The power of General Prayut Chan-o-cha is built on five pillars. All of which see him as replaceable. Each pillar’s support for the general is shaking in the face of the rising protests and the falling economy, even if they are not (yet) crumbling.
The Military Establishment
On 24 June 1932, Khana Ratsadon seized power and transformed the kingdom from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. In less than a year, on 20 June 1933, the military faction of the party seized power.
Since then, the military establishment has ruled Thailand, whether directly via a dictatorship or from behind the shadow puppeteering a civilian government.
From a luxury jet plane to Chinese submarines, the military establishment’s fortunes lay with General Prayut in power. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t put a different general in power, as has been done before.
With rising political tensions and nationwide protests, there are rumors of a military coup once again. The reason is simply this: If General Prayut can’t “take care of business,” then someone else will be put in his position.
Someone who can take care of business.
The Civil Service
In their sand-color uniform, from school teachers to all the government departments, the culture of the Thai bureaucracy is complete devotion to the monarchy institution.
During the 2014 protests by the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee), Thailand’s bureaucrats threw their support to the movement that aimed to oust the Pheu Thai government, which belongs to the Thaksin Shinawatra political faction, deemed to undermine the power and prestige of the monarchy.
Their loyalty isn’t directly owed to General Prayut. It’s for a greater cause. As such, their loyalty is to whoever the powers-that-be choose as prime minister of Thailand.
Palang Pracharat Party
Officially, the Palang Pracharat Party was formed by former Finance Minister Uttama Savayanon and former Energy Minister Sonthirat Sonthisajirawong. Both of whom belong to the political clique of former Finance Minister Somkid Jatuseepitak. All three served General Prayut during his junta regime. All of whom have left the party and the government.
Unofficially, however, Palang Pracharat is the creation of General Prawit Wongsuwan, who represents the military establishment.
Palang Pracharat is generally made up of three factions: defected former Pheu Thai MPs, PDRC protest leaders, and technocrats. The last of which is now out of the picture.
There’s a power struggle within the party, with the elected MPs vying for lucrative ministerial positions. The power struggle saw the exit of the Somkid political clique. However, General Prayut, in the bid to maintain his influences over the ministries, still retains his quota for ministerial positions.
Underlying the struggle is a possible rift between General Prayut and General Prawit. The latter is the architect of the 2014 coup, while the former is the brand ambassador. However, in his rule over the Thai kingdom for six-plus years, General Prayut has gained a cult following among traditionalist Thais. At the same time, General Prawit remains unpopular with the public due to his many scandals, particularly over luxury watches (see “Independent Organizations” below).
Traditionalist Thais, meanwhile, view General Prayut as good and incorruptible.
General Prawit went from deputy prime minister and defense minister during the junta regime to merely a deputy prime minister following the 2019 national election. This is due to him being “out of favor” with the powers-that-be because of various scandals.
Nonetheless, General Prawit has been the tie that binds General Prayut’s regime, as his connections and influences encompass the military establishment, powerful Palang Pracharat MPs, and coalition partners.
But despite speculations of the rift between the two generals, at the moment, their partnership and “brotherly devotion” continue. Not least of which, two factors are critical to Palang Pracharat’s success in the 2019 voting booths.
First, the political power of defected Pheu Thai MPs. Second, General Prayut’s cult of personality. One cannot do without the other.
The junta government, under the military dictatorship of General Prayut, handpicked the 250 Thai senates. The constitution, written under the junta regime, gives the senators extraordinary power to elect the prime minister of Thailand directly.
In June 2019, two political parties, Bhumjaitai and Democrat, which before the election pledged to “not support dictatorship,” raised their hands for General Prayut.
All 250 senators raised their hands for General Prayut. The general became prime minister at 500-244 votes.
However, amidst protests nationwide demanding General Prayut’s regime to stop harassing/persecuting citizens, rewrite the constitution, and dissolve the parliament, the pillar is wavering.
Prominent senators have publicly stated they are willing to hit delete their power to elect the prime minister directly. However, they are not willing to hit delete their positions as senators. This is seen as a bid to stall and save their jobs and a delaying tactic in case General Prayut dissolves the parliament; the senators would still retain the power to vote him back in.
But again, their loyalty isn’t to General Prayut. It is to whoever chosen by the powers-that-be.
In Thailand, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), the Election Commission (EC), and the Constitutional Court are called “independent” organizations.
In 2017, the scandal over 18 luxury watches (estimated to value up to 22 million baht) on the wrist of General Prawit Wongsuwan broke. They were not listed on his mandatory asset declarations when he took the office after the 2014 military coup. In December 2018, the NACC accepted General Prawit’s explanation that he borrowed the watches from a deceased friend and has since returned the watches. The NACC cleared him of any wrongdoing.
In the 2019 national election, the first since General Prayut took power in 2014, the EC took over a month to reveal the results. Apart from accusations of various “irregularities” during voting, the EC said before the election that each allocated party-list seat should represent more than 70,000 votes.
After the election, the EC awarded ten small parties with one party-list seat each. The small parties did not meet the 70,000 votes requirements; some only have over 30,000 votes nationwide. But the EC argued that the numbers had to be rounded up. The ten party-list MPs then raised their hands for General Prayut as the next prime minister of Thailand.
Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court passed a ruling that the election law did not contradict the constitution.
In February 2020, the court dissolved the Future Forward Party, then the second-largest opposition party, and all its party executives because its leader declared too late his previous shareholding in a company that used to publish a defunct celebrity gossip magazine, which the court deemed as a violation of election law.
Like other pillars, “independent” organizations’ loyalty isn’t to the person of General Prayut. Instead, it is to whoever the powers-that-be choose as prime minister of Thailand.
Last but not least, to the powers-that-be, General Prayut is just another brand ambassador, replaceable.