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Junta signals the return of 'bureaucratic polity'

It is pretty clear that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is not building a foundation for democracy in Thailand as it claims - but is returning "bureaucratic polity" to the country.

Academics might define the term "bureaucratic polity" in different ways, but it simply means the country is reigned, ruled and run by the bureaucracy. Under this system, military is best, civil servant is good and politician is worst.

The junta chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, worked to prove that the country could be run by a bureaucracy alone during the two months after he staged the coup on May 22 to topple an elected government. The coup in theory has cut the linkage among people, politicians and political institutions. The country has had no government since then, but all of the state apparatus is functioning under the guidance of the military junta.

The junta later installed a provisional charter and gave birth to the National Legislative Assembly, dominated by security officers. The national assembly will be the crucial power to produce laws as well as the next constitution and a fundamental structure for the future.

It is widely understood that Thailand has turned from the reign of absolute monarchy to democracy since the 1932 revolution. But democracy in Thailand contains only forms of elections. Politics in Thailand simply means power-sharing among the elite. Political institutions and civil society, which are the foundations of democracy, are never strengthened.

The old elite would not allow the electoral and parliamentary system to last for long. No elected government, except one under Thaksin Shinawatra, over the past 82 years was able to last until the end of its term. Thailand has experienced more than a dozen military coups d'etat. Every coup-maker shared the same pretext - saying that he wanted to rid the country of corrupt politicians.

In Thailand's long political history, it has enjoyed only short periods of democracy, with elected governments running the country with a full mandate from voters. The few years after the student uprising to overthrow the dictatorship under Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn in 1973 was counted as a remarkable period of democracy. The country later was run by military regimes and quasi-democracies under a dominant military between 1976 and 1988.

The quasi-democratic regime under General Prem Tinsulanonda between 1980 and 1988 was regarded by many of the intellectual elite as stable, and perhaps setting a model that would be suitable for Thailand forever. Thai constitutions, except those of 1997 and 2007, always opened doors for non-elected persons, mostly military generals, to sit as the prime minister.

The Prem regime is the role model for many elite political architects. He is a former Army commander who was "invited" by political parties and elected politicians to take the premiership after elections during the 1980s. To that extent, political parties and politicians were only minor parts of the arrangement. They were furniture, rather than the structure of the country's administration.

Thailand was then mostly run by military officers and bureaucrats. The prime minister had no accountability to the people. His power was supported by the military. Prem faced challenges from young officers and two coup attempts, rather than lawmakers in the House of Representatives. He never gave a damn about the politicians in Parliament. They would create no trouble for his government as long as they were allowed to join the Cabinet.

Political parties and politicians were allowed to take power and run the country with their platforms and policies after Prem, but the administrations never went smoothly. Two coups in 1991 and 2006 overthrew them.

The May 22 coup by General Prayuth could be regarded as the second attempt to complete the mission for restoration of a bureaucratic regime since the previous coup in 2006 failed to weaken politicians, notably in Thaksin's camp, and their political institutions.

The NCPO is working hard these days to keep politicians, notably the disobedient ones, away from power arrangements. Many are not qualified to sit in the national assembly or the reform council, and have no need to have a say in the Constitution Drafting Committee.

The new constitution could be foreseen as a conservative one, less democratic, giving less power to politicians but more power to the military and bureaucracy to lay a strong foundation for the return of bureaucratic polity.


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