Mounting threats to Thailand’s order

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn watches the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok on May 12. © Reuters

Mounting threats to Thailand’s order by Nicholas Farrelly, 11/07/2017, Nikkei Asian Review

A new king, old generals and southern conflict play on country’s anxieties.

These are nervous times for Thailand. After the death in October of King Bhumibol Adyulyadej, and with his son King Maha Vajiralongkorn on the Chakri throne, anxiety about the country’s long-term direction is building among those who wonder whether the current crop of military rulers has any real appetite for surrendering control.

Since seizing power in May 2014, the generals have sought to stamp out dissent from groups aggrieved at the abandonment of democratic principles. The strongman Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his team worry that forces allied to deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra still wait in the shadows for their chance to re-take power.

 For Prayuth, in his preferred role as guardian of the realm, this prospect encourages a blunt approach to opposing views. The defense of the new king — a man with a reputation for erratic behavior — has been steadfast. The country’s strict lese-majeste law is used to tackle critics and threaten those who question the orthodoxy of royalist-military dominance.

Prayuth’s alternative to free-flowing debate is a narrow vision of Thai values, ordained from on high and proliferated through a propaganda apparatus well-honed in the grim arts of manipulating public opinion. While much of the military’s attention focuses on what happens in Bangkok, there is no hiding from the darkest shadow hanging over the kingdom.

In the southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat a long-running conflict between local Malay-Muslims and the central government has seen over 6,500 deaths. In this war of attrition, the insurgency shows no signs of losing momentum: It has been regularly attacking symbols of Thai state authority since 2004. Attacks outside the Muslim rebellion’s usual zones of operation are a significant new development.

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