Thai Junta Expands Power Over Lucrative Sectors

Army chief and chairman of the military junta Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

BANGKOK — After overthrowing Thailand’s civilian government in a coup d’etat last month, the Thai military junta has begun to implement major economic policies, with little to no oversight.

As of today, the leader of the  the junta's National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has appointed himself chairman of two prominent economic boards that wield considerable power over the country's investment and energy sectors.

An NCPO order issued on Saturday announced Gen. Prayuth as the chairman of the Board of Investment (BOI), while another NCPO order broadcast this morning announced him as the chairman of a committee to oversee the nation's energy and petroleum policies.

Deputy leaders of the NCPO were also appointed as top members of these economic bodies. 

The NCPO has taken over these economic responsibilities at the same time that it has outlawed any criticism of the military regime and its "missions." The NCPO has threatened to prosecute anyone who disseminates information that questions the junta's good will, lest it lead to "confusion" and derail the NCPO's stated aim of reconciling the country.

The NCPO has also barred independent agencies such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) from publicly scrutinising the military junta's operations. 

An NCPO announcement on 24 May ordered "all Courts, independent organizations and other agencies refrain from expressing opinions which might create misunderstanding, confusion and polarization among the public such that it affects the functioning of the officers of the NCPO."

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), an agency that many accused of harboring bias against the former government, has shown no signs of challenging these orders. Last week, deputy secretary general of the NACC, Worawit Sookboon, said there was no legal basis to conduct investigations into the personal assets of the coupmakers. Meanwhile, the anti-graft agency annouced it would begin its probe into Ms. Yingluck and four other former ministers' finances in connection with the administration's controversial rice-pledging policy. 

“This is worse than previous coups,” a political science lecturer at university in Bangkok told Khaosod English. “Because in [1991 and 2006], the military held onto power for a short time and then they organized a technocrat government to take care of all these economic issues for them. The NCPO on the other hand, their actions look more like the military regimes of the 1950s and 1960s. Back then the soldiers controlled many economic boards and state-owned enterprises, which led to massive corruption.”

The academic, who asked to remain anonymous because criticism of the junta is now considered illegal, added: “There is no accountability right now. Not even legislative power. We only have executive power under six people, which is the NCPO.”

Since seizing power, the NCPO has also picked up financial projects initiated by the former government that were stalled over accusations of corruption. 

Almost immediately after the coup, Gen. Prayuth ordered a massive loan of 90 billion baht from state banks to pay farmers who were owed money through the previous government's rice-pledging scheme. The NACC indicted Ms. Yingluck for failing to stop the corruption that allegedly plagued the policy, and is now investigating her personal assets in connection with that case. 

The NCPO's deputy leader, Air Marshal Prachin Chantong, said the junta may also resurrect the 2.2 trillion baht infrastructure overhaul project that was struck down by the Constitutional Court in February due to its lack of transparency.

So far, the NCPO has repeatedly dismissed concerns that its absolute power may lead to corruption. 

"I can assure you that the NCPO does not gain anything from this," Gen. Prayuth said in a nationally-televised address on Friday. "We are here to resolve the problems, not to create more. I urge you all to be vigilant and help us stop all corruption through the use of law, and to avoid further conflict and confrontations."

He added, "I understand it is very dangerous to use absolute power to resolve national economic and financial problems, especially in the long run."

Col. Winthai Suwaree, deputy spokesperson of the NCPO, offered similar reassurance.

"I insist that the NCPO is functioning under principles of righteousness, transparency, fairness, efficiency, and accountability," he said yesterday.

"We certainly won't let [corruption] happen," Col. Winthai stressed, "The nation and the people will greatly benefit from our works. I don't want some people to stick to the old images."

Corruption at the hands of coupmakers is a recurring theme in Thai history. For instance, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who launched a military coup in 1958 and ruled Thailand under an iron fist until his death five years later, is widely considered to have overseen the most scandalous case of military kleptocracy in the Kingdom's modern history.             

Upon his death in 1963, it was revealed that Field Marshal Sarit had amassed at least 604 million baht (not adjusted for inflation), mostly by embezzling state funds. 

Dr. Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, said that a lack of oversight led to high levels of corruption under Thailand's previous military regimes. 

"There was no transparency or accountability under military governments," Dr. Chambers said. "This is again the danger today."

 

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