Three months after toppling the civilian government in a coup, Thailand's military junta is attempting to re-shape the country and unite the polarized society. But experts remain skeptical about its success.
After months of political turmoil and violent protests, Thailand's military stepped in and staged a military coup against the civilian government at the end of May. Within a few days afterwards, it dismantled protest camps set up by government opponents.
Any potential resistance to the power grab was nipped in the bud by the military, which not only imposed a curfew and banned public gatherings, but also curtailed freedom of the press. As a result, there were no large-scale protests.
Four days after the coup, King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as new head of government. When the new strongman was asked at a press conference about Thailand's return to democracy, he responded by saying that there would be normalcy when there were no political conflicts in the country.
A new man
The military government is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to resolve the political conflicts. A large-scale charm offensive is expected to convince people about the new regime's good intentions and to lead to more harmony and unity. There were dancing female Thai soldiers, free haircuts for men and the junta even offered free live World Cup matches.
Four days after the coup, King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as new head of government.
Prayuth has been speaking about the state of the nation at regular intervals. In one of his speeches, he defined the "ideal Thai" citizen and called for their creation through education. These "ideal Thai" citizens are supposed to be physically strong, disciplined, patriotic and respectful to their parents.
This initiative is just an attempt to justify the coup, says Anja Bodenmüller, Asia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "In recent decades, the Thai society has become more open and embraced the positive affects of globalization," Bodenmüller told DW, adding that from military's perspective it was an aberration that had to be reversed. "One of the justifications for the coup was to protect the monarchy and traditional values," she stressed.
A new state
At the same time, the military is working to set up a new system of government, which, in the words of Prayuth, is expected to facilitate reconciliation among warring political factions in the Southeast Asian nation. To this end, Thailand's military junta already secured endorsement from the king for a provisional constitution on July 22, which legitimized the coup and paved the way for a general amnesty for members of the military.
Furthermore, it also allowed the military council - which is named National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) - to cement its power, and foresaw the creation of a new legislature.
The new national assembly convened for the first time on August 7. Chaired by crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the second phase in the path of restoring democracy was launched with this step. The National Assembly is expected to appoint a new interim prime minister, draft a new constitution and implement reforms, which could take up to ten months, the military says.
Junta chief Prayuth is the most promising candidate for the office of prime minister and is expected to be appointed on August 21. From the standpoint of whether the military would return power to a civilian government, it is not a positive signal, says Bangkok-based analyst Armin Reinartz of Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation, a German think tank.
But it remains to be seen what concrete steps Prayuth would undertake, Reinartz stressed. There is still time until the next elections, planned for October 2015. It is not yet clear when and how much power the military is willing to handover, the expert pointed out.
Old problems remain
The current coup is just the latest in an unchanging cycle of coups, interim governments and elections, said Bodenmüller told DW. But the Thai military's current efforts of to build a "new" Thailand can only succeed in the short term.
"The military coup has brought short-term peace on the streets and in the political life. However, it has not changed the fundamental problems and conflicts among different political actors in the country, explained Bodenmüller. This view is shared by Reinartz, who remains skeptical about the possibility of the military's decisions leading to long-term reconciliation in the deeply divided society.
Experts say it is still unclear when the military junta will handover power to a civilian government
"The fundamental political situation is still messy," the expert underlines, adding that much depends on how open the discussions on the new constitution are conducted in the National Assembly. Furthermore, the development of a new political culture where political actors are willing to participate in constructive discussions and are prepared to make compromises also plays a key role, explained Reinartz.
"Thailand has a very young and vibrant civil society that has the potential to participate and get highly involved in the political process, but many structures have so far not been suitable for such participation."