The emergence of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after a long period of silence and self-imposed exile to escape prosecution suggests that events in Thailand are gathering momentum.
In a media briefing in Singapore – itself an interesting venue given that Thaksin was long resident overseas, mostly in Dubai – he denounced the draft constitution which the junta has now finalized and on which the people are supposed to vote this year.
The finalization of the draft, which has been under discussion by the junta’s appointees for months, has coincided with another bout of illness of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88. There have been many alarms about the king’s health in the past which have proved false – or at least the king’s resistance to his ailments has proved stronger than many had feared.
Although he has been suffering from fever, a source with lines into the royalty said the king has had such bouts, getting better, then getting worse and then better again worse again over the past year. However, there has been no significant change for the worse.
Nonetheless, however much the army and the monarchists would like it otherwise, the man is not immortal. Concerted efforts in recent months to raise the profile and popularity of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn through a variety of methods including his “Bike for Mom” and “Bike for Dad” events have been interpreted as implying that the long-awaited succession issue is close to its climax.
Although the junta makes much of the supposed importance of its new constitution – which would be the 21st since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 – its number one objective remains to keep the Thaksin camp out of power so it can oversee the succession.
What happens after that is unclear. It is far from certain that the constitution, which is being criticized by the junta-friendly Democrat party as well as by the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party and the Red Shirts generally, will get popular approval.
Previous attempts to ready the constitution for a vote have been canceled because of the hostility of the junta’s own hand-picked parliament. If it doesn’t go to the voters, one can expect the National Council for Peace and Order, the substitute appointed by Prayuth Chan-ocha before he named himself prime minister, to remain in power but given its record of gaffes and general incompetence, will need to sustain or increase authoritarian measures against critics.
If the constitution is adopted, one can expect the gulf between the popular vote and the control of the levers of power which the military and aligned conservative factions will maintain to be visibly demonstrated. It will be a case of Thailand, once an exemplar of democratic and economic progress, moving further towards the political condition from which Myanmar has been gradually escaping.
Meanwhile the junta continues to abuse lese majeste laws against critics of the junta, not just critics of a monarchy whose status look increasingly fragile despite or because of the efforts of Prayuth and the builders of Rajabhakti Park.
The government also has made no friends in the absolution, over the protests of the families of the dead, Thai former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his onetime deputy Suthep Thaugsuban have been absolved of responsibility for the bloody 2010 military crackdown against red-shirted backers of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the center of Bangkok, with more than 80 protesters shot down.
Although the two still face a possible decision from the Thai Supreme Court, they are considered likely to be freed, given the political stance of the court, which is expected to be aligned with the junta that came to power on May 22, 2014 and which has largely arrested, neutralized or driven most of Thaksin’s supporters out of the country.
The nation has already witnessed gruesome examples of high profile deaths in custody of high profile persons, including some formerly close to the Crown Prince, and disappearances of others. A growing list of top police commanders has “committed suicide.”
The claims that the junta has been fighting corruption have also been shown up by episodes such as the Rajabhakti Park project. The expenditure on this publicly funded but army-sponsored park, which features giant bronze statues of eminent former monarchs, has been the subject of much mystery and many allegations of kickbacks. The Army and the Defense Ministry earlier conducted investigations which, to no one’s surprise, found no wrongdoing. These were greeted with skepticism. Now the Office of the Auditor General has likewise said its investigation shows no irregularities.
This may be enough to close the case for now but it does nothing to add to the junta’s credibility. Merely it underlines the impression that that junta is as venal as its numerous predecessors, and, as the deaths and disappearances indicate, more vicious.