Dissenting voices from Isaan on four years of military rule

KHON KAEN – On May 22, 2014, Thailand’s army seized power in a coup against an elected government. It promised to resolve the country’s long-standing political conflict, implement reforms, and return to democratic rule within two years.

But four years after the military takeover, a stalled reform process and the repeated delay of elections, Thailand’s democracy remains suspended.

The Isaan Record talked to two members of the NGO community in the Northeast about the effects of military rule and their views on the success of the government’s push for reform and reconciliation.

Wasted years

Suvit Kulapwong, former general-secretary of the NGO Coordinating Committee on Development (NGO-COD) Isaan, gives a devastating review of the performance of the military government.

Calling it “a wasted four years,” Mr. Suvit argues Thailand has not made progress since the coup but instead has continued moving backwards. He criticises the junta’s ban on public gatherings which closed an important channel for political participation.

“People used to be able to scrutinize the work of the government but now they can’t do anything,” Mr Suvit says.

Suvit Kulapwong (48) argues the country moved backwards in four years under military rule.

Not only has the country regressed politically, in the Northeast, the military government’s policies have also escalated old conflicts and caused various new problems, Mr. Suvit argues.

On the heels of the coup, the military government implemented its Forestry Master Plan, a reforestation scheme to remove encroachers from national reserves. Without any public consultation, hundreds of forest communities were evicted or sued for trespassing. Some communities have been living on disputed land before it was announced a protected area.

“They shouldn’t chase people out of the forests and then claim they’ve solved the problem and reforested areas,” Mr. Suvit says.

Other problems the junta’s policy decisions have aggravated problems, include low rice prices, an oversupply of sugarcane, and public discontent over mining projects, according to Mr. Suvit.

The state’s development approach has shifted to favor business interests following a rearrangement of elite and corporate power relations since the coup, Mr. Suvit argues.

A case in point is the Pracharat Mobilization Committee, a government body established in 2016 to oversee a new public-private partnership initiative to push domestic economic growth. Thailand’s largest sugar corporation Mitr Phol Group holds a prominent position in the committee.

Mr. Suvit believes that the involvement of the Mitr Phol Group is leading to an expansion of sugarcane farming in the Northeast which is often putting a strain on the environment and nearby communities.

Insincere reform

Mr. Suvit is convinced that the military government is not sincere in solving the country’s problems. Instead of listening to people’s opinions, the junta pushed through a vague reform plan that has not yielded many results in the past four years, Mr. Suvit says.

“You cancel all democratic rights and freedoms, and then promise to reform [the country] but it has led to nothing,” Mr. Suvit insists.

The junta has failed to deliver on its main promise to solve the country’s conflicts, Mr. Suvit says. It has used its power and the law to suppress the conflicts instead of addressing their root causes.

“It was all just a false pretext to justify their actions, right?” Mr. Suvit asks, referring to the junta’s explanation for seizing power.

Restoring public order

But Sompop Bunnag, a senior development worker in the Northeast, believes the 2014 coup was necessary to reestablish peace and order after months of street protests.

“Think about it. If it wasn’t for the coup, there might have been a civil war in Thailand,” Mr. Sompop argues.

In 2006, Mr. Sompop was a leader of the Khon Kaen chapter of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a movement that paved the way for the military’s ousting of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr. Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra become prime minister in 2011 until she herself was removed from office by the current military junta in 2014.

Sompop Bunnag (71), a development worker and former yellow-shirt movement leader in Khon Kaen, believes the 2014 military takeover was necessary to restore public order.

Before the coup, the country was in an unprecedented state of conflict, Mr Sompop argues. He praises the military government for succeeding in restoring public order after prolonged protests against the Yingluck government.

But he agrees with Mr. Suvit’s analysis that Thailand’s socio-political conflicts have not been resolved.

“The political conflict has only been temporarily halted,” Mr. Sompop argues. “But it’s still good that the country’s is more peaceful.”

At the same time, Mr Sompop acknowledges that the junta has not addressed the Northeast’s problems. It has also curtailed the rights of politicians, activists, and human rights defenders

“I believe that the NCPO was more interested in public order and national security than in human rights,” Mr Sompop says.

While he sees the returning of peace the country as junta’s greatest accomplishment, Mr. Sompop stresses progress in the legal sector. In contrast to previous governments that crappled with enforcing the laws, the junta has managed to strengthen the legal system.

The military-appointed parliament passed 298 new laws since 2014, according to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). In 2017, the NLA passed a new constitution after a controversial public referendum.

Mr. Sompop argues the junta’s legal reform will make the work of future governments easier.

Political future

Despite their different views on the military government’s legacy, Mr. Suvit and Mr. Sompop are both skeptical about the government’s announcement for an election next year.

Although Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised polls for February 2019, an election date remains uncertain.

The two NGO workers expect the election to be postponed again if Mr. Prayuth is not convinced he can shore up enough votes to return as prime minister.

In the past months, Mr. Prayuth has faced accusations that he has been trying to scoop up support from political power brokers across the country.

“If General Prayuth joins forces with them, he will have a good chance to win the elections,” Mr. Sompop argues.

While Mr. Prayuth has been touring the country holding election campaign-style events, established political parties are still legally barred from holding any meetings.