BANGKOK — When a military coup last year ended months of political turmoil and violence in Thailand, even some democracy advocates welcomed the junta’s promise to restore stability and return “happiness to the people”.
But 15 months later, a deadly bomb that ripped through a venerated shrine in downtown Bangkok highlights a critical question: Are the generals losing their grip on troubles blitzing them from all directions, in a land that once seemed endowed with a magic touch?
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who engineered the May 2014 coup, has said he had to take over the government to end protests and political clashes that left about 30 people dead. With the junta cracking down on dissent, most of the country had been relatively peaceful until the Aug 17 bombing, which killed 20 people and injured scores of others.
Speculation about possible motives and culprits ranges from anti-government radicals to Muslim extremists to a renegade military faction, underscoring the array of woes facing the country. Prayuth described the attack as “the worst incident that has ever happened in Thailand”.
The prime minister has said he will step aside for a new elected government as soon as possible, but when that will happen, and the true strength of that future government, has grown increasingly murky. Mr Prayuth is spearheading the drafting of a constitution that would ensure that the military and traditional ruling elite retain sufficient political power beyond the general elections, which would be held a year from now at the earliest.
Some analysts say Mr Prayuth is trying to turn the clock back to an era when a feudal-like hierarchy dominated. They say that won’t work in an increasingly diverse, Internet-connected society, and that men in uniform simply don’t have the know-how to resolve contemporary complexities.
Thailand’s economy has been flagging under the junta, with disappointing figures for both foreign investment and domestic consumption. Tourism — which accounts for 9 per cent of the economy — has been relatively resilient, but Monday’s (Aug 17) bombing has already driven some visitors away. Mr Prayuth replaced the country’s economic leadership in a Cabinet shake-up Thursday.
On a continent earlier populated by military strongmen, Thailand remains the last country in Asia overtly ruled by the military. Uniformed or ex-military men have led Thailand for 55 of the 83 years since absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932, with coups occurring almost as frequently as the monsoons.
“I think the military is capable of fixing problems in the short run, but superficially because the use of force and fear is a painkiller. But like with a painkiller, the real problem is not understood, let alone solved,” says Dr Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin.
Mr Prayuth, however, stresses that Thailand needs a cooling-off period of reform and reconciliation before “Thai-democracy” can be instituted and political chaos avoided.
Sharp differences voiced daily over the future constitution reflect the deep rifts in society that gathered momentum as the country so rapidly modernised: between Bangkok and rural regions, the entrenched traditional elite and pro-democracy forces, the haves and have-nots.
The dividing lines have changed little since 2010, when the military cracked down on “Red Shirt” protesters in central Bangkok, leaving about 90 people dead. The Red Shirts were key supporters of the elected government that the military ousted last year.
“National-level political conflict is the overarching challenge facing Thailand right now,” says Mr Matthew Wheeler, Southeast Asia analyst for the think tank International Crisis Group.
But this is hardly the only tribulation in today’s Thailand, which despite periods of turbulence has historically enjoyed multiple advantages, from abundance of natural resources to absence of war on its soil since the 1790s.
Now, Muslim insurgents continue to fight for autonomy in the country’s southernmost provinces, where more than 5,000 people have died since 2004. Peace talks are producing no results. Last month, Thailand also sparked the ire of the Islamic world — along with condemnation by Washington and the United Nations — for forcibly repatriating more than 100 Muslim Uighur refugees to China, where it was feared some would face punishment for involvement in anti-government activities.
US-based Human Rights Watch says Thailand’s human rights are in “free fall” with crackdowns on peaceful protests and trials of civilians in military courts.
Prosecutions under a draconian law proscribing insults to the Thai monarchy have increased in recent years and continued under the junta. Since the coup, at least 51 people have been sentenced under the law, including some who had been declared mentally ill and a young woman imprisoned for 28 years for a posting on her Facebook page.
Once a poster child for press freedom in Asia, Thailand dropped four places to 134th out of 180 countries on the 2015 press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
The US State Department last month retained Thailand’s lowest Tier 3 ranking in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, citing persistent forced labor and sex trafficking. The ranking could trigger bars on US foreign assistance and access to World Bank funds. An Associated Press investigation this year exposed slave labor aboard Thai fishing vessels.
Tourism has been a steady bright spot, seemingly immune from political violence, natural disasters and other crises as visitors come to the “Land of Smiles” for its numerous attractions, low prices and hospitable people. But the bombing could damage the industry, since it is Thailand’s first major attack on an area popular with tourists.
Also hanging heavily over Thailand is the future of the 700-year-old monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, regarded as a key stabilising and much revered figure for decades, is 87 and ailing. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the probable successor, does not possess his stature or popularity, and there are reportedly conflicts about how the transition should proceed.
“Thailand is coming to the end of an era, and there’s a lack of consensus on what will follow, what will work for Thailand,” Mr Wheeler said.
Other challenges for the country include being “red-flagged” by the International Civil Aviation Organisation over aviation safety standards, and an ongoing failure to reform its outdated education system and raise the level of English. A Swiss survey ranked Thailand 55th among 60 countries where English is not a mother tongue.
“No single Thai administration is capable of solving the country’s most chronic and deeply embedded problems. For the past 50 years, we have swept so many problems under the carpet. The chickens are now coming home to roost,” Mr Songkran Grachangnetara, a businessman and analyst, wrote recently in the English-language Bangkok Post.
Critics of the junta doubt it will take up the sweeping reforms Thailand needs. Instead, the military is trying to tackle some of these problems by promoting “Thainess,” incorporating 12 core values that schoolchildren must recite daily, including respect for teachers, religion, nation and monarchy.
What persists, says Dr Thongchai, the history professor, are politics of personal relations, loyalty to superiors and a “mentality suitable to a village” rather than modern society.
Mr Charles F Keyes, an American anthropologist who has studied Thai culture for half a century, says military leaders, in alliance with other conservative forces, seek a throwback to the “despotic paternalism” of the past.
“It is becoming clear that the vast majority of people in upcountry Thailand and the majority in Bangkok are not willing to be compelled to accept a hierarchical order such as existed through the 1950s,” he said, predicting that such opposition could “lead to more political turmoil in the kingdom of no-longer-smiling Thai”.