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Thailand Reinstates Military Rule to Resolve Governing Impasse

BANGKOK, Thailand — Since the turn of the century, Thailand‘s governments have been riding a difficult-to-control roller coaster, rattling between peaks of shaky democratic rule and lows of authoritarian military coups, reflecting deep divisions in Thai society and politics.

The country appeared to take another momentous swerve in May, when elections in this Buddhist-majority nation brought to the fore a young, progressive leader and party vowing to end the military’s decade-long hold on power, while challenging the authority and privileges of the once-untouchable monarchy.

But when Parliament meets here Tuesday to decide on a new government, the big winner in May’s vote — 42-year-old former business entrepreneur Pita Limjaroenrat — and his Move Forward Party are virtually certain to be once again on the outside looking in, while at least one military-linked party joins the new governing coalition.

After a long post-election stalemate, Thailand’s Constitutional Court effectively cleared the way Aug. 16 for Parliament to reject Mr. Pita‘s proposed eight-party coalition, which could never win enough votes under the military regime-written constitution that seemed specifically drafted to frustrate the forces of change.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in the popularly elected House and government-appointed Senate will come together once against to vote on the first of three rival conservative nominees for prime minister.

First up — and the presumed front-runner — is the second-place finisher in May, the civilian Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party and its prime ministerial candidate billionaire real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin.

“My enemy is poverty and inequality,” Mr. Srettha said in a Facebook video on Friday. “My goal is to make every Thai person’s life better.”

Mr. Srettha dropped the Move Forward party from his proposed new coalition, essentially arguing that the party‘s call to reform the royal defamation law made it impossible for it to ever assemble a workable majority.

If Mr. Srettha, 61, fails to win Parliament’s vote, then third-place winner Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul may be more acceptable, and also waiting in the wings is May’s fourth-place finisher, former Defense Minister and retired army Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, 71.

Military influence

Whichever coalition emerges seems virtually certain to need to include parties tied to the outgoing, unpopular governments tied to departing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, himself a former head of the army who has dominated the political scene since ousting Thailand‘s last civilian government in 2014.

Despite the wave of support reformist and civilian parties enjoyed in the spring election, analysts say, the military will continue to play a major political role.

“Under the new [Srettha-led] coalition government being formed now, the military will continue to have substantial powers in areas important to it,” former Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an interview.

The new prime minister would still be laboring under the constitution Mr. Prayuth helped push through that bolstered military influence and all but guarantees a conservative-dominated Senate that can vet candidates, appointments and legislation.

Despite the domestic uncertainty, Bangkok‘s attempts to balance its security, economic and diplomatic relations with the U.S. and China are expected to remain relatively unchanged.

The Pentagon’s relations with senior military officers — including those in the outgoing ruling administration — are close, a legacy of the Vietnam War era when the U.S. used Thai territory for air bases to bomb neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and “rest and recreation” from those battlefields.

The Pentagon now stages several annual military exercises with Thai forces, including the Cobra Gold drills on Thailand‘s territory, the largest multilateral military exercise in Asia.

Balancing act

But Bangkok‘s military links with Washington are also being judged in the aftermath of the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, and with concern over the U.S.-China confrontation escalating in the South China Sea.

“Thailand depends on the United States for its overall security concerns,” Kasit Piromya, another former foreign minister, said in an interview. “Thailand is a treaty ally of the United States, but has strong economic ties with China.”

In a balancing act that is playing out across East Asia, China’s wealth, technology, weapons and investment dollars are increasingly attractive to Thailand.

For example, under the surface of the usually calm Gulf of Thailand, the U.S. and China appear to be nudging each other for access.

While the U.S. teaches the Thai navy to operate submarines off southwest Thailand in the Andaman Sea, Thailand‘s navy is considering the purchase of three subs from China, which claims areas of the South China Sea which can be accessed from the shallow gulf.

“Particularly oil and food are imported via ship, so China needs to alleviate potential shortages of these commodities if the U.S. should ever decide to enact a full or partial blockade of major shipping lines,” columnist Ralph Schoelhammer said in the Belgium-based Brussels Signal last week.

China is providing Thailand with export agricultural markets, upgraded trains, Huawei telecommunications, a steady stream of free-spending tourists, and diplomatic support without publicly criticizing Bangkok‘s human rights — contrary to Washington’s frequent complaints.

The military insists its tough rule and the new constitution prevented Thailand from degenerating into corruption and violent protests against what many saw as a squabbling, ineffective civilian political class here.

“The current constitution places the military’s role as part of the country’s development, meaning that both its budget and its influence, as well as its political power, continue to exert influence,” Rangsit University political science lecturer Wanwichit Boonprong said in an interview, who predicts the next government will back away from Mr. Pita‘s more ambitious plans for reform.

“I am confident that Srettha will not interfere with the appointment of high-ranking military officers, and the budget for the purchase of weapons will definitely be supported by his government,” Mr. Wanwichit said.

Softer touch

Mr. Srettha and the PTP hope the softer approach will win support in the Senate that Mr. Pita and the Move Forward party could never achieve, while easing the concerns of the military establishment and royalists..

“Pheu Thai has made a deal with arch-royalist political parties to form a coalition,” Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer on Southeast Asian affairs, said in an interview. “The senior brass are not answerable to Srettha. He cannot fire them. They can always either ignore him or stage a coup against him.”

His personal and business background could be a help straddling Thailand‘s many divides: Mr. Srettha studied economics at the University of Massachusetts and earned an MBA from Claremont Graduate University in California.

“He should be able to understand the way of thinking and the context of American capitalism well,” Mr. Wanwichit said. “As he is of Chinese descent, he has a good understanding of Eastern philosophy and ways of thinking.”

But Mr. Srettha may face problems in the Senate because his PTP is run by the Shinawatra family, leading players in the civilian government that were targeted after the military’s 2006 and 2014 coups. Both coups were justified by the generals as the only way to stop alleged corruption by the Shinawatras, which the family denied.

Supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled leader of the political family who has long clashed with the military establishments, staged street demonstrations earlier this month over reports that Mr. Srettha‘s coalition included military-backed parties from the outgoing administration.

In an unexpected move, Mr. Srettha‘s proposed coalition includes United Thai Nation (UTN), which was led by Prime Minister Prayuth. The caretaker prime minister had announced he was leaving politics after his new party fared poorly in the May vote, winning just 36 seats.

Whoever is elected, protests against the military’s domination may be subdued because of recent prison sentences meted out to demonstrators in clashes with police during the past few years.

“I don’t believe there will be a large-scale rally because there is no leader, because of what happened to the leaders,” Mr. Wanwichit said. “They are all [being] prosecuted for criminal offenses and imprisoned, affecting the ongoing protest activities, depriving the power of continuity that is important,” he said.

“I don’t believe there will be a large-scale rally because there is no leader, because of what happened to the leaders,” Mr. Wanwichit said. “They are all [being] prosecuted for criminal offenses and imprisoned, affecting the ongoing protest activities, depriving the power of continuity that is important,” he said.

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