Thailand extends emergency for fourth time until Aug. 31
Prayuth chooses to maintain special prerogatives despite no local transmission
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a press conference on Feb. 4. Prayuth's cabinet agreed on Wednesday to extend the country's state of emergency for another month, despite it having no local transmission of the novel coronavirus for over two months. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)
MASAYUKI YUDA, Nikkei staff writerJuly 29, 2020 16:27 JST
BANGKOK -- Thailand will be kept under a state of emergency for another month, despite having no local transmission of the novel coronavirus for over two months.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's cabinet endorsed a proposal from the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration, the special body chaired by the prime minister himself, to extend the emergency decree for the fourth time until August 31.
The decree was originally imposed from March 26 and was scheduled to end on April 30. Three previous extensions followed with each lasting a month.
The proclamation allows the Thai government to limit people's rights, while giving the former military junta chief special prerogatives to implement policies with minimum interference by the cabinet.
International rights organizations have been criticizing Thailand for what is seen as a facile use of the measure. "The emergency decree provides Thai authorities unchecked powers to suppress fundamental freedoms with zero accountability," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said when it was extended for the second time in May.
"There is no legitimate basis for extending this decree, which allows for the arbitrary and disproportionate restriction of rights guaranteed under international law and the Thai constitution," Adams added.
Among youth, rallies demanding dissolution of the House, a rewrite of the constitution, and an end to official and judicial harassment of those critical of the government started trending. According to a local media, around a thousand gathered on July 18 near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. The movement has spread to provincial cities as well.
Government officials said they would not apply the emergency decree to ban political events if they remained peaceful, even though it prohibits public gatherings. Yet, it provides a self-serving power to the former junta chief to suppress the movement when he deems it necessary.
The latest extension comes as Thailand is in the process of opening its borders to foreigners. It has resumed allowing in work-permit holders, their spouses and children, Thai nationals' foreign spouses and children, foreign students and foreigners with permanent residence. Those seeking medical treatment in Thailand are also being accepted.
Southeast Asia's second-largest economy is also seeking to allow short-term visitors for business purposes from certain countries that are economically important for Thailand and have contained the coronavirus in a similar fashion similar.
The kingdom has not reported any case of local transmission since May because of stringent countermeasures including forcing businesses to close and limiting travel across provinces. Most measures have been lifted, but the country still imposes a mandatory two week-long state quarantine for all the people entering Thailand.
Recently, some loopholes were found in the mandatory quarantine system. Earlier in July, an Egyptian soldier, who was later found infected, went out for a shopping trip in Rayong, about 150 kilometers southeast of Bangkok. Around the same time, a daughter of a Sudanese attache tested positive for COVID-19 in Bangkok after staying in a condominium immediately after arriving from abroad.
The two separate cases showed that though some of those with diplomatic immunity were asked to self-quarantine, they can choose not to do so. No local transmission was found around the area where the two were, but it did spark public concerns. The Centre for the COVID-19 Situation Administration claimed that the emergency decree will give the government the ability to patch such holes even after accepting more foreigners.
Containing COVID-19 is crucial for Prayuth's cabinet as it is one of only a few national problems that the administration had made a meaningful response to since its inauguration in July 2019.
Its economic ministers including Deputy Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana resigned, as the Bank of Thailand forecast that the economy will shrink by 8.1% during 2020, the biggest projected contraction in Southeast Asia. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the kingdom's economic disparity, one of the worst in the world.
The emergency decree will keep authority for COVID-19 measures out of the hands of Deputy Prme Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, a diplomatic source said. The pandemic was initially dealt with by Anutin, but his blunders caused confusion.
On March 3, he posted on his Facebook account a copy of a document declaring nine countries and two regions as high-risk areas for the coronavirus, with a text saying people from those locations would face mandatory self-quarantine for two weeks. He deleted the post and later the account as well. Such requirements were not put in place until a few weeks later. He was also criticized for calling medical personnel "careless" for becoming infected with the coronavirus. The comment drew anger on social media and he was later forced to apologize.
