 2001, a man named Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister. He was a populist. He brought a lot of welfare programs for poor, rural people. And in a way he awakened a lot of these people to become politically active. And they saw the amount of money they could make grow through his programs. And as a result, you know, they became his loyal constituents.

Now Thaksin was also a very strong prime minister and to many people in the in the urban, more aristocratic structure, he seemed a threat. And so you saw growing friction between urban middle and upper classes and the larger number of very poor rural people who supported him. This is really the clash that developed and eventually some of the urban people saw Thaksin threatening the king. 2006 you have a military coup against Thaksin but, you know, even though the military and the aristocrats try to rewrite the constitution to make it more difficult for … large parties to come back to power, a pro-Thaksin party did come back.

And so we eventually see another military coup in 2014. And that's what Thailand is living right now, under this military coup. And it has been very authoritarian … military rule. And, you know, you've seen growing human rights violations, but you've also seen the economy really plummet, and so increasingly we're seeing a fractious support among urban people for this military government and of course very much opposition from rural people for that government.

On how the new electoral system favors the military

It will be possible for the current junta leader to act as the prime minister, an unelected prime minister, coming through an electoral system if they can if he can be nominated as the party leader. And secondly, the new junta is establishing a 20 year strategy. So every elected government has to follow that strategy. Sitting above this 20 year strategy is a committee. And on that committee is the current junta leadership. Now, four times a year the elected governments will be audited to make sure they're following that strategy, and if they are not following it they can be thrown out of office.

So this is sort of a military junta behind the scenes. There is certainly an elected government. But what a lot of Thai professors have said is, Thailand is following the Myanmar model, where you have a very strong military sort of behind a charade democracy. And that way, you know, the military in Thailand as well as the monarchy, can have the support of the West for supposedly supporting a liberal democratic system.

On the Thai economy and tourism

The economy is plummeting. Many investors have left the country because of the instability. However Thailand remains Thailand's economy remains rather robust based almost totally on tourism. Which tourism? Chinese tourism. Chinese tourism has grown upwards of 500 percent in the last five years. It's amazing. Not as much Western tourism as before, but because of all this Chinese tourism, you know, Thailand's economy is still buoyant based upon this, and it will probably continue to be buoyant as long as tourism can be guaranteed.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Chambers's position. 

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Paul Chambers, welcome to World Views.

Paul Chambers: Thank you very much for having me.

Grillot: It's great to have you here. A member of our community and longtime member of our community and a former graduate of OU, but now living and working in Thailand have been for many years. But tell us how you got there, because you served as a member of the Peace Corps. And I always love hearing about those stories, kind of how you ended up there, and in Thailand and what your experience was like.

Chambers: Well, you know I applied for Peace Corps many years ago and I didn't think I'd even get accepted. But lo and behold, suddenly I realized they wanted me to come to Thailand. And at that point I was already living in Latin America but I said, yeah, let's go. I'll go to Thailand. And I did. 1993 arrived in Thailand as a pretty young kid and it was a good experience. I was very utopian. I told them, just send me where I'm needed the most. And they sent me to the most I guess the most godforsaken part of the country. It was nice. It was a great experience for two years living in Thailand, rural Thailand, with Peace Corps.

Grillot: In the northeast part of Thailand.

Chambers: Northeast, yes. A town called Suwannaphum. Very, I would say, very underdeveloped. Very, very rural. And you know the people are so, so friendly. So kind. And I really loved Peace Corps. I would recommend Peace Corps for anybody. I really had a great experience and if anyone would want to talk to me about it, I would love to talk about it.

Grillot: What kind of work did you do during the Peace Corps in that part of Thailand?

Chambers: Well I taught English but also administered some development programs because actually Peace Corps has funds for development projects. And, you know, it was it was a very good for the community to have Peace Corps there. We built a water well. We did a project to expand some of the school infrastructure. And we built the gymnasium as well through Peace Corps funding. So it was very good for the community. It was very good for me, helped me grow up, and it made me really love Thailand.

Grillot: Well obviously because he stayed on, right. I mean he went on to become a scholar, focusing on the area and staying there, teaching and working. Which is kind of, I mean, I guess, I don't know, maybe you tell me, moving from Peace Corps, is that really unusual that you end up staying in a location and developing a lifelong career someplace where you've served in the Peace Corps?

