BANGKOK — It was the kind of media event that would have once been unthinkable, but in a time of everything-everywhere expectations, the rapt coverage of an unfolding suicide Thursday seemed to raise ratings more than editorial alarms.
That is what army officials rushed to tell reporters and diplomats hours after then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha surprised the nation by declaring martial law at 4am on May 20, 2014. Later that day, when a reporter asked the general whether martial law presaged a coup, his answer was more ominous: “It’s a question I cannot answer.”
Two days later, with troops deployed in key parts of Bangkok and political leaders locked up in an army facility for “peace discussion,” Prayuth announced the coup, the 12th in Thailand’s history since democracy was installed in 1932.
And thus began what he calls “national reforms” to move the country forward.
He made many promises. In fact, when Prayuth unveiled his policy objectives to his rubber stamp parliament shortly after it named him prime minister, his speech took nearly two hours.
Two years later, how have those promises held up? Has the junta come close to fulfilling the missions for which it justified taking power, goals it said could achieve unconstrained by voter accountability?
We talked to various stakeholders and sat down with junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree to evaluate progress on those major platforms.
Redshirt and Yellowshirt activists feed each other noodles at an army-organized ‘reconciliation fair’ in Nakhon Ratchasima province June 8, 2015.
The junta has maintained the coup was necessary to save Thailand from unending political upheaval pitting Redshirts against Yellowshirts in cyclical street unrest, the most recent of which saw the Yellowshirts undermining a Redshirt-backed government.
The regime took immediate measures it said would foster “reconciliation” from banning political activities and protests to organizing bipartisan football matches and making Redshirts and Yellowshirts swear oaths of friendship.
Winthai acknowledges the political factions are still entrenched in their color-coded camps, although they have gone quiet due to restrictions imposed by the regime.
“Even though they may not express anything symbolically, they are still there,” Winthai said. “Their ideas are still there.”
One thing that has brought the two sides together, Winthai said, is common cause against the junta.
“There’s not much hostility between the two groups now, but there’s a feeling of suspicion and anxiety toward the state coming from them,” he said. “But we are not worried. We can create understanding with them.”
Schoolchildren march in a state-sponsored demonstration against corruption Dec. 9, 2015, in Korat.
Accusing the civilian government of endemic corruption, junta chairman Prayuth promised to eradicate graft from the nation. He installed a special anti-corruption taskforce and occasionally invoked his absolute power to remove suspect officials.
Kanokkan Anukansai of Transparency Thailand, an anti-graft group, said the junta has made a lot of progress. Examples, she said, include new morality lessons taught in school and open-government initiatives such as transparency reports on projects.
“In term of motives, the reason they do it for is another issue,” she said. “But as a person who experiences the results, I see the effort.”
Kanokkan feels corruption is less widespread with the junta in charge. “For their dedication, I give them a score of 7.5 out of 10,” Kanokkan said.
However, the 2015 corruption perception index compiled by her organization had Thailand at the same ranking as 2014. The kingdom is the 76th in transparency of 168 nations.
The junta itself has been dogged by accusations of corruption; namely, a billion-baht royal monument fraught with financial irregularities and a five-billion baht irrigation project that was reportedly awarded to a private firm without public oversight.
Well-wishers elebrate HM the King's birthday on Dec. 5, 2014, in front of Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok.
Defending the monarchy from slander was named by Prayuth as his regime’s No. 1 goal.
"We will use legal measures, social-psychological measures, telecommunications and information technology to deal with those who are not mindful of their words, are arrogant at heart, or harbor ill intentions to undermine the important institution of the nation," he told his interim parliament in 2014.
Prosecution of royal defamation, known as lese majeste, has since reached an unprecedented level. The past two years have seen record arrests, convictions and sentences for lese majeste, sometimes on absurd grounds. A man was charged for mocking a royal pet dog, and a woman for replying “okay” to allegedly offensive remarks sent via ostensibly private Facebook chat.
From the coup through to April 30, at least 66 have been charged, according toInternet Law Reform Dialogue, which tracks cases and advocates legal reform. And under the junta, suspects are being tried in secret by military tribunals where they cannot appeal their sentences.
On this point, Winthai played down the government’s success. In line with official insistence such offenses are criminal and not political, he said the spike in such cases stems from an increase in law and order.
“This is about enforcement of the law, naturally, we enforce it in a more strict manner,” he said.
Security officers inspect the scene of a car bomb in front of a Islamic Bank of Thailand branch August 2012 in Yala province.
A few months after taking power, Prayuth famously vowed to bring peace to the Deep South – ending 15 years of violence rooted in 700 years of ethnic-religious conflict – by the end of 2015.
Speaking five months after that deadline came and went, a professor deeply familiar with the situation noted the obvious.
“They could not fulfill their promise,” said Srisomphop Jitpiromsri, who’s also director of the Deep South Watch news agency. “It’s still the same. There have been ups and downs.”
