Prayut’s moment of truth arrives
The prime minister can be forgiven if he assumes that his previous problems were “political”, albeit ones that had more to do with ideology and power play than genuine well-being of the people. He will be disastrously wrong, however, if he makes the same assumption about the current trouble.
COVID-19 is very good at separating real problems from “less-real” ones. It has done so with many countries and is doing so with Thailand. In the process, the government’s biggest weaknesses have been exposed, a situation that opinion polls and even the administration’s supporters agree cannot be handled or diverted by rhetoric. In short, Prayut will have to bite the bullet.
Corrupted immigration authorities and illegal gambling houses have combined to allow the coronavirus to wreak havoc in Thailand again. Although this does not mean that stricter measures on foreign labour and widespread gambling would have made the country 100 per cent safe from the second wave, there is no denying that the government’s weakest spots had made the door much wider open.
The “entrance” is big enough to create a formidable two-pronged trouble, threatening a major health crisis and widespread economic hardships. The intertwined problems can create a chain reaction of devastating issues, like corruption here and there, insufficient state services or cases of negligence or inefficacy of government authorities.
He will have to “narrow” the entrance, using all the powers at his disposal. As critics and even ardent supporters have pointed out, that the entrance was blown open by many things that may have existed before he became prime minister is not an excuse. His coup in 2014 and his decision to take up the premiership in 2019 fly in the face of such claims as “Even 100 prime ministers can’t solve it.”
Prayut had been arguably lucky last year. Street protests had looked absolutely intimidating in the beginning but were then weakened by controversial demands. Serious factional problems in the ruling Palang Pracharath Party disrupted work of the all-important Finance Ministry but the world’s economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 blurred Thailand’s situation, making it unclear which problems were inevitable and which ones should have been preventable. Then what happens in America helps him some more.
And apart from that, Prayut had gone through crises that concerned his personal issues, like the “incomplete oath recital”, or the “misuse” of residential benefits, or the perception that, as a former coup leader, he did not deserve to be the prime minister after an election. Politics has been like that. It makes a lot of people get mixed up on the definitions of personal and national survivals.
This crisis is different, as it directly affects the general Thai public, a situation that a prime minister has the obligation to tackle. It’s Prayut’s “duty” in the oldest and most sacred definition of the word, and it’s the opposition’s “duty” to make sure he pulls the country through or stays out of the kitchen otherwise.
Prayut will face his moment of truth. The “reconciliation” agenda that was advertised repeatedly during his early days as a coup leader has failed utterly but he did not crumble because of that. The “three-finger” campaign has staggered him, yet he still stands, and even becomes the last line of defense for a deep-rooted political culture in the eyes of many.
But whether divided Thais are “reconciled” or not or how the new Constitution will look like has nothing to do with job losses, businesses going bellies up, a public health threat on a massive scale or disruptions to students’ learning. For the first time, he will be judged the way he is supposed to be judged, as someone tasked with stopping or easing those real-life problems.
The coronavirus is a scourge, but it is teaching politicians all over the world how to correctly play politics. Now, the teacher is calling on Prayut to show his worth, or lack thereof.
By Tulsathit Taptim