Thai expert: Junta keeping international spotlight off internal conflicts

Thailand's unwillingness to draw attention to conflict in its southern provinces is motivated in part by it wanting to protect its lucrative tourism industry. [Shutterstock]

Despite the new constitution, Thailand’s military government remains merciless towards its critics. Expert Anja Bodenmüller told EURACTIV Germany that it is nearly impossible for the country to return to something resembling a democracy.

Anja Bodenmüller is an expert in Thailand’s domestic and foreign policy and is a member of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Bodenmüller was interviewed by euractiv.de’s Nicole Sagener.

In August, Thailand adopted a new constitution under the leadership of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Does the new constitution strengthen the position of the military?

Definitely, because the parliamentary system lay out by this constitution means the 250 members of the senate will be appointed. These senators, who will be responsible for deciding on very important matters, will be appointed by the military government.

Additionally, six of the seats will be reserved for the heads of the armed forces. In this way, the military are going to retain influence over the system.

Critics have said that the new constitution curbs the power of the larger parties even more. How so?

One of the explicit aims of the constitution is to prevent one party from getting a majority. That’s going to be achieved through the introduction of a new electoral system. Registered voters will now have just one vote instead of two, voting for a candidate and a party list at the same time. This would weaken large parties like the Pheu Thai party, while strengthening medium-sized parties. The result will be coalition governments that will struggle against the appointed senate and which may not enjoy an absolute majority again.

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Is there a chance that after the 2017 elections there will be a return to a civilian, democratically elected government, as a result of this constitution?

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has repeatedly stressed that it wants to stick to the original timetable for returning to a democratic system and has promised elections at the end of 2017. But I doubt that it is even possible for there to be a return to a democratically elected government because of this constitution. After all, one third of the members of the bicameral parliament are not democratically elected. And it is most likely that a relationship between these appointees and the military will endure, meaning the latter will still exert considerable influence.

Has public criticism increased since the referendum?

I wouldn’t say so. As before, freedom of speech in Thailand is heavily restricted. The military government continues to put pressure on the opposition, academics and political activists. Additionally, the ban on congregations of more than five people is still in place. Under these conditions, public criticism or protests are not easy.

Since the early 2000s, Thailand has changed, both politically and socially, and there is a new rural middle class. How political is this group?

This new class has become increasingly politicised over the last decade.  Thaksin Shinawatra first recognised the potential of this group and designed an electoral programme that would best serve the needs of people that had been socio-politically and economically disadvantaged beforehand. He won several elections as a result. He also made these people aware that their vote counted.

When Thaksin was removed by a coup in 2006, part of this group organised themselves into the so-called red shirts, under the guise of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).  For several years they have fronted up against the opposition, in pursuit of more economic and political participation. As they can only operate outside of parliament, their political influence is limited. Nevertheless, they are better organised than some of their fellow opposition groups, like student activists, and in the past were able to exert some pressure on the government through mass protest.

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The bombings in the south of the country a few weeks ago show that the junta’s opponents oppose the political future that the military is carving out for itself. What role do Shinawatra’s supporters play in this?

The military government quickly condemned the attacks and pinned them on the red shirts, denying any connection between Muslim insurgents in the southern provinces and the bombings. Firstly, they don’t want to draw international attention, because it would show that even after two years, following the coup, they are still not in control. Then, the government doesn’t want to hinder the all-important tourism sector and the already struggling economy. The most recent bombings were carried out not far from holiday resorts. Nevertheless, the attacks do bear some of the hallmarks of the southern rebels.

The violent conflict between the government and the Muslim separatists, like the National Revolution Front (BRN), has no end in sight. How does the junta treat non-Buddhist minorities?

The Muslim minority mostly live in the three southernmost provinces on the border with Malaysia. There’s been a violent conflict raging for some years. The militant groups are engaged in the fighting because, among other reasons, they want their ethnic and religious qualities recognised and more self governance. There is little to no reporting on it in either Thailand or the wider world.

In 2013, Yingluck Shinawatra’s government started an official peace process and called for talks with the insurgents. But the military coup in 2014 ended all that and the junta has shown little taste for giving them what they want. In place of self-government and autonomy, there is a greater focus on even more centralisation.

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