Thailand: Progressive Movement’s Failed Counter-Coup Attempt

9 December 2020 Hadrien T. Saperstein, FDI Associate

Even though Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha and his government are confident of their ability to outlast the leaderless pro-democracy protesters, there are number of concerning signals on the medium- to long-term risk horizon that will prevent a rapid revitalisation of Thailand, regardless of who occupies the office of prime minister.

Background

On 2 December, the Thai Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-o-Cha, was forced to attend a legal challenge to his living arrangements in the Constitutional Court. That challenge is effectively a proxy counter-coup attempt against the Thai military’s chicanery during the 2019 national election that has led some to believe that the election was stolen.

Scholars intimately familiar with the judicial code and courts in Thailand were, however,  highly sceptical of the success of the charges prior to the court date as a consequence of the juristocracy established through the 2007 constitution: ‘constitutional reforms have taken political power away from elected politicians and shifted it to unelected judges.’

While Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University, stated that ‘it is unlikely that the court would disqualify Prayuth’, Paul Chambers of Naresuan University’s Centre of ASEAN Community Studies wrote that ‘the court will decide in Prayuth’s favour if Thailand’s establishment feels the need to maintain status quo cohesion against the current protests.’ On the day, the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously in favour of Prayuth.

Comment

Although this analyst still stands firmly behind my previous forecast that Prayuth holds enough political endurance to retain power beyond this last attempted counter-coup and outlast the patience of the leaderless pro-democracy protesters, prominent close observers of the 2020 Thai political crisis are, in contrast, confident that the weight of history is not on his side, actively speculating about potential replacements.

Some, like Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent ultra-royalist supporter, posit that an Army-led coup should follow, while others have forwarded names including Deputy Premier Anutin Charnvirakul and former leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who were both nominated for the office of prime minister during the last election. The charter also allows for the possibility of an “outsider” candidate that could include Anupong Paochinda, current Minister of the Interior, or Apirat Kongsompong, a former army chief now working as Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household for the monarch himself.

Regardless of who the prime minister may be, there are number of concerning signals in the medium-to long-term risk horizon that prevent a rapid revitalisation of Thailand. First, the legacy victory of the pro-democracy protest movement to open discussion on monarchical reforms lays the groundwork for an ensuing sporadic, domestic socio-political protest movement on authority relations, like gender violence or student-teacher relations in schools, similar to the gilet jaune protest movement in France.

Second, the protest movement, coupled with the COVID-19 crisis materialises hidden antagonisms already present across the South-East Asia sub-region, such as the “milk-tea alliance”. This tri-party alliance will transform from an online expression of discontentment and move onto the streets with nascent small-to-medium-sized protest movements already visible in numerous countries. This has caused some political risk analysts to speculate that either an “ASEAN [down]Fall” or “ASEAN [up]Spring” is around the corner.

Third, energised by the political protest movements, ethnic Malay Muslim-majority insurgents return to the weekly increases in the number of roadside bombings in the five southern Thai provinces. The quasi-democratisation process occurring between the central authorities and urban protesters makes some hardline insurgents, already frustrated with their own moribund negotiation process, feel left out of the process.

The increasing number of roadside bombs will curtail the recent resurgence from the National Economic and Social Development Council to fund public hearings and a new feasibility study on the development of either a man-made canal or raised land bridge on the Isthmus of Kra. As before, private investors will not view this project as worthy of investment, considering that the project is too risky and the returns ambiguous.

Finally, weighty Western criticism of the Thai Government’s disappointing response to the list of pro-democratic demands will further consolidate Sino-Thai defence relations. The former will take advantage of a Western disenchantment with Thailand by renegotiating payment deadlines on the submarines it sold to Bangkok, offering discounted equipment for the next procurement cycle and forwarding proposals to aggrandise bilateral military air and naval exercises.

Therefore, any Thai prime minister will face some arduous challenges in the medium-to-long term risk horizon that are likely to prevent any rapid revitalisation of Thailand over the next couple of years. The current incumbent’s staying or leaving indefinitely will have little bearing on forthcoming events.

About the Author

Hadrien T. Saperstein is a Researcher at the Asia Centre think-tank in Paris, specialising in South-East Asia, maritime strategy, and strategic foresight and warning. His articles on Thailand have previously appeared in Strife Journal, New Mandala and East Asia Forum.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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