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Asia

Military rule jeopardizing Thailand's future

Since it seized power last year, the Thai military has been ruling the country without success. While Thailand finds itself increasingly isolated internationally, criticism of any sort is punished with harsh sentences.

For decades, Thailand and the United States have been close allies and diplomatic partners. But bilateral relations have been visibly strained following the military coup in the Southeast Asian nation last year.

The growing chasm between the two sides is reflected in the ongoing investigation by Thai authorities against the US ambassador to Thailand, Glyn T. Davies, who is accused of violating the nation's rigid lèse-majesté law that protects the Thai monarchy from any form of criticism.

During a recent speech at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, Davies said Washington was concerned about long prison sentences meted out to civilians in lèse-majesté cases, and that the harsh punishments were not in accordance with the US notion of freedom of expression.

Although some Thais regard the comments as a breach of the law, no charges are expected to be brought against the ambassador as he has diplomatic immunity. Many ordinary Thais, however, are not so fortunate. The lèse-majesté law foresees tough punishments for those convicted of defaming the country's revered monarchy.

A general view of Laem Chabang port, in Chonburi province, east of Bangkok July 22, 2012 (Photo: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom)

Thailand's economy is stagnating

For instance, in August this year, 48-year-old tour operator Pongsak Sriboonpeng was sentenced to a record 30 years in prison for posting articles critical of the monarchy on Facebook.

Shifting foreign policy priorities

The investigation against the US ambassador has triggered criticism not only from abroad. "Even Thai diplomats and foreign ministry officials are shocked," said an analyst who attended the ambassador's speech at the Foreign Correspondents' Club.

"A probe against the US ambassador would have been unthinkable two or three years ago. And the current police investigation against the US diplomat would be unimaginable without backing from the highest levels of the military leadership," the expert, who wished to remain anonymous due to prevailing political situation in the country, told DW.

One reason for this unusual move by Thailand, according to the analyst who enjoys close contacts within the Thai government, is the military's strong penchant for deepening ties with China. "There is a faction within the military that benefits hugely from the relationship with Beijing, and it is apparently seeking to sabotage a rapprochement with the US," he said, pointing to the emphasis Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha laid on promoting closer relations between Bangkok and Beijing.

Under increasing pressure

Thailand's military, however, is coming under growing pressure not only on the foreign policy front, but also in the arena of domestic policy. It was evident, for instance, on December 7 when over 30 students were arrested as they tried to demonstrate against a multimillion-dollar park built by the military under construction contracts allegedly riddled with kickbacks.

The case is particularly sensitive, the expert says, because it strikes at the heart of the military's legitimacy to rule the country. "The military leaders justified their coup by claiming: we are the good guys, and we will eliminate immoral and corrupt politicians." But now the military, similar to the politicians it ousted, is also mired in graft scandals.

The military government's performance since it seized power 19 months ago has been grim. "Everyone knows that the economy is in tatters. And the reforms haven't led to any concrete results," Pravit Rojanaphruk, a well-known Thai journalist and commentator, told DW.

He said that it is evident from posts on social media that the polarization in the society hasn't ebbed, with people belonging to different political camps still regarding each other with hatred. "There haven't been any changes in terms of the fundamental problems facing the country. Thailand is frozen in time," Pravit reckons.

Ensuring smooth succession

Compounding the political pressures in Thailand is the prospect of a royal succession to the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The 88-year-old ailing Monarch is in poor health and is rarely seen in public.

On December 11, tens of thousands of Thais heeded the call of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and took part in bicycle events, in honor of the king, through Bangkok.

King Bhumibol and the royal household remain politically influential, even though the country is officially a constitutional monarchy.

The royals exercise their clout, on the one hand, through the Privy Council, the king's personal advisory board which is composed of former military leaders as well as influential politicians, among others.

On the other hand, there is the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the real estate properties and investments of the Thai monarchy running into billions of dollars.

Pravit says the military wants to ensure a smooth transition of power in the royal household.

Experts say many Thais are increasingly worried about the ongoing developments, including the shift in the country's foreign policy, the problem of corruption in the military and the growing repression of the government's critics by invoking the lèse-majesté law, among other issues.

"People recognize that Thailand is globally more isolated and that the country's economy is stagnating. This is leading to growing discontent among Thais," said the anonymous analyst.

His Royal Highness Crown Prince MAHA VAJIRALONGKORN, the heir apparent to the Thai crown, (center, red bike, short sleeves, blue gloves) leads the Bike For Dad bike ride in Bangkok. More than 527,000 people registered for the Bike for Dad event to honor Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, whose birthday is also celebrated as Fathers Day in Thailand (Photo: Picture alliance)

On December 11, tens of thousands of Thais took part in bicycle events in honor of the king

Introducing reforms?

Many also believe that repression in the junta-ruled country has increased in recent weeks. "The military is attempting to strengthen its hold on power by spreading fear," said the anonymous observer.

Pravit points out that the suppression of freedom of expression and the introduction of reforms by a small group of power-wielding elites are precluding the much-needed social discourse in Thailand. "As a result, one cannot expect that the reforms will be successful and will be accepted by the citizens."

But they are still a long time in the coming. On December 11, the military-appointed National Council for Peace and Order announced that the constitution document that was rejected in September would be re-drafted, with the first draft expected to be released in January 2016. However, experts say that a return to political normality, and to democracy, is postponed indefinitely.

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