Opinion: 5 Years Lost to Junta, But Fight Far From Over

Soldiers face off with anti-coup protesters in Bangkok on May 24, 2014.

Please allow me to whine. After all, today marks five years since the junta seized the sovereign power of the Thai people.

Time flies. Junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha now looks set to continue on as prime minister unless there’s a political miracle in the next few days.

Many articles and columns have been written about the junta and its staying power, but few about why the Thai people particularly those who are against military rule have failed to dispatch the generals back to the barracks. I think a reflexive article is in order.

First, right after the coup, a big chunk of so-called pro-democracy activists and intellectuals simply went quiet. They were too expedient and self-preserving. Some were busy fleeing. Others thought it wasn’t worth the risk to speak out against the coup, let alone take action.

Without trying to make this personal, each of us should ask ourselves what we did and did not do in the first week or two after the May 22, 2014 coup. That was the most crucial period if the coup was to be defeated but too few people were willing to take the risk.

Too few journalists and newspapers took a stance. Many adopted a “wait and see” attitude, giving the benefit of the doubt to the junta’s claim of staging a “good coup”. Others branded the coup as a fait accompli while some acted as outright junta apologists. Many more were simply confused between impartiality and indifference to curbs on freedom of the press, as the junta dispatched soldiers to physically control major television stations.

The anti-junta camp failed to unite in a common front and succumbed to factionalism and egotism, giving little room for disagreement even among those supposedly on the same side. Little engagement with the pro-junta camp took place beyond outright condemnation and hate speech.

Months and years passed as the junta entrenched itself and militarized ideas deeper into civilian life. Now some simply obey without asking if a junta’s order is fair, legitimate or even rational.

Some, particularly those who fled abroad, turned into vocal anti-monarchists and preached republican ideologies while many in Thailand stuck to the more modest goal of trying to dislodge the military junta. So far the deaths of two republicans in Laos have been confirmed while six others are feared dead.

The press, by and large, continues to downplay anti-monarchy sentiments while the junta exploited the death of Rama IX and the royal transition to deepen both military rule and ultra-royalist ideology.

A significant faction of the pro-democracy camp then turned to electoral politics with the establishment and rise of the Future Forward Party. It’s unclear if the party, led by the charismatic 40-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, can restore democracy despite controlling 80 MP seats – the third most of all parties – after the March 24 general election.

Concerns are being expressed about Thanathorn turning into a personality cult as young supporters idolize him. This is not healthy for democracy and, if not corrected, will create a culture of political fandom instead of a strong, self-reliant democratic culture.

After five years, cynicism has set in among many from older generations in the anti-junta camp. With a junta-appointed senate, a junta-appointed National Strategic Plan Committee, pro-junta political parties and a growing right-wing climate, the task of achieving a free, equal and democratic Thailand looks more distant and daunting than ever.

Strategic thinking is needed along with long-term planning and commitment. Thais only have themselves to blame if they keep tolerating the reversal of freedom, equality and democracy. The past five years has been a lost battle in a longer war for a better Thailand. But the fight for democracy is far from over.