Thai Military Leadership Moves To Guarantee Permanent Political Role
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Thailand is America's oldest ally in Asia, but the relationship has been strained since the Thai military took over the country's government. The military promised a quick return to civilian rule and national reconciliation. But that has yet to happen. From Bangkok, Michael Sullivan reports.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Two years ago Sunday, Thai television screens went blank then blue then flashed a picture of a grim faced military leadership assembled before the cameras.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: Thais could be forgiven for feeling as if it were Groundhog Day. It was the military's second coup in less than a decade and their 12th in the past 80 years.
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PRAYUTH CHAN-OCHA: (Foreign language spoken).
SULLIVAN: Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha told the nation the coup was necessary to bring an end to the political deadlock and frequent protests like this one that often gridlocked the capital, Bangkok. In his coup address, Prayuth preached reconciliation and promised to return happiness to the Thai people. He even wrote a song about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECAUSE YOU ARE THAILAND")
UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).
SULLIVAN: We will keep our promise, the chorus says. Give us some time, trust us, believe in us and the glorious nation will return. Two years on - any progress?
DAVID STRECKFUSS: The military government claims that it's restored public order, and that's true. It has.
SULLIVAN: But that's about it, says David Streckfuss, an academic who writes about Thai politics from his home in the northeast city of Khon Kaen.
STRECKFUSS: It's been a lost two years. Right now the economy is moribund. There's nothing moving it. And whatever democracy that the military has envisioned isn't really very democratic.
SULLIVAN: Paul Chambers teaches at Chiang Mai University's Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs. He says the new military-drafted constitution pretty much cements the military's hold on power indefinitely.
PAUL CHAMBERS: The Senate will be completely appointed, and there would be six members of those appointees that are the military leadership. They can censure the prime minister. They can veto laws from the lower house. This is a - sort of a camouflaged method of a constitutional military dictatorship.
SULLIVAN: Thais will get a chance to vote the new constitution up or down in a referendum said to be held in August. The military won't say what happens next if the public rejects the new charter, and any public criticism or discussion of it is pretty much off limits, including online.
THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: I think that we're heading into a kind of an unfolding train wreck.
SULLIVAN: That's Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. He says the military is trying to turn back the clock to a time when traditional institutions - the military, the monarchy and the bureaucracy - called the shots. And he doesn't think it'll work.
THITINAN: Civil society in 40 years has overthrown two military dictatorships in 1973, in 1992. I don't see how this society is going to put up with this guy's military rule in the 2010s.
SULLIVAN: Thitinan says Thailand is now facing an existential moment in its history - the country's beloved king in his twilight years and the old ways of governing may be as well as the traditional power structure confronts increasingly informed social media-savvy majority, long disenfranchised, but increasingly impatient. Thitinan says there's still room and time to get things right before they get out of hand if both sides agree to give a little to keep the train from jumping the traffic. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.