China, Middle Class Support Prolong Junta Power: Academics

Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sept. 4, 2017, at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, China.
Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sept. 4, 2017, at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, China.

BANGKOK — China’s growing influence in Thailand, middle class support for the junta, a royalist ideology and the West’s declining interest in human rights abroad have led to the ruling junta’s long stay in power, a group of academics said Thursday.

While the West brought soft power to bear after the 2014 coup, “China said whatever government you have is okay with us,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University at a panel discussion on the future of democracy. By 2017, Thitinan said, junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the White House at the invitation of United States President Donald Trump.

Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Thammasat University, said the junta learned to lean on China as it came under pressure from the United States, European Union and Australia in the immediate aftermath of the coup. This, Prajak said, is among the key factors enabling the junta to be in power for 51 months now.

Read: Prayuth’s Staying Power Owes to Fear of Resumed Discord

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Hoover Institution and Stanford University said Thailand has neither a strong democratic nor authoritarian culture. He noted the severe polarization of Thai politics as a cause for democratic breakdown in the kingdom.

“It’s hard to imagine a long authoritarian rule being stable here,” Diamond said.

Diamond said the major political parties should make a pact to oppose military intervention while setting standards for mutual restraint and tolerance to prevent another democratic breakdown.

“Unless you have some restraint … you are not going to have a high-quality democracy,” he said, referring to the excesses of elected governments contributing to the public perception of civilian politicians as a corrupt class to be chased out by military coups.

On China, Diamond said the country is not engaging with the world in a benign and democratic way.

Puangthong Pawakapan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said China has become the biggest investor-donor in Southeast Asia, provide uncritical support to oppressive regimes in Southeast Asia and has become a model for authoritarian rule in the region. She added that Thai military government’s attempt to restrict internet access through its so-called Single Gateway policy apes China’s Great Firewall.

Prajak also cited as facilitating the junta’s longevity – it’s the longest-ruling regime since 1973 – the West’s deprioritization of democracy and human rights, which Puangthong seconded.

The West “is no longer consistent on the promotion of democracy and human rights here,” she said.

Prajak also cited factors including adaptive military rule which includes drafting of the charter while “manipulating” the referendum and “royal-military authority” as an alternative power structure. Prajak called the issue of the monarchy the elephant in the room, while Puangthong said she could not discuss the issue.

“You see it, but you cannot discuss it openly,” Puangthong said.

Prajak said while rule under Thaksin Shinawatra was repressive and destroyed checks and balances, the illiberal democracy under Thaksin after two coups had been replaced by military rule.

Prajak support from the middle class and big capitalists would keep the military in power.

Puangthong said Thailand was the worst in Southeast Asia when in comes to the rise of support for authoritarianism among the middle class, though she did not cite any evidence of this.

“These people do not believe that elections and democracy will improve their livelihoods. This is the strength of the military regime now,” she said.