How do people take stock of three years under military rule? What have they learned? Is the future more optimistic or less? There’s no conclusive answer. Junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who staged the May 22, 2014, coup three years ago today, claimed just last week that he’s putting “200 percent” into his work.
Whether people support the coup or not, they are in one way or the other affected by it. For some it’s meant economic difficulties. Others have fled the kingdom to seek political. A few benefited by being appointed by junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to help the regime. Most are concerned about how much longer the junta will cling to power.
We asked seven people including a street vendor, fugitive, conductor and junta appointee to assess three years of junta rule. Here’s what they made of it.
The Activist’s’ Confessions
Activist Nitirat Sapsomboon, 44, is probably best known among political junkies as a key Yellowshirt figure who led a group of 40 people on a raid of state broadcasting services in August 2008 in a bid to oust the Samak Sundaravej government which was regarded as a proxy for former fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The dawn operation failed and they were subsequently arrested, some found in possession of weapons and kratom leaves, an illegal stimulant. Still fighting charges of trespassing on government property, Nitirat said that though he opposed the later Yingluck Shinawatra administration, he never called for the coup in 2014.
In retrospect, Nitirat admits to unintentionally playing a role in making it happen.
“I was never for the coup, but I must admit that what I did help powers outside the system grow. I merely wanted to take the elected government to task for the sake of justice, but things got out of control. Our operations led to the creation of an outside system power,” said Nitirat, who these days has become a critic of the military regime and an activist working for the social security of workers.
“I think the key lesson is that that military coups are definitely not the answer for Thai society. The NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order] came to power saying they will push for two main goals, reforms and reconciliation. I think they failed at both. What’s most urgently in need of reforms are the armed forces, the bureaucracy and the justice system.”
Three years on, Nitirat said he’s not hoping for anything from the military regime but noted that the repression has led to a number of people becoming increasingly agitated against the junta.
“Hope is not coming from the NCPO but from people learning lessons [under military control],” he said.
His fear is that Prayuth and his men are planning to hold on to power for 20 years by relying on the bureaucracy.
“This old mechanism has proven to be a failure in the past. This bureaucratic mechanism is not Thailand 4.0, but Thailand 0.4,” he said, referring to Prayuth’s “Thailand 4.0” modernization policy campaign. Nitirat sees programs introduced by the regime, such as the registration of the poor, not as liberating, but patronizing.
“It seems that the NCPO leaders have become addicted to power. This is bad,” he said.
The activist doesn’t see elections as a salvation, either. He said the junta-sponsored constitution has been written in such a way that the senate, which will virtually be all selected by the NCPO will play a role in electing the next two prime ministers because they will be around for five years while a prime minister’s term is four years.
“What we will get is a return of elections with controlled mechanisms. People should come together and compile lessons. Perhaps a people’s own party is needed,” Nitirat said.
The Junta-Appointee’s Happiness
Life for Wanchai Sornsiri, 64, has been peaceful since the coup. Wanchai earns a very decent salary as one of the 200 members of the junta-appointed National Reform Steering Assembly, a body which advises and proposes legislation to achieve the regime’s stated aims. He and his peers are in charge of drafting reforms and legislative proposals, and Wanchai is a spokesman for political reform.
“The lesson I’ve learned over the past three years is that [the coup occurred] because politics failed, and did not put people at their heart. Political corruption led to dictatorship stepping in to solve failed politics, although in fact it’s people who ought to be carrying out the task,” said Wanchai, a trained lawyer.
Three years on, Wanchai said he is more hopeful about Thailand.
“I hope that under the new charter, we won’t be seeing a return to the same old politics or a return to dictatorship. I don’t think the NCPO wants to be back again. Hopefully they will lay things down over the transitional period,” he said.
Wanchai believes there’s no way the junta won’t make good on its roadmap to elections.
“There’s no reason to cling onto power. It would be counterproductive to them, unless there’s some violence again,” he said. Once elections are held – perhaps late next year or early 2019 – Wanchai sees the military exercising some control for at least five years under the new charter.
“Only part of the power will be returned [to the people],” he said.
Life under the military regime over the past three years has been bliss for Wanchai, with no violent street protests as political gatherings of five or more people were banned by the junta right after the coup.
“My emotional well-being has been so good over the past three years. I am happy and not troubled by the country’s situations. Whether people have money or not is another matter. Over the past three years, I consider myself most happy,” he added.
The Street Vendor’s Debt
Driven from the street into a small alley by the junta-initiated Bangkok clean-up program months ago, street food vendor Kamol Utsaha, 60, is finding it more difficult to make ends meet. Kamol said she owes a loan shark 30,000 baht and selling boiled pork blood and innards with rice for 40 baht a serving has become more difficult with fewer diners. Most recently, 14 million of the poorest Thais registered for a junta welfare program, but Kamol wasn’t among them.
“The economy isn’t good,” said Kamol, who migrated from Trang province and has been making a living for the past four decades in Bangkok. She currently sells food at a small alley somewhere just off Charoen Nakhon Road.
“I wish the economy would get better,” she said.
She said it’s become more difficult to make a living during the past three years.
“It’s difficult. It used to be good. Now I owe a loan shark 30,000 baht,” she said.
Kamol said she has nothing to say about the junta because she doesn’t know much about them, though she doesn’t support them. She believes however that holding elections will improve the economy and her livelihood.
“I want to see elections. Then there’s a chance that things will improve,” she said.
