Jul 31, 2014

    Brute power no longer enough for Thai junta to retain power

    IT IS not just through guns and tanks that the Thai military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), usurps and clings to power.

    Two months after the coup, Thailand saw the use of both soft and hard power, as well as support from a large enough sector of the population that helped shore up the NCPO.

    Hard power is the most obvious: high-profile opponents face court martial, with former education minister Chaturon Chaisang and Red Sunday group leader Sombat Boonngam-anong the two most visible opponents of the May 22 coup facing prosecution.

    Hundreds of others were summoned, with dozens, including this writer, detained for up to seven days under martial law.

    Then there were about a dozen of those that refused to report who are now fugitives domestically or in exile abroad.

    The fact that virtually none were physically tortured (online news site prachatai.com claimed that one anti-coup university student was physically assaulted and threatened), is in fact a shield against international condemnation and opposition to the coup.

    It seems that the junta is well aware that as long as there are no forced disappearances or torture of high-profile opponents of the coup, its claim of wanting to "strengthen" Thai democracy carries at least some weight with some people.

    The existence of Article 44 of the Provisional Constitution promulgated last week - which gives the NCPO leader "special power" over the legislative, executive and judicial branches - also further "legalised" and normalised the junta's hard power.

    Then there are the coup supporters. Some are so hateful towards former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra that they are willing to put up with anything.

    Others are fond of dictatorial rule and are calling for Prayuth Chan-ocha to stay on for 10 years, or urging him to exercise power in a more draconian fashion, such as detaining more dissidents and executing rapists.

    There are also various concerts and feel-good activities aimed at "returning happiness" to the people, and this can create the impression that everyone is happy and reconciled and that there is no longer any resistance to the coup.

    While some pro-democracy scholars have chosen to censor themselves for fear of prosecution, law expert Chamnan Chanruang, for example, posted on this writer's Facebook comment space that the problem is not his self-censorship but "the media's self-censorship after interviewing (him)".

    This, combined with the junta's attempt to "neutralise" unconvinced journalists through its controversial Order No. 97, leaves little space for dissent in the mainstream mass media, and helps maintain the perception that everything is well.

    However, one has only to observe social media to see how strongly a good number of Thais still oppose the junta, and how divisive Thai politics continues to be.

    Continued online resistance aside, now that two months have passed and the "honeymoon period" is fast expiring, the junta's continued hold on power will increasingly depend on its economic performance, its delivery of a new permanent Constitution, and how free and fair an election it can deliver 15 months from now.

    Brute power is no longer enough to enable the junta to cling to power, as it will be judged more and more on its performance and intention than on the size of its guns.