With a single exception, the past year for Thailand has felt like a quiet period. The nation hopes it was not the lull before the storm. The leader of the military regime, after more than three years of ordering one delay after another, has promised in writing to take the first step towards resuming democratic principles before this new year is out. The country expects Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to meet that promise within 11 months from today.
Of course the single most notable event of the past year was the funeral and cremation of King Bhumibol. More than any period in recent memory, the days around Oct 26, 2017, showed this country at its finest. Thai people from every corner of the nation stood together, in a common cause, with common thought. While mourning has officially ended, the memory of the great king will never die.
When the junta seized power from the people in 2014, the generals made several important promises. They have kept one. Street protests and political cacophony have ended. This has occurred, at times, through intimidation and at soldiers’ gunpoint. But the end of threats to life, limb and criminal incitement has ended.
Unfortunately, in ending the worst of political confrontation, Gen Prayut and his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have also ended the best.
Not only politicians, but patriots and persuasive voices all have been silenced. More than 60 people have been charged and most imprisoned for the ridiculous crime of sedition, as if the ruling government is somehow threatened because people or tiny groups speak out or click “like” on a Facebook page.
This presents a tremendous challenge for all Thais in 2018. If the days of the Bangkok Shutdown versus disputatious, one-party rule by Thaksin remnants and relatives were enough to cause a military coup, there must be an alternative. It must be pro-democracy and accountable, accepting of all opinions and informed views. The multiple flaws of military rule are everywhere obvious. But the country must do much better at democratic rule, when the troops begin retreating to the barracks.
In 2017, the retired generals at the top of the Thai power pyramid began making worrying noises. It seems to many that Gen Prayut and his supporters believe that the return to democratic ways should be more show than reality. The junta-authored constitution ensures a large military presence in the legislature.
Gen Prayut is playing the old game of unlamented dictators of the past. He claims he has no desire to continue in power “unless the people want”.
By refusing to form a political group or party, he also is refusing to play by democratic rules. The country must watch carefully to ensure that elections serve their primary purpose, to put in power men and women willing to go to the people and ask for the chance.
The past year provided times of pride and sacrifice. There was the the charity run of rocker Artiwara “Toon Bodyslam” Kongmalai who raised a billion baht for financially-troubled hospitals. The boundless grit of young activist Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa was inspirational. In recent days, there also was the most populist utterance in recent memory, a vow by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak to end all poverty this year.
Starting today, in the annual tradition of wiping the slate clean, we are on a new road. The inclusive New Year’s resolution should be to act responsibly, for family, friends and country. If all Thais continue to pull together, as they did just over two months ago, it will indeed be a national Happy New Year.