More Than Repression, Junta Pulls Cultural Triggers to Rule, Scholar Argues

'Such a foul mouth,' PM Prayuth Chan-ocha says Sept. 15 while singing a pop song with reporters at Government House on a day he made the argument Thailand has a stronger economy, more social equality, improved safety and general welfare under his rule.

BANGKOK — More than direct repression, a Chiang Mai scholar says the junta maintains its grip on power by dangling promises of reform, focusing on performance-based metrics and associating itself with the monarchy.

In the January issue of the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai University lecturer Panuwat Panduprasert posited that repression is just one of the tools brought to bear by the regime which staged the 2014 coup.

“[A] regime that depends exclusively on repression is likely to face backlash from those who repeatedly suffer from it. Citizens are unlikely to tolerate long periods of oppression and restrictions, unless they feel there are good reasons for them to live under that kind of government,” the lecturer wrote.

Anuwat added that while a liberal democratic regime can claim legitimacy from being elected by and accountable to the people, an authoritarian regime needs to find alternative means.

The first alternative source cited by Panuwat is the junta’s promotion of what he called “performance legitimacy” in order to make up for its democratic deficits. This, he said, is based on the belief legitimacy can be derived from how well a government performs its duties, “especially in terms of improving people’s livelihood and delivering tangible results.”

In addition, the junta, the lecturer wrote, blames politicians for causing the pre-coup political turmoil associated with six months of street protests which precipitated its move to overthrow the elected government.

The second alternative means used by the junta, Panuwat argued, is closely associating itself with the monarchy:

“The junta has portrayed itself as defenders of the Thai monarchy, though in the Thai context it would be impossible for any government not to make the same claim. As a military government, the Prayuth [Chan-ocha] administration benefits from the longstanding perception in Thailand that the military is closely associated with the monarchy. Under the junta, the use of lese majeste law to crack down on insults and disrespect toward the monarchy has grown more severe and those arrested have been put to trial in the military court instead of a civilian one.”

Panuwat Panduprasert. Photo: Chiang Mai University
Panuwat Panduprasert. Photo: Chiang Mai University

Thirdly, Panuwat wrote that the junta has sought to gain legitimacy from the notion of reform.

“In the Thai context, reform (pa ti roop) is a word that conveys seriousness and intelligence but can sometimes also be confusing and misleading,” he wrote.

Panuwat added that the junta has argued the political crisis of the decade prior to the 2014 coup “showed how the country was in need of serious reform,” and the anti-Yingluck Shinawatra groups which staged protests were also calling for reform.

Panuwat, who is currently studying the topic as part of his doctoral research at the University of Leeds, stressed these means of establishing legitimacy can be effective means in the Thai context. He said the junta’s strategy is deeply rooted in Thailand, where the concepts of liberal democracy and popular sovereignty “have struggled to displace the traditional ideological system that emphasizes nationalism, monarchism and Theravada Buddhism.”

Ending with a caveat, the writer said he does not seek to play down the oppressive nature of the junta but invite a more analytical focus on how it has ruled.