Thailand’s army chief dive-bombs into election campaign, urges to vote for ‘good people’

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 16, 2011

In a column for The Nation back in April, Pravit Rojanaphruk has labeled General Prayuth Chan-ocha as "An army chief who dons too many hats," pointing out the many roles the commander-in-chief was playing rather than his actual occupation: top diplomat (vetoing the government's decision about the Preah Vihear issue), lèse majesté proponent, unconvincing denier of coup rumors and of course, top-loyalist. Now he has donned another big hat.

Despite repeated claims to stay in the background, Thailand's commander-in-chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has barged his way into the election campaign by basically mouthing off how he imagines the polls should unfold. In a 40-minute pre-recorded 'interview' on the army-owned television Channel 7 (and later re-aired on Channel 5, also army-owned), Prayuth blatantly sounded off this advice to the national electorate:

การแก้ปัญหาชาติบ้านเมืองด้วยการออกมาเลือกตั้งเป็นสิ่งสำคัญ และต้องเลือกคนดีเข้ามา สุดท้ายขอให้ประชาชนทุกหมู่เหล่าช่วยไปเลือกตั้งทราบว่า มียอดผู้มีสิทธิ์ ๓๐ – ๔๐ ล้านออกมาเลือกตั้งให้เกิดการเปลี่ยนแปลง หากท่านปล่อยให้การเลือกตั้งเป็นเหมือนเดิมๆ เราก็ได้อะไรแบบเดิมๆตลอด อยากฝากให้ทุกตนเลือกตั้งใช้สติมีเหตุผล รู้จักคิดว่า ทำอย่างไรบ้านเมือง สถาบันจึงจะปลอดภัย ทำอย่างไรคนดีจึงจะได้มาบริหารชาติบ้านเมือง ประชาชนอย่าให้คนเขาดูถูกว่า ท่านชักจูงง่าย โดยไม่ได้ดูว่า คนนั้นดีหรือไม่ มีคุณธรรมหรือไม่ เขาทำผิดกฎหมายหรือไม่ ตนบอกว่า กริยาที่นักการเมืองบางท่านใช้ไม่เหมาะสม แล้วจะเลือกเขาเข้าไปทำไม เลือกคนที่ดี คนที่สุภาพ ตั้งใจทำงานเพื่อชาติบ้านเมืองเข้าไปทำงานแล้วกัน

To solve the nation’s problem through election is very important and (you) must elect good people. Lastly, (I would like to) let every group of people who will go vote know that around 30-40 million eligible voters should vote for change. If you let the election be the same as before, we will get the same old things forever. I would like to remind voters to use consciousness, reason, knowhow to think what to do so that our nation and the institution are safe; and (to know) how to get good people to manage our country. People, you should not let others look down on you that you are easily roped in without carefully thinking if those people are good or not, (if they are) ethical or not, (or if they) have violated the law or not. I have said that some politicians act inappropriately, then, why do you still want to vote for them? (You should) vote for good and polite ones who intend to work for the nation to work for you.

""ประยุทธ์"รับใบสั่งเทือกออกทีวี ย้ำอย่าเลือกพวกล้มเจ้าเข้าสภา", Manager/ASTV, June 15, translation by New Mandala

Prayuth has further stated that there's intelligence on "widespread violations against the [royal] institution," also from overseas. Specifically, he singled out exiled former Thaksin spokesman Jakrapob Penkair and exiled academic and red shirt supporter Giles Ji Ungpakorn. The general also lashed out against the media outlets of both red and yellow shirts for causing "divisiveness" and specific "incidents" and also pondered on whether their broadcasting is "appropriate or not", while completely oblivious to the fact that he himself was venting his frustrations on national TV stations owned by the armed forces. Is that appropriate? (For more quotes from Prayuth, read Bangkok Pundit's take here)

This rather thinly veiled endorsement to vote for the status quo has predictably set off a large media echo (see the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Voice of AmericaAFP for just the international coverage), who all interpreted his TV appearance as him "meddling" or "intervening" for the first time in this campaign season - that is not the case though. Already back in April, even before prime minister Abhisit has called for a snap poll, Prayuth has called for "a high voter turnout (...) to safeguard the monarchy and bring about change under a democracy," (source) while at the same time mixing up some numbers of eligible voters.

The timing of Prayuth's speech comes as no surprise, given that the opposition Pheu Thai Party and their PM candidate Yingluck Shinawatra are leading in the various opinion polls in several regions of the country, including Bangkok - an unacceptable situation for the outspoken anti-Thaksin general, despite, according to reports, having stationed loyal military officers in the opposition strongholds and, as alleged by a Pheu Thai MP, intimidating red shirt supporters and potential voters in an anti-drug raid. The army fired back and accused said MP and his team of swearing and threatening the patrolling soldiers, to which Prayuth has furiously lashed out against the MP ("How dare you intimidate our officers? I won't allow them to do so. If three soldiers encountered such a problem in their community, I will send 50 soldiers. If 50 soldiers can't stop them, then I will send 100 soldiers there!"). Then there's also the anxiety about a potential new Pheu Thai-led government that might seek revenge for the violent crackdowns of recent years by reshuffling key army officials, including Prayuth.

Prayuth's comments further underlines that on one part he seriously needs media training in order to avoid stepping on one verbal mine after another. Secondly, he (unsurprisingly) contradicts himself, who has said before that we should not "look down on the Thai people. Let's give them the opportunity to think, elect and make their own decisions. Don't give them too many guidelines," (source) which he exactly did though with his most recent speech. The army chief has donned yet another hat that is evidently too large for him.

This leaves the voter with nothing else than to take the army supremo at his words and vote for the real good people and a real change - although the fate of some people is not in the hands of the ordinary people.