The Famed Conductor’s Caveats
The name Somtow Sucharitkul is synonymous with loyalty to the throne. Last year, after the passing of the Late King Bhumibol, the maestro even conducted a controversial in-flight performance of the royal anthem while on a Nok Air flight. While many royalists and ultra-royalists are unabashed supporters of the military regime, the Cambridge-educated maestro insists he’s simply non-adversarial to its rule.
So what has he learned?
“Frankly, I don’t think this has taught me anything I didn’t know already. In a sense, this is the most disheartening thing about the whole exercise. Those with power will always try to get more. This is hardly a new lesson. Any page of any history book will teach you that. If we are to survive, those history books need to stay open and truthful.”
Three years ago, when the coup took place, Somtow admitted being optimistic. Since then, his optimism has faded.
“The greatest dose of optimism comes at the onset of a major shift. At the beginning of the Thaksin era, I thought: Wow, new ideas, a breath of fresh air. At the onset of the coup, I thought, ‘Wow, peace and quiet, we can all regroup and have a real dialogue.’ In both cases, the optimism faded after a while.”
Hailing from a prominent family – one of his ancestors was a consort of King Rama VI – Somtow’s father an Oxford-educated former diplomat, the conductor was sent to Eton College in England and certainly was born to a different destiny than that of street food seller Kamol. Money isn’t a survival issue.
“On the whole, my personal existence hasn’t been much affected yet. An apocalyptic wind is blowing all over the world, not just in Thailand,” he said.
Asked whether he thinks the junta will keep its promise and return power to the people, he said he’s no astrologer but ventured a prediction.
“I do believe that power will be returned. I even believe that there’s a decent chance it will be returned voluntarily. It’s the time-frame that makes me nervous. The only possible justification for today’s situation, and one which I hear from all people of all political stripes, is contained in two words: ‘necessary evil.’ If you take away either one of those two words, all justification crumbles,” he said.
“Two thousand years ago, Augustus, while keeping all the external forms of democracy, parlayed his ‘temporary’ stewardship into a thousand years of imperial rule. I’m pretty sure that power will be returned a lot earlier in the case of Thailand. Why? Because history is moving in that direction, and history is bigger than any individual,” Somtow added.
The Fugitive’s Long Sojourn
Similar to dozens others, Redshirt political activist Nithiwat Wannasiri fled Thailand in the immediate aftermath of the May 22 coup three years ago to avoid persecution. Now 30 and wanted on counts of allegedly defaming the monarchy and failing to report to the military, Nithiwat has come out to declare himself for a Thai republic. He is active on Facebook, reaching out to like-minded people both in and out of the kingdom.
Today Nithiwat makes a living selling noodles. He doesn’t know how long he will have to stay in exile.
“I miss people around me in the society I left behind. I miss places where I staged activities. I don’t contemplate on how long I will have to stay away, but I still hope that one day I will find my way back and liberate lese majeste convicts.”
Life has been a struggle adapting to a new country as a fugitive and undocumented political exile.
“I have prepared my heart for this, and I chose to fight this way. It was never meant to be a comfortable path from the beginning,” he said.
Nithiwat holds some hope because he believes those in power are causing more damage and ruining the economy, which he says will eventually provoke reactions.
“They won’t definitely return power [voluntarily]. The situation has gotten bigger,” he said, adding that Thailand is regressing many decades as a result.
Under the constraints of the lese majeste law, portions of Nithiwat’s comments could not be printed.
The Citizen Journalist’s Contempt
Sa-nguan Khumrungroj is a fairly well-known, anti-junta citizen journalist with a following of nearly 17,500 people on Facebook. Sa-nguan makes no pretense of being an unabashed fan of former premier Yingluck Shinawatra, and his views on the junta are shared by many Redshirts opposed to the regime.
Three years of military rule have resulted in unprecedented human rights violations, Sa-nguan said, adding that the media – mainstream or otherwise – have felt the regime’s wrath. At the time of this interview, the regime is pushing through a media “reform” bill that would grant it a great degree of control over the press.
“Myanmar has become hopeful because it fears international sanctions, while the [Thai] regime is finding ways to create a situation where they can prolong their hold on power. This, despite the fact that they have caused so much damage already,” Sa-nguan said.
The Pheu Thai Politico’s Anxiety
Phumtham Wechayachai is anxious. The powerful secretary general of the Pheu Thai Party which ran the government ousted during the 2014 coup says the political future is unpredictable.
“The society is in a state of unpredictability. It’s up to those in power,” said 64-year-old Phumtham, adding that it’s a little better now since there’s a constitution and roadmap to elections. “I think they want to stay in power longer, but I don’t think they will succeed, because people’s expectations will force them. There exist many factors that lead to unpredictability.”
Phumtham is betting on society’s dynamism that would resist the military junta from dragging the kingdom further back.
“There are dynamics in society that will not follow the junta,” he said without elaborating. “Society needs freedom.”
The Pheu Thai bigwig has been lying low and avoiding persecution by the junta for the past three years. Phumtham even managed to see a positive aspect of three years under military rule as he had time to be away from politics and care for his own health and family.
“But if I think of politics, it’s depressing. The junta never respects other people’s rights,” he said. “I didn’t think Thailand could end up being this autocratic. I think the mentality of using power to force people is wrong. It’s important that we have to try to accept differing views. This is posing problems for reconciliation.”
Despite all the odds, Phumtham has managed to maintain some optimism after three years.
“I don’t lose hope easily. Coercion cannot succeed for a long time because society is ever-changing.”