The recent terrorist attacks in Thailand are playing havoc with the country’s domestic politics. Paul Sanderson looks at the implications for the military junta’s grip on government, especially in the wake of the constitutional referendum earlier this month.
As Thais dressed in blue and prepared to take their mothers to dinner at the start of a long weekend, chaotic news of explosions filtered through. First Hua Hin, then reports of blasts in Phuket, confusion as another struck in Hua Hin, then Surat Thani, Krabi and elsewhere. As the Friday marking the 84th birthday of Queen Sirikit continued, the unasked question was where would be hit next.
Terror is not new to Thailand, but never has it been so blatantly targeted at tourists and the tourism industry as it was on August 11 and 12 when seven provinces were struck in coordinated bomb and arson attacks that left four dead and dozens injured. Last year’s Erawan Shrine bombing, the anniversary of which falls this week, was the country’s deadliest, but has been blamed on ethnic Uighurs from China who were apparently seeking revenge for Thailand deporting 109 men at the behest of Beijing.
These most recent attacks were different. Coming within a week of the constitutional referendum which enshrined the military regime’s power in the highest law of the land, the attacks struck areas that voted heavily in favour of the junta-drafted charter. Early forensic analysis indicates links to the southern insurgency. The troubled border provinces voted overwhelmingly to reject the junta’s charter, no doubt dreading the prospect of an army they have fought for 12 years having a constitutionally-guaranteed place in power for at least the next five years.
The junta sees the referendum as conferring it a kind of electoral legitimacy, but before that security and stability were the bedrock of the junta’s argument for seizing and maintaining power. Prayuth Chan-ocha and his fellow generals have long claimed the country would descend into chaos without them. Attacks of this ilk undermine that position, but they are just as likely to argue the bombings are proof the junta needs to stay: who better than the army to take on such a threat? Indeed, they have already been accused of using the attacks to score political points.
After initially blaming their enemies with such a lack of subtlety the ousted Pheu Thai party issued a stern denial, Gen Prayuth shifted tactics on Monday to say no conclusions had been drawn. “Don’t put pressure on the authorities. Give them more time to work,” he said after a security meeting. Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwon, widely considered the architect of the 2014 coup, ruled out the southern insurgency almost before the dust had settled. He changed if not softened his rhetoric by Tuesday, although the national police chief remained focused on political motives.
Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak argued in The Guardian that political motives seemed the most likely reason for the attacks, at least in their immediate aftermath. However, Chulalongkorn’s Surachat Bamrungsuk, whose expertise is much more focused on the military, had a rather different take in an interview with Voice TV. He was unconvinced the opposition red shirts/Pheu Thai figures were involved because the key players are heavily monitored by the junta and it was difficult for them to organise a meeting, let alone such coordinated attacks. He also looked abroad to Malaysia and Singapore and said while there was no certainty of a connection, it was possible the attacks were spurred by a regional issue or an expansion of the problems in the south. And it should not be forgotten the insurgent Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), or one of its offshoots, has struck beyond the border regions before. Shawn W Crispin wrote in The Diplomat, “It would not be the first time BRN-C has targeted tourist sites: a 2014 car bomb on Koh Samui, a resort island, and a 2013 foiled car bomb on Phuket, another holiday island, have both been linked to the umbrella insurgent group.”
While the attacks have caused the junta embarrassment, the more lasting impact is likely to be on the tourism industry, which looks set to lose somewhere between $190 and $380 million in revenue by the end of the year. This is something the Thai economy can hardly afford, as a special report from FT Confidential Research showed in early August. Tourism is the only cylinder the economy is firing on and, even before the bombs, the data suggested the boom years are over.
The junta, however, has a vice-like grip on power and seems intent only on tightening it as the death of King Bhumibol edges ever closer. Hamish McDonald reported the king had slipped beyond consciousness in The Saturday Paper, weeks after the words “life support” were uttered in Bangkok newsrooms that would never report the truth thanks to a combination of strict lese majeste laws and a culture of self-censorship.
It is important to note the referendum vote did not go strictly along party lines, and that according to a snapshot of voters across the country in the Bangkok Post’s Spectrum magazine, many were reluctantly accepting the new charter as a way of holding elections sooner rather than later. The net effect, however, is that Gen Prayuth maintains his powers until the next government is sworn in and many of his draconian laws will remain even afterwards. The heads of the armed forces will have seats in the Senate, and the 250 senators will be selected rather than elected and will join the 500 elected MPs in choosing the next prime minister. The military and its proxies may not necessarily have the numbers to parachute its own man into the position, although there was post-referendum speculation Gen Prayuth will be, but it will almost certainly be able to wield the power of veto or tip the balance to its preferred candidate.
All this, too, is at least a year away. Eight months are apparently needed to write the organic laws necessary, and there will no doubt be a campaign of some sort under strict military guidance. By the time the next poll rolls around, the Prayuth administration will have spent more time in office than the Yingluck Shinawatra government it ousted.
It won’t stop there. Under the constitution, the military’s role is meant to ensure a five-year transition period. But they have stopped calling it a transition to democracy, as everyone knows that’s not what it’s really about.
This article is published in collaboration with New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.