Governments fall for want of public trust

opinion March 30, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Lessons of the past are unheeded as the killing in Chiang Mai further undermines faith in the military regime

The post-coup government has now been in power for more than two and a half years, a period comparable to those of many elected administrations in the past, including its two immediate predecessors led by Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra, both of which lasted less than three years. And, like other regimes that have survived this long, the current government is facing seemingly inevitable complaints about the abuse of power. 

For the most part, citizens still have faith in Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s intentions for bettering of the country, as set out after he led the military coup of May 2014. But the longer this government remains in power, the more doubt has arisen about the intentions of people close to him. Do they share General Prayut’s vision for national development? Are they sincere about initiating much-needed reform?

Such individuals must never forget that they seized power rather than earning the right to rule through an election. They have faced little serious opposition only because so many citizens, relieved that the violent street conflicts were over, have willingly given them time to implement their promised reforms.

To demonstrate its sincerity in this direction, the government must devote the balance of its tenure to expediting work that remains uncompleted, including a broad range of reforms. And it has to make absolutely sure that any changes introduced benefit the public rather than certain influential groups.

It is unwise for any government to allow the temptations of power to derail its good intentions. Being military and autocratic, the current government has run the risk of being “spoiled” by a lack of parliamentary and media scrutiny and the sheer muscle that Article 44 of the interim constitution grants the prime minister. He and other leaders should know the lessons of the past. Previous governments both elected and military became prisoners to their own power-lust and fomented public discontent that led to mass street protests. There is no reason for the current regime to repeat the same mistake.

Its “honeymoon period” has of course long since expired. Flaws in its actions – and its inaction on some important matters – are becoming increasingly evident. More citizens are speaking out. Prayut is now regularly criticised for invoking Article 44 too readily and unnecessarily, given that civilian laws might often be just as effective if enforced. 

Although this administration has so far remained free from serious allegations of corruption, we are hearing more and more criticism over perceived abuses of power. And even if much of that criticism comes from the military junta’s political rivals and members of the former power clique, the complaints are heard frequently enough to gain traction among the general public. And the government lends them credence every time it fails to mount an adequate defence.

One of this government’s worst weaknesses is its default readiness to defend military figures accused of irregularities. In the latest incident, rank-and-file soldiers stand accused of summarily killing a hilltribe activist at a Chiang Mai roadblock. The Army insists the slain man had a grenade and the troops were acting in self-defence. 

The fact that most key government leaders from the prime minister on down are military men might make it seem natural for them to feel obliged to protect subordinates and the Army’s reputation. That the matter is in dispute and under investigation might have tempered their case-closed defensiveness, but it did not. The furore has only made the government and military seem less trustworthy, resulting in simmering public discontent.

This government cannot afford to encourage the perception that its own interests outweigh those of the people.