Chambers: Many people that were in Peace Corps stay and in fact the person who wrote The Lonely Planet guide for Thailand, Joe Cummings, he was a former Peace Corps volunteer. There's been so many others. Thailand has a way of growing on you and making you want to stay. And even those who go home, several people in my group they came back again or keep some sort of connection with Thailand. And I certainly did because I've been there off and on since 1993.

Grillot: I mean that's a long time. You've seen a lot happen in Thailand then. So let's talk a little bit about some of the transition issues. They had a king for 70 years who passed away. They have a new king and we could talk about that as well. But there's been some instability that has emerged in the wake of that, some political protests and things that have gotten violent. And so tell us about what you've seen happen there.

Chambers: Well in a nutshell, in 2001, a man named Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister. He was a populist. He brought a lot of welfare programs for poor, rural people. And in a way he awakened a lot of these people to become politically active. And they saw the amount of money they could make grow through his programs. And as a result, you know, they became his loyal constituents. Now Thaksin was also a very strong prime minister and to many people in the in the urban, more aristocratic structure, he seemed a threat. And so you saw growing friction between urban middle and upper classes and the larger number of very poor rural people who supported him. This is really the clash that developed and eventually some of the urban people saw Thaksin threatening the king. 2006 you have a military coup against Thaksin but you know even though the military and the aristocrats try to rewrite the constitution to make it more difficult for political parties, you know large parties to come back to power, a pro-Thaksin party did come back. And so we eventually see another military coup in 2014. And that's what Thailand is living right now under this military coup. And it has been very authoritarian, authoritarian military rule. And you know you've seen growing human rights violations, but you've also seen the economy really plummet and so increasingly we're seeing a fractious support among urban people for this military government and of course very much opposition from rural people for that government.

Grillot: So can you sort this out for us a little bit in terms of, so there was this military coup that was acting on behalf of who exactly?

Chambers: Oh, good question.

Grillot: Like who who is it that, you know, because it sounds like the prime minister had been elected . There's some sort of I assume some sort of constitutional monarchy that Thailand operates under. So who is the military acting on behalf of? And then kind of how does that, you know, relate to all of the other problems that they have economically socially and otherwise?

Chambers: OK, so both the 2006 coup and the 2014 coup were supported by the monarchy. In fact, endorsed directly by the monarchy. And when that happens, military rule is assured, OK, because the king is sacrosanct in Thailand, almost godly, you would you would say. Especially the last king. He was there for 70 years. OK. So of course, with aristocratic and monarchical support and support by the urban, middle and upper classes, the junta, since 2014 has been able to survive. And right, you know, right now he continues to receive support from these groups. OK. But then again these groups do not have the majority of the electoral vote. And so if it is one person one vote in Thailand, Thaksin's populist parties have always won since 2001, since Thaksin was first elected. And for that matter, you know, these aristocratic groups realize that they're not going to win an election, you know, if it's fair. And so what they're doing now, in this new 20th constitution of Thailand's, Thailand's 20th. I think it's the world record, just enacted last year. Is there is a new electoral system a new formula in their elections which will ensure that no political party can gain over 50 percent. And as a result you have all you'll have all these coalition governments and it's always easy for someone to cajole one of these parties out of the ruling coalition and then bring another coalition to power. So basically a very weak elected rule and that means that the monarch and military continue to dominate the country. This is Thailand pre 2001 too. This is what it was like back then. There was this trajectory moving Thailand towards party rule, strong party rule, after 2001. But the new constitution is going to end that.

Chambers: In fact we see starting today you see this growth of a military party a potential military party although the junta leaders deny it. There is this growing realization that the new party law just enacted few days ago is going to permit a military nominee party to compete in the elections.

Grillot: So the response from the public then has been. I mean there have been you know people in the streets there's been a lot of you know reaction to this. I mean what about the role of civil society here? I mean are they just pretty much silenced on every front here?

Chambers: That's a good question, Suzette. Well you see, one of the laws under the junta is this law that you know you can only have four to five people demonstrating. OK. More than that, they're all, the demonstrations are broken up. So if you try to have people out there in the streets it's going to be nipped in the bud.

