Opinion: Hope, Confusion, and Betrayal in Juntaland

Junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures to reporters on June 5, 2019.

Hope, confusion and betrayal. These feelings engulfed me as I watched the parliamentary debate unfold on Wednesday. Junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was voted in as prime minister after having ruled for five years as a dictator.

Betrayal

Before the March 24 general election, which came after nearly five years of direct military rule as a result of the May 2014 coup, then Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed in a viral campaign video not to support Prayuth as PM. In the video, Abhisit told viewers to listen carefully, before repeating that he does not support Prayuth.

Fast forward two months to Wednesday night. All 52 MPs from the Democrat Party, whose motto is “Truth is Indeed the Undying Word”, voted for Prayuth, except Abhisit. Yes, Abhisit is no longer party leader, as he resigned after the elections when the party failed to gain 100 seats (the threshold the Oxford-educated Abhisit set for his party). And yes, Abhisit resigned as MP on Wednesday morning just hours before the rest of the party’s MPs expediently voted for Prayuth.

Nevertheless, one wonders how many of the 3.9 million votes which went to the Democrat Party assumed the party would not support a military dictator like Prayuth in becoming prime minister. After all, the partly leader had avowed against this clearly.

Can Abhisit’s mere resignation as MP (while remaining a party member) redress the damage? Without the Democrat Party’s 50 votes, Prayuth would have appeared outrightly illegitimate, because he would not have been able to muster a majority among the 500 elected MPs.

When you pay for organic tea but end up getting a toxic drink, simply because the shop keeper changed hand after the money was paid, you feel betrayed and cheated.

Confusion

In an attempt to refute accusations that he is a lackey as a Prayuth-appointed senator, Seri Suwanpanond said in parliament, “I was accused of supporting dictatorship. I am for democratic dictatorship, not fake democracy.”

Seri is among the 250 Prayuth-appointed senators who voted for Prayuth in a quid pro quo transaction. They will most likely continue to defend Prayuth, even though he and his peers are not representatives of the people.

Now, is there such as thing as a “democratic dictatorship?”

This is Orwellian doublespeak, an oxymoron. How can things be both democratic and dictatorial?

There is no “democratic dictatorship”, only dictatorship exploiting democratic processes (that are in fact semi-democratic at best), chiefly through the junta-appointed senate. If anything, as Seri said, it’s a “fake democracy.”

To be fair, I would not call the post-election regime a totally fake democracy. It’s more a hybrid semi-democracy – military dictatorship has gone hybrid. Some elected MPs willingly lend the generals a veneer of legitimacy in exchange for cabinet loose change. The junta has employed and distorted democratic and electoral processes to remain in power, while sharing some bread with those elected MPs who are willing to be their collaborators.

Hope

Many who wish to see a return of democracy were utterly disappointed on Wednesday night after seeing Prayuth gain 500 votes: 249 from his own appointed senate (one senator abstained per custom as senate speaker) and 251 from elected MPs across 19 political parties. Prayuth outscored his rival, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who received 244 votes.

Still, people witnessed a functioning opposition take junta leader Prayuth to task.

The lampooning of Prayuth in parliament on Wednesday was nothing but a de facto censure debate which could have led many speakers to be detained without charges for “attitude adjustment,” as has happened over the years since the coup. Yet their criticism was aired live on TV and citizens could watch them from their smartphones anywhere.

After five years, the dictator finally faced a grilling in parliament. His absolute power under Article 44 will soon be gone and the junta, the euphemistic National Council for Peace and Order, will cease to exist as well.

On Wednesday night, a young Bhumjaithai Party MP, Siripong Angkasakulkiat, broke rank and refused to vote for the dictator Prayuth.

The whole nation saw the contorted face of Siripong, who struggled to hold back tears after he announced his abstention from voting. His bravery created an uproar in parliament.

Unlike all the Prayuth-appointed senators who did not fail to return the favor to Prayuth after being appointed, Siripong later said he acted out of his conscience and honored what voters asked him to do. The 43-year-old Sisaket MP is now being rewarded with possible disciplinary action within the party.

In the darkness of Juntaland, there are still some glimmers of hope after all.