Barisan Nasional’s surprising defeat is a chilling warning for dominant one-party regimes, but the effects of this “people’s tsunami” is probably more keenly felt by our closest neighbour: Thailand.
Thailand’s military-backed government is also feeling the heat. I spent the last five days in Bangkok and spoke to a number of Thai people to get an understanding of how much the restoration of a parliamentary democracy means to them.
Incidentally, May 22 was the fourth anniversary of the Thai coup when the military seized power and declared martial law.
“The generals are unlikely to relinquish power. They have been promising democratic elections but every time a small incident happens, they use it as an excuse to further delay polls,” said Werawat (last name withheld), a successful restaurateur.
The businessman, who has interests in Malaysia, was extremely surprised by the turn of events on May 9.
“Both Thailand and Malaysia have similar elements of autocratic leadership, hence my surprise when the previous Malaysian government was voted out. But I doubt the same thing can happen here because the military is in total control,” he said.
He said that corruption levels were still very high, with money politics especially rife in the rural north.
“Even Bt500 will buy you their votes, because Bt500 is enough to feed a rural family for a month compared to three meals for one person in Bangkok,” he said.
Werawat, like a number of Thais I spoke to, feels that the current Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha will himself run in the elections when it is eventually called.
Pom (not his real name) believes that polls will be called in February next year and Prayut will offer himself as prime minister.
“He has already intimated this. People forget that the Thais themselves welcomed the coup that took place four years ago.
“People took to the streets because of the rampant corruption of the previous administration. There was bloodshed and this opened the door for the army to step in,” he said, adding that coups were nothing new – there have been more than 10 in modern Thai history.
Pom, who works as a PR consultant for one of the ministries, said support for the PM had steadily eroded because the democratic elections promised had not happened yet.
“The handover should have taken place two years ago. The PM’s popularity is at an all-time low now.
The generals promised to eradicate corruption but they themselves seem to be involved in enriching themselves,” he said, citing an investigation into Deputy PM General Prawit Wongsuwan, who has appeared in public wearing 25 different high-end timepieces, with a total estimated value of US$1.5million.
He added that Prawit’s watch scandal was symptomatic of the corruption that had pervaded all aspects of Thai society.
Other than the elections, the one common grouse that ordinary Thais have is the high petrol prices. There is rising anger in the media and on social media over the fact that Thailand has the highest fuel prices among Asean countries. (In comparison, Malaysians pay the lowest petrol and diesel prices.) Thais are currently paying the equivalent of 6.86 ringgit per litre of petrol and 5.14 ringgit per litre of diesel, a huge difference compared to our pump prices of 2.20 and 2.18 ringgit respectively.
The furore over fuel prices is so alarming that the junta has now said that it would use the state oil fund to subsidise cooking gas prices and cap diesel at a maximum Bt30 baht per litre.
The rising living costs together with elevated household debt has also resulted in a government-led plan to stimulate the economy.
The plan aims to deliver up to Bt200,000 in cash to each of the 82,000-plus villages across Thailand to develop local businesses and improve living conditions in a sustainable way. The total budget for this is a whopping Bt100 billion!
Local media on Wednesday called this “a vehicle to canvass support for the regime while political parties are straitjacketed by a blanket ban on most political activities”.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, believes that Malaysia’s overriding lessons for Thailand is that entrenched regimes should be more aware that longevity in power inevitably elicits graft, and that creeping corruption and malfeasance will alienate the electorate, regardless of sound economic performance.
“If the Najib government still lost despite apparent efforts to stack the electoral deck, Thai generals will be more fearful of their electorate despite having engineered a pro-military constitution and having packed anti-graft and electoral agencies with loyalists,” he was quoted in the Nikkei Asian Review last week.
The writer believes that while profound change is taking place in this country, institutional and structural reforms should follow suit.
Published : June 01, 2018
By : Brian Martin The Star Asia News Network Kuala Lumpur