BANGKOK — Thailand’s army chief was named Thursday to head a committee to support small and medium enterprises in the county. As the ruling junta involves itself in deciding everything from sweeping political reforms to which broadcasters can air World Cup matches, some say the generals are getting bogged down in micro-managing.
Board members of the state-owned airline are told they should no longer be allowed to fly for free. Courses on citizens’ duties shall be added to the social studies curriculum at schools. Free screenings will be held nationwide this Sunday for a movie about a heroic monarch who reigned in Siam 400 years ago. A crackdown is underway on the taxi mafia at a popular Andaman Sea tourist destination.
These are among the recent decrees or actions taken by the military since Thailand’s May 22 coup.
The army chief who now holds all power, except those reserved for the revered but ailing King, justifies the coup on grounds that a protracted political standoff was a national security crisis.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised an eventual return to democracy, but only after fundamental reforms are carried out.
The general, who seized power in a bloodless coup, has selected an air force chief to take charge of the economy, and he has placed a navy commander at the helm for the important tourism sector.
Michael Montesano, who co-heads the Thailand studies program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said, “So far, and it's still early days, the indications about economic policy that the junta is giving us looks like the sorts of things that soldiers with very superficial understandings of economic activity generally introduce.”
These include accelerating budget spending, cutting or capping fuel costs and requesting that manufacturers freeze prices for consumer products. It also has paid 8 million farmers for rice they pledged under a scheme bungled by the most recently ousted government.
Economist Kampon Adireksombat at Tisco Securities suggested the career soldiers might defer such big decisions until they recruit qualified officials and technocrats.
“The junta should wait for the appointed government with a cabinet to handle anything that has medium and long-term impact to the economy. If we look at the development right now, they are kind of stretching themselves a little bit too much,” said Adireksombat.
Calming the masses
Thailand academic specialist Montesano in Singapore said there are two ways of looking at some of the decisions, big and small, the junta is making.
“They either reflect an extremely shallow understanding of the causes of Thailand's long-term political crisis or they're simply an opiate to distract people from the military's long-term project in government,” said Montesano.
He added that he suspects it is the latter.
One decision made just prior to the start of the World Cup in Brazil is getting cheered instead of jeered. The military intervened in a legal dispute over broadcast rights, calling for all 64 matches to be aired on free terrestrial channels.
Economist Kampon in Bangkok views that as a pragmatic choice by the coup makers.
“I think basically they just want to keep people at home. The curfew is still effective in Bangkok. If they don't have national broadcasts for free TV, big soccer fans will have to come out and watch the games outside their homes. I don't think the junta wants to see that,” said Kampon.
Sing for happiness
General Prayuth, a 60-year old career soldier with a reputation for a stern demeanor, continues to stress that the coup should be cause for celebration and its theme should be “happiness.”
To help that along he quickly penned the lyrics for a new song, “Returning Happiness to the People,” which has become a modest hit on YouTube, with nearly 220,000 views as of Thursday.
Set to music by the Royal Thai Army band, a singer croons the general’s words about Thailand facing “menacing danger” as “the flames are rising.” The song promises happiness will soon return, thanks to the people allowing the army to step in “before it is too late.”
The military has stepped in many times before. This is Thailand’s 19th attempted or successful coup since 1932. Those across the highly polarized Thai political spectrum hesitate to predict the generals will not be singing the same song again in future years.