BANGKOK (Reuters) - On Friday evenings in Thailand, sandwiched between the evening news and a popular soap opera, is a prime-time program that has been running for three years, or ever since the military took power in a May 22, 2014 coup.
Called “Sustainable Development from a Royal Philosophy” it stars junta leader and former army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha speaking on a range of topics, from the virtues of modesty to the state of the economy.
The military has always played a prominent role in Thai life. But Prayuth’s show is just one of many examples of how embedded the junta has become in Thai society.
Thailand’s military government has acknowledged it wants to weaken political parties and maintain permanent influence over future elected governments, partly through a new constitution approved by Thailand’s king last month.
But data compiled by Reuters shows the military is not just trying to influence Thailand’s political life. It is leaving an imprint on nearly every institution of Thai society, with brass hats far more entrenched in senior positions than under previous military governments.
The military now controls 143 out of 250 parliamentary seats. Under the previous junta after the 2006 coup, the military held 67 out of 242 seats.
The cabinet is stacked with soldiers. Out of the 36 cabinet members, 12 have a military background. In 2006, only four military officers were among the 37 cabinet members.
The military is also entwined with the powerful monarchy - the name of Prayuth’s show is derived from the philosophy of the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last October after seven decades on the throne.
More than half of the 13 members of the Privy Council, the body that advises new King Maha Vajiralongkorn – himself a former soldier - are military men. It was just under half in the previous Council.
Cinema and television stations are increasingly showing pro-military themes and the school curriculum features military slogans.
“The military coup of 2014 offered the armed forces the chance to put in place a wider footprint and they are doing so,” Paul Chambers, a professor at Naresuan University and an expert on the Thai military, told Reuters in an e-mail.
“A younger generation of retired military officers are, since the end of 2016, sitting on the Privy Council,” he noted.
The public does not appear too concerned. The government says military recruitment numbers doubled in 2017 from the previous year and attribute that to public approval of their hard-line tactics in breaking a political impasse that had persisted for years.
Polls backed by the military government show Thais are content with military rule, although no such polls have been published in recent months.
Perhaps more revealing than a military government stacked full of military men is the number of orders issued by the junta: 358 in total since 2014.
The orders aimed to impose discipline on every aspect of Thai public life. They ranged from making seatbelts mandatory for passengers in the backseats of cars to holding parents accountable for student fights.
The junta has also launched disciplinary initiatives such as a hotline to deal with misbehaving Buddhist monks and so-called “attitude adjustment” programs for drunk drivers. The campaign has covered everything from a crackdown on taxi gangs at airports to a clean-up of street food stalls, the latter with mostly mixed results.
Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said those efforts by the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), have improved Thailand.
“Overall, people are satisfied with concrete changes in the society,” Winthai told Reuters. He did not specifically address the militarization of Thai society.
Thailand has been bitterly divided since a 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire businessman turned politician who gained the adoration of rural voters through populist schemes but made many enemies among the military-royalist elite.
After the restoration of democracy, the military again intervened in 2014 to topple a civilian government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Thailand’s military has staged 12 coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932. The 2014 coup was partly the military’s way of trying to make right what it viewed as the mistakes of the 2006 coup, including a failure to get rid of Thaksin’s allies and subdue his supporters, political analysts say.
Prayuth, then a major-general, was part of the junta that seized control of the government in 2006. He led the 2014 putsch as army chief, saying the military needed to restore order following a cycle of mass protests and violence.
The junta has been under pressure from some Western countries to return to democracy after repeated delays to the general election, now scheduled for some time next year.
Additional reporting and writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Bill Tarrant