Prayuth’s Meltdown and the Semi-Democratic Transition

PM Prayuth Chan-ocha responds to Sereepisut's criticism in Parliament on July 25, 2019.
PM Prayuth Chan-ocha responds to Sereepisut's criticism in Parliament on July 25, 2019.

Parliament’s two-day debate on the new government’s core policies was a test of ex-dictator Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s commitment to a semi-democratic transition. But Prayuth barely composed himself, struggling to contain his short dictatorial fuse time and time again.

Used to promulgating absolute orders and detaining critics and opponents, Prayuth found himself in utterly unfamiliar turf as the prime minister of a so-called elected government.

The appointed parliament, known for its docility and nearly total support for Prayuth’s military regime, is partially gone, save the 250-strong appointed senate. It its place is an elected lower house with a strong opposition bloc.

On Thursday and Friday, the ex-coup leader had to endure direct criticism, listen and try to respond politely.

One opposition MP after another took to the floor to not only criticize Prayuth and his policies, but also to remind him that he cannot simply order MPs to shut up.

“We are not your subordinates,” Future Forward MP Karom Polpornklang reminded Prayuth. The moment was televised for all to see.

At one point, Prayuth warned that many opposition MPs are still facing security-related charges, which are an attempt by the authorities to curb dissident. But the threat didn’t seem to have an effect. Opposition MPs renewed their criticisms, calling Prayuth’s administration a “fake democratic government” and his government policies vague, unmeasurable and unlikely to be implemented by the end of the administration.

On Thursday afternoon, the ex-dictator asked opposition lawmakers to accord him some respect, though he never offered them the same courtesy during the five years after the 2014 coup. “Give me respect, too. I’ve never looked at you as rank-and-file soldiers.”

Prayuth himself admitted that if the MPs were soldiers under his command, he wouldn’t have lost his cool. “I wouldn’t be behaving like this,” he stressed.

By Thursday night, Prayuth descended into a complete emotional meltdown and into a spar with Seri Ruam Thai Party leader and MP Sereepisut Temiyavet, after the latter accused Prayuth of “cheating” his way into power in the March elections.

Sereepisut after the House Speaker calls for a break.

“If I were him, I wouldn’t be this shameless and still hold on to power,” said Sereepisut, who was a former senior of Prayuth at the army academy.

Prayuth couldn’t keep calm and declared, “From today, I will not count you as my roonpee [senior classmate] anymore, because you don’t treat me with honor at all.”

Prayuth then walked out of Parliament amid chaos as the House Speaker called for a 10 minute emergency recess.

How long will Prayuth be able to maintain his patience in the face of more public criticism? Some fear the military may just stage another coup if the regime cannot control the parliamentary situation.

Watching the democratic chaos unfold, Gen. Thawatchai Samutsakorn, one of Prayuth’s 250 appointed senators, took to the floor and suggested on Thursday night that perhaps Thailand needs another 20 years of military rule.

“I’ve always said that if Thailand wants to progress, all Thai males must be [drafted into] soldiers. Then there won’t be any need for a coup. Everyone will be friends and they won’t be fighting like this. If it continues on like this, we will need a 20-year military coup,” said the general-turned-senator.

It was an acknowledgment that the now-defunct junta led by Prayuth failed to fully militarize Thai society even after five years. Now Thawatchai wants another 20 years of direct military rule.

Thai viewers of the two-day parliamentary debate on TV be warned: the transition to a semi-democratic regime may not be smooth. Prayuth’s mood is like a rollercoaster, so be prepared for the possibility of another zany military coup.