Grillot: And that's what we've seen as the violent reaction of the police shutting down these large protests.

Chambers: Exactly. Exactly. Now eventually there will be a return to some form of democracy. This Prime Minister junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised elections for next year. Of course he's made that promise for the last five years, five times. But this time he's probably going to have to come through with it. So we're going to see late 2018 or 2019 elections when you do have the new elections. There's not going to be this rule of four to five people, you know, that's the maximum demonstrating. So then there will be a possibility of many many demonstrators on the street and the new system might not be able to survive.

Grillot: Well why are you optimistic that they're going to eventually return to democracy? That he's going to have to have elections given all the changes and the fact that he's promised them before and hasn't done it. Why would you say that?

Chambers: Well I think because I think the new electoral system favors the military so much, behind the scenes, that it works in the military's favor to return to democracy. So let me just share some details with you. Under the new system it will be besides the electoral formula I mentioned it will be possible for the current junta leader to act as the prime minister, an unelected prime minister coming through an electoral system if they can if he can be nominated as the party leader. And secondly the new junta is establishing a 20 year strategy. So every elected government has to follow that strategy. Sitting above this 20 year strategy as a committee. And on that committee is the current junta leadership now four times a year the elected governments will be audited to make sure they're following that strategy and if they are not following it they can be thrown out of office. So this is sort of a military junta behind the scenes. There is certainly an elected government. But what a lot of Thai professors have said is, Thailand is following the Myanmar model, where you have a very strong military sort of behind a charade democracy. And that way, you know, the military in Thailand as well as the monarchy, can have the support of the West for supposedly supporting a liberal democratic system.

Grillot: Well you mentioned the economic problems that have resulted presumably from all of this instability. I mean Thailand is a is a hub of tourism, right. People love to visit Thailand. The islands the coast, you know, go for the food, the beauty. I mean it's just ... I haven't been myself but I've seen many photos and I've spoken to many people who've been and love it. I assume that that's probably taking a pretty big hit given all of this instability.

Chambers: Well that's another good question. The issue is yes the economy is crevasses. The economy is plummeting. Many investors have left the country because of the instability. However Thailand remains Thailand's economy remains rather robust based almost almost totally on tourism. Which tourism? Chinese tourism. Chinese tourism has grown upwards of 500 percent in the last five years. It's amazing. Not as much Western tourism as before, but because of all this Chinese tourism, you know, Thailand's economy is still buoyant based upon this, and it will probably continue to be buoyant as long as tourism can be guaranteed.

Grillot: I'm really glad you brought this up. It's very interesting to hear that it's Chinese tourism. It doesn't surprise me at all because I was going to ask about the regional issues here. I mean it is Asia, it's Southeast Asia, but still I mean, you know, it's near China. So I was just curious about the impact that China might be having on on Thailand in many ways, not just in terms of tourism but just on other types of economic and political engagement.

Chambers: Well that's certainly a big issue for Thailand. After the 2014 coup, the Obama administration sort of distanced itself from military Thailand, and Thailand began to tilt toward China. And so there have been many many investments and trade deals done with China. China economically is going to provide mega-projects to Thailand. For example a high speed train which will come directly from Yunnan province in central China all the way to Thailand and eventually to Singapore. This is part of the One Belt One Road China project: Upwards of eight trillion dollars China project. And Thailand is part of that. Thailand is also going to be allowing this eastern economic corridor to exist, part of eastern Thailand, where Chinese can purchase 99 year leases on Thai land. If more than that even, there is going to be three submarines, Chinese submarines, purchased by Thailand and Chinese military advisers will be stationed for at least five years in Thailand, helping to train, so-called train, the Thais. But what it amounts to is a sort of informal Chinese military base. And there's another thing I'll add to that, and this is something I've talked to the U.S. embassy about, is that there is going to be a an arms production facility in this area for Chinese weapons to be built and to be given to the Thais. But they can also be given to Chinese soldiers in the region. So this area of Thailand, which is in the east but also on the ocean, allows for a naval facility for the Chinese to exist and very important geopolitically.

Grillot: Absolutely very important geopolitically. Thank you so much Paul for pointing that out and for telling us about this very interesting country that we often don't talk about here on World Views. Thanks for being here today.

Chambers: Thank you very much for having me.

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