In Thailand, the system is broken. Rampant corruption, partisan policies and lack of government transparency have hampered political evolution.
The rift between the elites, urban middle classes and the south on one side, and the poor, north and northeast citizens on the other, has deepened. Anti-government protests paralysed parts of Bangkok since November. Their increasing conflict with police and pro-government crowds have resulted in at least 25 deaths and scores of injuries before the military stepped in on May 20. Initially it was to oversee law and order, but two days later the military seized power.
It was Thailand’s third coup d’etat in a generation, following 1991 and 2006, and some of their justifications have been much the same – corruption and parliamentary dictatorship, the erosion of Thailand’s institutions through personal enrichment, nepotism and the strategic placement of allies.
Democratic countries rely on checks and balances to hold the branches of government accountable. But the system in Thailand has long been undermined by the culture of patronage – rewarding loyalists with favourable policies and business contracts, and the placement of allies throughout the branches of government, public institutions and armed forces. Monetary handouts to village heads in effect buy the loyalty and votes of entire communities, and populist policies such as the recent rice pledging scheme, designed to consolidate political support, can be economically disastrous.
Surveys and polls in Thailand down the years have shown that most people accept corruption as parts of everyday life. If Southeast Asia’s second largest economy is to continue to grow, however, political reform is necessary.
Every recent government on either side of the divide has quickly abandoned talk of reform in favour of consolidating its hold; no party has a great record when it comes to transparency or stamping out corruption.
Before elections are possible, Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha says, the entire system must be reformed nationwide and checks and balances strengthened. Many senior officials considered loyal to the previous Pheu Thai government have already been sidelined. Hundreds of citizens, including students, journalists, activists and even political moderates, have been called in for questioning and detained for a few hours or a few days, many yet to be released.
A curfew and media controls are still in effect, protests responded to with a heavy hand and archaic lèse majesté, laws are being increasingly applied in order to stifle dissent.
It remains to be seen whether the ruling junta can solve Thailand’s immediate and long-term issues, but the initial steps have been authoritarian and one-sided – focused on rooting out allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former prime minister still revered in large parts of the country, but also reviled by many.
If anti-coup protests grow stronger – if Thaksin forms an alternate government in exile – the divisions in Thai society could boil over into armed conflict. These are both real risks, but in the meantime the junta needs to avoid partisanship and self-interest and keep its focus on its self-declared mandate: to fix the broken system.
Reforming a country with feudal roots going back centuries may be the biggest challenge Thailand’s military has ever faced. Healing the rifts in Thai society between the people in the north and south would be a good starting point.
Alan Parkhouse is Editor-in-Chief of Post Weekend. Ezra Kyrill Erker is a Senior Writer for Post Weekend.