Do's and don'ts follow every coup as night follows day. Have an early election, Western countries say, insisting that power should be "returned to the people" as soon as possible. You shall not crack down on the media, add local and international activist
Political correctness aside, here is what the Thai junta can and cannot do. It can drag its feet on the election a bit, spank the media a little and lock up those “threatening” national security for a few days. Such acts will spur the West into a fresh condemnation mode, infuriate the social media and flood overseas news outlets with strongly worded editorials. But, like it or not, the junta will pull through, largely unscathed.
Unless, of course, the generals ignore the following. There is one huge “Don’t” as far as the junta is concerned. It must never give in to greed and temptation. It must not be corrupt, to be precise. A corruption scandal, big or small, will act like dynamite, blowing away whatever “pillars” support the National Council for Peace and Order.
There should be a must-do list, you may argue. How about making genuine reform an urgent priority? How about revamping the Thai education system while they can? How about sorting out the accumulating vested interests in the energy sector? Then there are the problems of gambling, drugs and the violence in the South that no elected government has seemed able to solve.
Well, without graft, anything is possible. Keep corruption at bay and you can go from there – to any destination. When there’s no corruption, there will be less dissent and less need to block the freedom of information or expression. When there are no vested interests, there will be no need for the junta to hang on to power by delaying an election or reform. And no-holds-barred reform is possible only when there’s nothing in it for the junta.
Corruption always complicates constitutional reform, as modern Thai history shows. It discourages any revamping of education because corrupt rulers, deep down, don’t want the people to get smart. Graft also blurs consciences when it comes to the energy sector, where the line between personal and national interests is getting thinner and thinner. It’s more or less the same for the problems of narcotics, other vices and the deep South.
NCPO leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has made daily pleas for time and patience, may get away with summoning those who are against his coup or putting a few through military courts. He may scrape through a “reform” process that takes longer than expected. The Thai public may grit their teeth and bear a few more curfews or news blackouts. But all these “luxuries” hang on one single condition: The NCPO must not be caught doing things the overthrown administration was accused of doing.
A corruption case implicating the junta would make martyrs of all the figures so far summoned. It would cast a bad light on every extra day that the “reform process” takes. Curfews and media controls would cease to be something in the “national interest” and start to look like measures of oppression designed to protect a malicious regime. The military bunkers on Bangkok streets would stop drawing selfie-crazed tourists and start radiating what critics of the coup insist has been there all along – a climate of fear.
Ultimately, a corruption case would revive the debate over “imperfect democracy” and “absolute power that corrupts absolutely”. The only “justification” for Prayuth’s coup would evaporate into thin air. Those who think there was never any justification to begin with would simply say “We told you so.” And the urge to silence them would get stronger and stronger because corruption and oppression feed off each other.
A graft-free environment alone can’t take the country forward, many insist. Even if the NCPO manages to avoid temptation, that doesn’t guarantee the coup will have revitalised Thailand two years from now. Taking political power by force carries too many other risks, so to speak. However, we can worry about any other shortcomings of the generals later. As of now, it’s imperative that the NCPO avoid the only thing that can turn “resetting Thailand” into taking the country back to Square One.
I may be wrong, but Prayuth doesn’t look like a man eyeing short-term gains. “I’m not doing this for myself,” the General often says. The Thai people wouldn’t mind, though, if he’s doing it to make his name – just as long as it’s not to make money. Critics of the coup may say this is asking too much of the men in uniform, and the doubters have the evidence of history on their side. Prayuth only has to remember that if corruption wins, everybody, including himself, will lose.