It now comes down to fulfilling public trust and hopes - failure will only widen our divisions
It may be giving Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha too much burden – or credit – if we were to say the success or failure of the reform process depends entirely on him. The process, after all, has begun to stutter already, with criticism and scepticism loud and clear over the outlook of the interim Parliament and the prospects of the reform council. But certainly, if we are to call on the head of the National Council for Peace and Order, who now will double as prime minister, to ensure that Thailand's political deadlock won’t get stickier, that’s not too much to ask.
Thaksin Shinawatra has started making noises again, coincidentally just a few days before Prayuth became interim prime minister, unopposed. The man in exile asked his visitors to “cooperate” with the military junta to the best of their abilities, but many are reading between the lines of his statement. He might be smelling blood, some analysts say. Whatever his motives, Thaksin has increased the heat in the kitchen.
But Thaksin is politically gone. And that’s the main point, because Prayuth’s task is even more delicate now. The apparent decline in the NCPO’s popularity can lead to a dangerous situation where the political deadlock worsens but the Thai people have absolute no alternatives. The NCPO was able to restore a semblance of peace thanks to two main factors: The active military checkpoints and the decisions among the Thai public to give it a try.
In short, the guns and the faith have contributed to the fragile peace. The guns have remained “friendly” because the faith is still there. The status quo has been endangered by recent developments and the political fact that no honeymoon lasts forever. Prayuth doubling as prime minister is not going to foster a second honeymoon.
Make no mistake: Some NCPO moves, no matter how badly they have been criticised, are in fact understandable. The interim charter, for example, features the ugly truth about power seizure and the need to empower coup-makers. But it’s imperative that Prayuth take the criticism seriously and not think the critics misunderstand him. More important still, Prayuth must realise that his countrymen want democratic reform and he has the biggest promise of his life to keep.
Thailand has gone through abuses of democracy. Now the situation has changed. We are awaiting true democracy at the temporary expense of freedom and liberty. From the now-familiar NCPO song being played day in and day out, it looks like Prayuth understands his task. However, he must also understand that the power to carry out the task derives more from the people’s trust than the roadblocks manned by his soldiers.
Thailand’s situation is different from that after the 2006 coup and the 2010 crackdown on the red shirts. The current deadlock is sticky, considering the relentless protests against the Thaksin regime. This means that, if the NCPO lets down those who trust it, the impasse could become even bigger than in pre-coup days. The country cannot afford to be divided into two camps of no-hopers.
In short, the NCPO cannot let itself be corrupted. It cannot abuse its power. The reform process will certainly involve a lot of people and there will be things and ideas that even Prayuth cannot control. What he can control is the NCPO itself, and now his Cabinet. The coup-makers must set good examples, stay away from temptation, heed the calls for assets declaration – and never be mistaken about what the people truly want.