May 17, 2023
JAKARTA – Thai voters have sent a loud and clear message that enough is enough for the military’s domination in politics and the decades-long control of the royal family on their lives. The military and political elites, however, look set to search for ways – legally or illegally, ethically or unethically – to ensure they will stay in power regardless of the people’s wishes.
Leaders and the people of ASEAN are watching the developments in Thailand, one of the regional bloc’s cofounders, and one which is seen as a role model in developing agriculture and the tourism industry in the region. Dictators or semi-dictators in the region are keen to see Thailand maintain the status quo as long as possible.
The military-drafted constitution of Thailand makes sure that the military has the final say in the country’s national leadership. Of the 750 parliament seats, the military fully controls 250 Upper House seats, with the remaining 500 Lower House seats up for grabs in elections.
The Thai military is known for its propensity to launching coups – a record 22 times, 19 of them successful, since 1932, therefore it is unlikely they will easily accept the election results unless they could reap benefits from the poll winners. Such a scenario looms large after the Sunday election.
The Thai military-backed political parties suffered a humiliating defeat to the antimonarchy and antiroyal establishment, the Move Forward Party (MFP). The outcome reflects the Thai people’s demand for change that they entrusted a relatively new political party to realize their expectations.
The high turnout rate in the May 14 election is another message that the Thai people want their country to adopt a universally accepted system of democracy and end the excessive protection of the royal family. Democracy as we know is an antithesis to military-dominated politics. For one, Thailand’s constitution has been amended 18 times to serve the interests of the military and royal family.
Winning 151 Lower House seats, the MFP outshone former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party which could only get 141 seats despite its populist and antimilitary stance. Prior to voting day, Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra was widely tipped to win the prime ministerial post to emulate her father and aunt Yingluck Shinawatra.
Following the victory, the MFP’s chairman, 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat, declared his readiness to assume the PM job and claimed that opposition parties had agreed to form a coalition with him. Thaksin’s side has confirmed the alliance plan, but as Thailand does not have a strong tradition of united opposition force, the coalition is likely to collapse soon.
Incumbent PM Prayuth Chan-ocha’s United Thai Nation Party could only win 36 seats. Prayuth, who came to power through a coup in 2014, has refused to concede defeat, perhaps because he sees loopholes to hold on to power.
Thai army chief Gen. Narongpan Jitkaewthae has stated the military would accept the election results and refrain from perpetrating a coup. Hopefully the general and other army top brass will fulfill their promise, or else they will betray the Thai people.
The opposition government may also lead Thailand to become a constitutional monarchy as practiced in the United Kingdom and some other European countries. In fact, the Thai monarchy has lost its charm following the passing of King Maha Bhumibol Adulvadej Maharaj in October 2016. The late King Bhumibol, the longest-serving monarch, was known for his wisdom and care about Thai development.
People have long demanded the abolition of the draconian lèse-majesté law, which prohibits any disparaging statements or opinions about the king and the royal family. Any violation of the law can send one to prison for up to 15 years. More than 200 people were charged with the law when massive street protests took place in 2020.
The people have spoken. The question is whether the military and the royal establishment will respect the vox populi. ASEAN and the world are watching them now.