"We are praying for you. You should pray for us too
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta’s chief, made this personal plea in what appeared to be a casual remark. But I think it reflected his real concern.
Embarking on Phase II of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), beginning with the launch of the interim constitution before the end of this month, will prove far more challenging than the first phase.
Issue No 1: How does he make sure things will run as planned without military officers dominating the new Cabinet, National Legislative Assembly and the Reform Council?
There are already warnings from even the most sympathetic quarters that the coup-makers will have to start making the new political set-up a more “inclusive” mechanism to avoid the perception that the NCPO leadership thinks the people in green uniform are versatile enough to take on all the difficult tasks of pushing the country forward.
There are signs that the NCPO is well aware of this potential trap. At least in the field of brainstorming for ideas to be submitted to the Reform Council, the top military coordinator has made it clear that the NCPO is only playing the role of a “facilitator” and would not impose conclusions from above. After all, national reconciliation and reform can’t happen if the coup-makers think they know the answer to every problem of the nation.
Issue No 2: How does the interim government work with the NCPO? In other words, who has the final say in running this country from now until the next election?
Prayuth went on record last Friday as saying that the interim Cabinet will be responsible mainly for running the country while the NCPO will be in charge of national security.
It’s, of course, easier said than done. The tricky part is how to determine what’s “a security issue” and what’s not, especially when the sensitive issues of budgetary allocations for various ministries, including defence and the Armed Forces, are raised for discussion in the Cabinet.
The interim government will face the dilemma of having to prove itself to be reasonably independent of military pressure while being able to work hand in hand with the NCPO to get important things done – and a full plate of crucial issues that require urgent attention and decisions are waiting to be tackled.
The possible conflict may be avoided if Prayuth straddles the posts of the NCPO chief and prime minister. But then, the more power he holds, the more vulnerable he will be to criticism and questioning. The interim Cabinet’s credibility can only be earned if the Cabinet members – even if they are hand-picked by the NCPO – can show the public that they are given sufficient freedom to make important decisions without undue influence from the top brass.
The relationship between the NCPO and the national legislative assembly and the reform council – and the latter’s composition – will also come under scrutiny from the public. A large number of laws will have to be amended and the drawing up of the new constitution will require an atmosphere of wide-ranging, open and heated debate.
Whether they like it or not, there is no way the top brass can dictate the outcome of the brainstorming process and some of the conclusions won’t fit the NCPO leaders’ thinking.
And if the public is, rightly or wrongly, led to believe that every Cabinet decision could be overruled by the NCPO, then the process of transition from military rule to a democratic system cannot boast a healthy start.
Prayuth said in his “Return Happiness to the People” weekly TV address last Friday evening that if the country’s problems could have been easily solved, “then it wouldn’t have been necessary for us to come out [to seize power]”.
Looking at the next phase of the NCPO’s roadmap, it would be realistic to add: Now that the NCPO has taken the necessary step to try to solve the nation’s highly complicated issues, things won’t be easy either.