Most recently, Anutin offered a public apology for not wearing a face mask while attending a social event to commemorate U.S. Independence Day at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. As the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, Anutin is expected to retain his position as the Public Health Minister in a coming cabinet reshuffle, which is likely to happen in mid-August. The second largest party in the ruling coalition calls for the legalization of marijuana.
Rise of Thai king's guard erodes Prayuth's sway over army
Military reshuffle comes as prime minister faces anti-government youth protests
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends a photo session with new cabinet ministers at the Government House in Bangkok on Aug. 13 © Reuters
MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondentAugust 28, 2020 13:14 JST
BANGKOK -- Trusted military allies of Thailand's monarch have moved to extend their reach into the armed forces, the country's most powerful political institution, alienating Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from a pillar he needs to prop up his government.
This jockeying for influence played out during the behind-the-scenes lobbying to finalize the promotion of commanders of the army, air force and navy by September, according to well-placed political sources and military insiders.
The annual reshuffle of flag officers takes on added political significance this year, since it comes as Prayuth, a former army chief himself, faces growing youth-led anti-government protests, the likes of which have not been witnessed since the ex-general grabbed power in a 2014 coup.
According to military insiders, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the hawkish army chief and palace favorite, lobbied for Gen. Narongphan Jitkaewthae, the assistant army chief, to succeed him in September as the new commander of the army, which has 335,000 active-duty troops.
Narongphan, the sources add, is trusted by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who began placing a stronger personal stamp on the military soon after his accession following his father's death in October 2016. Narongphan is due to hold the army commander's post till 2023, a three-year spell expected to further consolidate the realignment of palace-military ties.
In a country where demonstrations of loyalty to the monarchy are prized, both Apirat and Narongphan wear theirs around their neck -- special shirts with a red rim around the collar. The shirts show they have passed special training for soldiers in the elite Royal Command Guard, also known as Royal Guard 904, which answers only to the king.
The two generals also belong to the King's Guard, a Bangkok-based military faction with a rich army pedigree. The monarch himself served in the ranks of the Wongthewan, as the King's Guard is called in Thai, during military service in the 1970s while he was crown prince.
Prayuth had favored Gen. Natthapon Nakpanich, the deputy army chief, to be Apirat's successor. But the prime minister was unable to make headway against the choice of the monarch, who wields ultimate authority in this Southeast Asian kingdom, and of Apirat.
"Apirat doesn't like Natthapon. ... there is some bad blood between the two going back to competition as they rose through the ranks," said a military intelligence insider. "And he is close to the king and wanted to carry out the king's request."
Prayuth's bonds with Natthapon deepened after he was picked to serve on a government committee to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
"Prayuth wanted a dependable ally as the next army chief to deal with the rising political tension sparked by the protests," added the insider. "Narongphan does not have close ties with Prayuth, just a professional relationship. It is more likely he will listen to the king than to the prime minister."
A similar turn has shaped promotions in the air force, an increasing source of palace loyalists in the wake of former Air Chief Marshall Sathitpong Sukwimol serving as the influential private secretary to the king. Political insiders say that a U.S.-trained officer, Air Chief Marshall Airbull Suttiwan, has been eyed to command the air force, leapfrogging senior figures vying for the top post.
"This year's reshuffle shows how much say the king had in the promotions," said one insider. "Airbull has the king's backing."
Seasoned military analysts say that Prayuth will be on unfamiliar ground after the changing of the guard in September. Together with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda -- both former army chiefs themselves -- Prayuth formed a powerful troika that staged the 2014 putsch to overthrow an elected government. They enjoyed unbroken rule, first in a junta and then as a military-leaning government after the controversial 2019 general election.
But while the trio of ex-generals had a firm grip on the government and the defense ministry, still packed with their allies, questions emerged over support they could command from the military since the 2016 reshuffle.
"The subtle schism between Prayuth-Prawit-Anupong on one side and the post-2016 army leadership on the other has increasingly intensified, especially with the ascension of the Wongthewan to senior army postings in 2018 and beyond," said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. "Especially since 2018, Prayuth has not been able to be assured of military backing."
