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    Opinion

    Thai military does not have all the weapons

    Amid post-poll uncertainty, Future Forward and social media critics challenge junta power

    A supporter holds an image of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit at a police station in Bangkok on April 6: The emergence of Future Forward signals a welcome change.   ? Reuters

    Nearly a month after Thailand's March 24 polls, the first since 2011, the country's election commission has delivered more confusion than clarity, the most reformist political party faces dissolution, and the powerful army chief in the world's most coup-prone nation is talking tough.

    The military-appointed electoral commission, that will announce the winners of the 150 party-list seats in the 500-seat lower house only on May 9, is widely expected to crunch the numbers in favor of pro-military political parties.

    But a much greater concern, and a further danger to the prospects of Thai democracy, is the threat to knock out the liberal-democratic Future Forward Party through court cases against its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a charismatic, 40-year old billionaire, and his deputy, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, an articulate law professor.

    Their party appealed to young voters, but also drew support from Thais disillusioned with the military government and the red-yellow divide that has gripped Thai politics for the last 15 years.

    If Future Forward was eliminated, the already battered hopes for a democratic revival would suffer another setback.

    Future Forward gained 18% of the popular vote and will have the third-highest number of seats unless the judiciary bans it just as the courts dissolved the last big challengers to the military, three parties aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2007, 2008 and March this year.

    Thanathorn and Piyabutr have been charged with threatening national security by publicly criticizing the military government. Pro-military activists had also accused them of disrespecting the monarchy. Their real political offense has been to campaign for a smaller military budget, fewer generals and an end to conscription, as well as constitutional reform.

    Thanathorn, left, and Piyabutr, right, are charged with threatening national security by publicly criticizing the military government.   © Sipa/AP

    The army chief, General Apirat Kongsompong, has warned he will not tolerate critics of the junta's planned "Thai-style democracy," even though the March 24 election showed that roughly half the country wants a more conventional democracy.

    If Apirat's tough talk becomes tough action, and if the judiciary beheads the Future Forward Party, Thai politics will again have some of the same ingredients that led to clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the military in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010.

    The lessons of Thailand's political history should not be forgotten. But in a country that rarely fails to surprise, it would be reckless to expect history to repeat itself.

    Compromise could still disperse the blackest of the dark clouds, with any clashes occurring on social media rather than in the streets.

    Even so, the outlook will remain gloomy for Thais who crave stability as well as for democrats. The current prime minister and former army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, will almost certainly keep his job thanks to the 250 military-appointed senators. But he will head an inherently unstable government of several political parties. His government will be preoccupied with politics, not developing and implementing policy. Prayuth will yearn for the dictatorial powers that have helped him prevail since he overthrew the Thaksin-affiliated government in 2014. In this new environment, his leadership skills and short temper will be tested.

    The election campaign and results confirmed that political society is still split by class and regional loyalties, urban-rural tensions, disparities in incomes and the allocation of state resources, and the military's determination to protect elite interests. Polarization along generational lines can now be added to the list.

    From the mid-2000s, Thaksin fueled and benefited from this polarization. He induced the rural and urban poor to vote for him, while inciting the establishment to martyr him. But Thaksin has run his last political race.

    After going into self-imposed exile in 2008, Thaksin perceptively said: "Nothing can bring me home apart from royal kindness or the power of the people."

    The people have not had enough power to bring him back. In 2013, a bid by the elected government under his sister, Yingluck, to grant him an amnesty provoked massive anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok and ultimately led to the 2014 military coup. In the recent elections, Thaksin's main political party, Pheu Thai, fell well short of the absolute majority it won in 2011, although it secured the most constituency seats.

    To the relief of Thaksin's enemies, King Vajiralongkorn has not been kind to him. The king's statement that his sister, Princess Ubolratana, remained a member of the royal family thwarted an attempt in February to attach her to a pro-Thaksin's party. His pre-election plea for voters to support "good people" was interpreted as a rebuke against Thaksin. And his post-election measure stripping Thaksin of his royal decorations removed any lingering fears -- or hopes in the Thaksin camp -- that the new king might try to draw a line under the intense rivalries of the last 15 years by forgiving Thaksin.

    Thaksin's fall has robbed Thailand of its most loved and most hated modern political leader. For his supporters, Thaksin was a savior. For opponents, he was a villain. Thaksin's centrality reduced political debate to one about who should govern Thailand. Under Thaksin's shadow, a discussion about how Thailand might be better governed, an issue widely debated in the 1990s, has been stifled.

    The emergence of Future Forward signals a welcome change. It seems interested in genuine liberal democracy -- freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, the rule of law -- as well as electoral democracy. It talks more about how Thailand should be governed, less about who should govern.

    Whether or not Future Forward is banned, Thais supporting its ideology will continue to push for reform, especially through social media, which they used effectively through the election campaign. Army chief Apirat seems to understand that. In a recent tirade against people who "studied democracy abroad and read other countries' textbooks," he conceded that social media is more powerful than the weapons of the armed forces.

    If wiser heads in the establishment recognize the abiding strength of the demands for democratic change, a showdown between the weaponry of the armed forces and the social-media weaponry of political reformers could be avoided.

    Thais might then imagine a brighter future. Governance could resumes a central place in political discussions, and Thailand might again serve as a beacon of democratic reform in Southeast Asia as it did in the 1990s. The eclipse of Thaksin and the dawning of Future Forward could represent a silver lining to the dark clouds hanging over not only Thailand, but also over a region where democratization has been in steady retreat.

    James Wise is author of Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law, published by Marshall Cavendish in April, and was Australia's ambassador to Thailand from 2010 to 2014.

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