Srisomphop said it’s a pity, because the junta came up with comprehensive policies, such as higher funding for security forces, re-organizing agencies to be more efficient, and even continuing peace dialogues with insurgent groups begun by the ousted government.
“The structures are rather good, actually, they are better than the previous government,” Srisomphop. What went wrong, he said, was the junta’s decision to exert a top-down approach by excluding local communities and social groups.
“They only focus on efficiency, they think like soldiers,” he said. “They cut out any process of scrutiny or control from civil society and locals. Therefore, all of these plans did not reflect the people’s needs … they do it for the people, but it wasn’t done by the people.”
The professor gave the junta a “failing” grade. “They do a lot of work, but they still fail in the exam,” he said.
Rescue workers carry a dead body from a humant trafficking gulag May 1, 2015, in Songkhla province.
One of the uglier skeletons in the nation’s closet, the trafficking of humans, was long ignored by previous governments. It was thrust to national attention a year after the coup when actual skeletons were exhumed from horrifying border slavery death camps.
Under the junta’s oversight, Thailand saw an unprecedented prosecution of more than 80 people investigators linked to the series of Rohingya slave camps in the Deep South. The suspects included businessmen, local politicians, police officers and a high-ranking army official.
Pressed by a threatened E.U. ban on seafood exports, the junta also moved to crackdown on a package of illegal fishing practices of which slavery on the high seas is a part. Then four months later, the case was closed, despite the lead investigator’s insistence it was unfinished.
While acknowledging some progress made, migrant worker rights activist Andy Hall said the effort still lacks coordination between different agencies and necessary personnel.
“One of the [frequent] problems is a lack of interpreters, and sometimes, the interpreters are the [slave] brokers. There’s nothing to qualify which interpreters are good guys, and which are bad guys,” Hall said.
There remains inadequate protection for victims and whistleblowers, he added.
“When there are victims, they are arrested and sent to detention centers,” Hall said. “But workers want to work. So they don’t want to identify themselves as victims. They are afraid.”
The investigator who was gung ho to go after the military and government figures he said were behind the trafficking? Maj. Gen Paween Pongsirin soon fled to Australia, citing threats on his life.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha signs an MOU for a joint Thai-Chinese rail project on Dec. 22, 2014, aboard a high-speed train in China.
In 2014, the junta scrapped a signature policy of the previous government: A high-speed rail line to plug Thailand into wider markets. Soon thereafter, the junta announced the same thing under a new name, saying it’s chief partner and financier would be China.
But two years on, the project is in limbo, as it seems the two governments have been unable to reach agreement, possibly due to Bangkok balking at Beijing’s terms.
Most recently, Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith told the media May 14 that construction would begin on the first portion of the railway – Bangkok to Korat – by September.
However, he also admitted negotiations are ongoing, and nothing is final.
Soldiers and police arrest a suspected drug dealer March 12 in Nonthaburi province.
The junta’s pledge to wipe out organized crime has been renewed and escalated several times. This past November, it found a new target: so-called “influential figures.” In late March, Prayuth controversially granted police powers to soldiers, ostensibly to go after the capos.
“We are doing our best,” Winthai said. “From what I have been briefed on, the government and the junta are already making some progress. Partly, it was due to enthusiasm from local communities, too. They no longer tolerated that kind of thing.”
However, what counts as “influential figures” remains vague. In one definition, the junta listed 16 businesses as such, from illegal logging and loan sharking to selling illegal firearms and overcharging tourists.
Political activists, environmental activists – and most recently Uber and Grabmotorcycle taxi services – have also somehow found themselves labeled “influential figures,” leading critics of the junta to accuse the regime of using the term as a blanket excuse for sweeping arrests.
Soldiers and police announce a fresh crackdown on bad taxis Feb. 9 in Pattaya.
In another much-heralded issue, the junta pledged to regulate public transportation such as taxis, motorcycle taxis and vans.
By 2016, many of their efforts appear to have flopped: A parking area for Victory Monument vans is now abandoned, dodgy cabbies are as abundant as ever, and the soldiers which for a time directed traffic flow near some major Skytrain stations are gone.
But perhaps the most lasting effect is with the ranks of motorcycle taxis. Since the coup, all motosai were made to register with the government, display their licenses and post fares at their stands. The regime also vowed to crackdown on the neighborhood criminal elements which extort taxi operators for bribes and kickbacks.
Chalerm Changtongmadan, chairman of Motorcycle Taxi Association, said the junta has done a good job eradicating the racketeers. “Right now, there is no mafia anymore,” he said.
Most of 80,000 motorcycle taxis are now properly registered, according to Chalerm.
Chalerm said his main concern is the competition with other motorcycle services like Uber and GrabBike, which the junta is trying to stamp out. Last week, both companies announced they would comply with the ban.