An unlikely source recently offered the best advice for Prayut Chan-o-cha. The man giving up his unorthodox powers to lead a rocky return to civil rule must not get carried away by the circumstances that his 2014 coup helped shape, or he would regret it, according to the People’s Alliance for Democracy.
The PAD staged a prolonged and sometimes controversial protest against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra over a decade ago. The movement’s former spokesman last week fell short of threatening more mass rallies, but he warned Prayut that a repeat could happen nonetheless.
Thailand’s political crisis has two major causes. The first is corruption under elected governments. The second is intervention by the military – which often uses the graft scandals as its excuse.
If this sounds like a chicken-and-egg situation, don’t be deceived. Take corruption out of the equation and the military opportunists would have nothing left to justify coups. The PAD leader was warning that Prayut will face all the old-fashioned problems of parliamentary politics – nasty horse-trading and relentless, stop-at-nothing attempts to destabilise his government – but he is doomed if he handles them in the same old-fashioned ways.
In other words, the PAD man was telling Prayut to tackle corruption head-on. The prime minister can transfer scandal-plagued ministers to other posts, or even dissolve the House to nullify a censure threat, knowing that he has senators on his side. “But he cannot afford to underestimate public anger when it comes to corruption,” the activist said.
The gist of his warning is this: “When the people think the parliamentary system can’t help them, they will hit the streets.”
He has a point. The PAD took controversial actions in the past, but without widespread public anger at what were perceived as attempts to “evade” graft problems, its protests could not have been sustained. Critics of the PAD ignored the fact that it was the politicians in power who opened the door, and the gap was big enough for anything to slip through.
Prayut will face all kinds of the usual political problems. His key allies are ready to turn against him any time, especially if anti-corruption action goes against them. With his mandate in the House of Representatives wafer-thin, friends and foes alike could take advantage, meaning any seemingly trivial matter could trigger a major political game. The opposition, meanwhile, is strong and hell-bent on doing whatever is necessary to unseat him. His military links and coup background ensure he will receive little or zero sympathy from overseas.
All these problems may make Prayut forget his core mission. For example, if a coalition partner is hit by a corruption scandal, the PM’s first priority will be to ensure it survives to prop up his government. He will also be tempted to sweep certain secrets under the rug, fearing that the opposition or Western critics will chorus, “We told you so.”
But Prayut will have to bite the bullet. Allowing corruption cases to fester under his rule would have drastic consequences. Even mere suspicion of graft can do serious damage – as Prayut should know better than anyone. Public anger over suspected scandals such as his deputy’s luxury watch collection made Prayut’s return to power much harder than it should have been.
Failure to tackle corruption effectively will amplify criticism that he is here not to eradicate graft from politics, but to eliminate political enemies. It would reinforce claims that the military was never sincere in its efforts to cleanse democracy, and that corruption in Thailand is irresolvable despite the “best efforts” of any proclaimed saviour.
Ongoing action against Thaksin Shinawatra and the pre-coup government’s rice-pledging scheme are nowhere near enough. After all, Thai politicians are second to none when it comes to exposing corruption in their enemies. If corruption were a monster, it would be laughing hard, thrilled as selective campaigns against graft are duly dismissed, one by one, as “a conspiracy”. This situation feeds rather than destroys the monster.
Prayut has been mocked left and right for promising a “new politics” after his 2014 coup, which nevertheless ended a spate of violence. The ridicule will continue, because the return to civil rule is barely acceptable and by no means orthodox. His core challenge remains the same as that which presented itself on the day of his coup: He must establish proof that between “democracy” and “dictatorship”, there is something that works better than either.