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Thai junta using populist policies to win people's hearts

Publication Date : 06-06-2014

 

It's been just two weeks since the Army seized power, and we are already experiencing changes. It appears that the ruling junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has learned from the mistakes made by its predecessors, such as the Council of National Security (CNS), which was behind the September 2006 coup.

The NCPO appears to have done some "homework" to avoid repeating errors from eight years ago. For instance, it does not seem to be in too much of a hurry to hand over power to an interim civilian government. Instead, it has decided to retain "sovereign power" for as long as possible, or at least until it can actually restore peace and tackle some tough problems.

This is to ensure that its mission is actually completed - not left half-done like the CNS did.

Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader, has been non-committal about when an provisional charter will be drawn up or when an interim administration will be set up. The junta is still ruling in the form of an executive board.

When asked when a new election would be scheduled, Prayuth has always said "when the time is right" and "when there is peace". This possibly means that as long as signs of turmoil remain, the NCPO will not return power to civilians.

Since May 22, we have witnessed a strict clampdown on mass media and swift action against anti-coup protesters. The junta has summoned more than 300 individuals so far, though many have been released after being under military detention for about a week. The junta has also issued many orders that need to be treated as laws in the political system.

However, the junta is also feeling pressure, both domestically and internationally. This is probably why it has been working hard to boost the country's economy as well as to win acceptance both locally and overseas, especially since many nations, including the United States and Australia, have taken measures against the Kingdom following the coup.

Dealing with the economy has been a weakness of previous military power seizures, which often resulted in an economic recession. However, the NCPO has tried to change that, by appointing respected economic experts to become advisers, including former Bank of Thailand governor MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, former finance minister Somkid Jatusripitak and former commerce minister Narongchai Akrasanee.

In addition, the junta is also focusing on "populist" measures and policies in a bid to win people's hearts. It has kept the prices of natural gas and diesel stable, as well as interest rates on home loans. There is also a plan to offer insurance to rice farmers against natural disasters.

The junta also plans to revive different popular mega-projects, and is working on new laws to boost its popularity, such as a bill to prevent unfair practices when demanding debt payment and the long-awaited land-tax bill aimed at encouraging a fairer distribution of land ownership.

Politicians have often used populist policies to win support despite criticism that these policies deplete state coffers. Now that the military has opted for this powerful tool, will it too be criticised like politicians? Will good laws be issued under the military rule or will they end up being a drain on society? Perhaps, we'll need to wait and see what happens.

However, this is not the first time that military rulers have resorted to populist policies. After late Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957, he managed to win popular support by cutting the price of utilities and certain taxes. Yet, he was later found to have filled his pockets dishonestly and his assets were seized (Sarit died at the age of 55, while serving as prime minister). Hopefully, the junta that has taken over now will not repeat the same mistake.

 

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