The Old Soldier Who Refuses To Fade Away

It’s not quite official, yet, not at the time of this writing anyway. General Prayuth Chan-ocha is not saying it, he’s got enough problems. General Prawit Wongsuwan is not saying it, he’s got more than enough problems. Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Krua-ngam is saying it, but not quite saying it, because he really doesn’t want to take this problem head on. In a nutshell, no one wants to say it, and everyone is pointing to the Election Commission to say it.

If the Election Commission is anything like the Anti-Corruption Commission, they will likely say it. Yes, the elections date set for February 24, 2019 will be moved. Hopefully it won’t be, but let’s just entertain the notion that it will be. Move to when exactly we don’t yet know, but as specified by the constitution, elections must be held within 150 days.

The reason given is the royal coronation ceremony, which was announced on the morning of January 2, is to be held May 4-6. The previous royal coronation of King Rama 9 was held on May 5, 1950. As such, it is considered auspicious.

Therefore, according to junta logic, to not interfere with the ceremony, elections can wait.

Regardless however, given the 150 days’ grace period, there’s no avoiding overlap of preparations for the two events. As such, why then must elections be delayed? There are two possible reasons for this.

The first possible reason is already well explained by many media outlets. One scandal after another that not even generous populist handouts can overcome, the junta’s image is at a low in the eye of the public. As well, the political party backing the junta, Palang Pracharat, hasn’t been able to recruit enough key politicians, more time is needed. Furthermore, there might be a last-ditch plan to ban Puea Thai Party, perhaps more time is needed to build a case.

The purpose of all this, of course, is to ensure the junta’s return to power.

The second possible reason is that the generals simply cannot miss out on the opportunity to host the royal coronation ceremony. Even if they lost the elections, polls result wouldn’t be official until 60 days after the elections date. Therefore, the generals would still be in charge of the government during the ceremony.

To understand the importance of this, one must look into Thailand’s history and appreciate the roles of the monarchy and the generals. I will use the term “the generals”, not “the military”. This is because your average soldier hasn’t got anything to do with anything anymore than your average civilian.

So, here’s a very brief look at the history.

A coup d’tat on June 24, 1932 saw the Kingdom of Siam transitioned from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and led to the rule of Khana Rasadorn (People’s Party), which was composed of a civilian branch and a military branch. The 1933 Royalist Boworadet Rebellion was put down by the military branch, and led to the rise of one army officer, Plaek Phibunsongkram.

By 1938, Plaek has become field marshal and military dictator of the country. At the time, fascism and nationalism were en vogue worldwide. The field marshal himself was an admirer of Italy’s Benito Mussolini. He adopted the fascist salute, changed the name of Siam to Thailand and led a cultural revolution that included a decree for Thais to adopt western-style clothes and hats and use utensils when having meals, among other things. He created his own cult of personality where his portraits, quotes and mandates were everywhere.

In all of this, Thailand was technically a constitutional monarchy, but Plaek was the man in charge of everything. There was no one else in the picture.

After World War 2, the field marshal managed to return to power, but then he was deposed in the 1957 coup by another field marshal, Sarit Thanarat. It doesn’t matter if the Thai military was never big enough to qualify a field marshal, led alone a few field marshals, but never mind. At least, we don’t have to put up with Field Marshal Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Now, here’s the context of the time period.

The Cold War was about to hit Southeast Asia like a storm of napalm bombs, courtesy of Uncle Sam. This was a time when the number one enemy of freedom and democracy were pajama-wearing rice farmers of the tropics, not pajama-wearing goat herders of the desert.

Wars raged through the region between the 60s and 70s. Look to the left, and the country formerly known as Burma became a closed dictatorship. Look to the right, and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, one-by-one were gobbled up by communism.

If history had turned out differently, our parents would be climbing over the gates of the US embassy trying to catch that last helicopter from the rooftop as communist troops marched into Bangkok. Not even Chuck Norris could have saved us. But thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Historians have different theories, and I’m no historian. Though I am of the argument that an important factor that saved us from being torn asunder by civil war, was the roles played by the monarchy and the generals in keeping Thailand together. This partnership was first forged under the regime of Field Marshal Sarit, courtesy of the agents of John F Kennedy.

Tanks and guns are machines of war, but it is the shared national identity, the common purpose of value, belief and reverence, that keeps a nation together. In this, Thailand had King Rama 9. Without going into details of the political communication strategy employed during the time, the result was this: do not ever underestimate the influence and impact King Rama 9 had/has on the cultural conscience and national psyche of this country.

Kings are called “great” for many reasons, most common of which is by conquering wealth and land. But King Rama 9 conquered the hearts and minds of the people, the spiritual guide that kept us together.

This was how modern Thailand was built. The elected government (whenever we have one) was always third wheel, expected to be submissive to the monarchy and the generals. Until a certain tycoon-turned-politician got a different idea… and well, here we are today.

Though the Cold War is no more, and today the country does not need the generals to do anything more than soldiering, ideally pledging to defend the monarchy, the people and democracy. But that’s not to be. Power is an aphrodisiac, it’s simply not easy to let go. The generals do not want to give up their status, a status that today largely clings on to the prestige of the monarchy.

Because of this history and because of this current reality, the generals cannot and will not pass up on the opportunity to host the coming royal coronation ceremony. This would be a reminder to the people, that one way or another, the generals aren’t going away, even if they were to lose the elections.

To host the royal coronation ceremony is symbolic and plays into the history, mythology and psyche of the Thai nation. Remember the popularity of General Prayuth when he first took power, and then he started speaking. Remember how the popularity came back during the royal funeral ceremony of King Rama 9, specifically when he was caught on camera choking back tears, and then he started speaking again.

The old soldier does not want to pass up this next opportunity, and he isn’t going to just fade away.

Now, if it turns out they don’t move the elections date, then never mind.

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