Even among the colonels -- often deployed to lead troops in coups, of which Thailand has had 13 successful military interventions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 -- there is growing discontent with the "saam paw," a reference within the ranks to the Prayuth-Prawit-Anupong troika.
The trio has been accused of "using the military to stay in power, especially in terms of relying on soldiers to bolster Palang Pracharath in power," said Chambers, referring to the new political party formed ahead of last year's election to serve as a vehicle for Prayuth and his military allies to rule the country. "Prawit has relied on military carrots and sticks to cajole coalition parties and Palang Pracharath factions to follow Prayuth's lead."
Other observers say military operations in Bangkok -- pivotal to launching or crushing coups -- are beyond Prayuth's control. A new military blueprint unveiled by the king has realigned troops in the capital under the Royal Guard 904, whose numbers have swelled to a well-trained force of 7,000 and are expected to double in the months ahead. Roped into such exclusive royal service are units from the 11th Infantry Regiment, the 4th Cavalry Battalion and the 1st Infantry Regiment, which has been in the vanguard of past coups.
But this redeployment -- which appears to rule out the prospect of the previous style of coups -- has not stopped rumors of another putsch. Bangkok-based diplomats heard talk of a possible coup attempt on the eve of the anti-government protests led by students in the capital's historic quarter on Aug. 16 -- a rally that drew over 20,000, the largest public outpouring of rage since the 2014 coup.
"The rumor was about Apirat being unhappy with the way the government was handling things regards the protests and was planning to step in to address it," an Asian diplomat confided.
A military intelligence source expects the rumor mill to churn through September, when youth leaders are planning a larger protest in the middle of the month.
"A coup will happen only if there is a confrontation during the protests and people try to kill each other," he said. "There are tense days ahead for the transition from Apirat to Narongphan."
Thailand delays $724m China submarine deal after public anger
AFP News Mark SchiefelbeinAFP News31 August 2020
A Chinese Great Wall 236 conventional submarine. Thailand has delayed its order for two more submarines from China amid anger over the purchase while the economy is badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic
Thailand delayed on Monday its $724 million purchase of two submarines from China, following public outrage over the controversial deal as the kingdom's economy flatlines due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Under a 2015 deal, Thailand was one of the first countries to buy Chinese naval hardware and finalised its purchase of three submarines in 2017, with the first one expected to be delivered in 2023.
An order for two more for 22.5 billion baht ($723.9 million) was approved earlier this month by a parliamentary sub-committee -- a move which drew public outcry as Thailand struggles with a freefalling economy.
Angry Thais took to social media to criticise the deal, and the hashtag "People don't want submarines" trended on Twitter.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri announced Monday Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha -- also defence minister -- had "requested the navy to consider a delay" in the purchase of the two additional submarines.
"The navy will negotiate with China to delay for another year," Anucha told reporters.
Prayut's military-aligned administration is under fire from near-daily protests demanding his resignation and a complete overhaul of the government -- which the demonstrators consider illegitimate.
Thailand's economy is also undergoing one of its worst periods in more than 20 years, contracting 12.2 percent in the second quarter as its tourism- and exports-led sectors have been hard-hit by the pandemic.
"The prime minister has given priority to the concern of the public who are worried about the economy," Anucha said.
Besides questioning military purchases and the government's handling of the economy, the burgeoning pro-democracy movement is also calling for reforms to the unassailable monarchy -- a once-taboo topic in the kingdom.
The increasingly bold requests from the youth-led protesters have drawn ire from arch-royalist camps, who have held counter-demonstrations to demand that protesters "do not touch the monarchy".
More than a thousand mostly older demonstrators dressed in yellow shirts -- considered a royal colour -- massed at a stadium Sunday, holding portraits of the super-rich King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
On Monday, they submitted a letter to the Japanese embassy in Bangkok to demand the extradition of prominent government critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who started a private Facebook group to hold frank discussions of the monarch.
So King is good, will depose Prayuth and then restore democracy to Thailand? And then relinquish all power and sit back and feed the tabloids like the British Royal Family?
Or King is bad, will transition Thailand back to an absolute monarchy like in the days of Siam ?
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