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20 Jul 2024 13:39
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  •   Home > News > Business

    Conspiracy theorists often talk about the 'deep state'. This is what one might actually look like

    Analysts say the so-called "deep state" that fringe groups fear in other parts of the world, is very real in Thailand.

    Former US president Donald Trump and his ardent MAGA army have long argued without evidence that a "deep state" is pulling the strings of American democracy, with the justice system the latest target of these false accusations.

    But there is a place where a powerful group of unelected officials appears to wield enormous power over government, the judiciary and the state of democracy.

    Just over a year ago, Thailand overwhelmingly chose democracy after nearly a decade of military rule.

    The progressive Move Forward Party enjoyed unprecedented success at the polls, finishing first in the general election on a platform to amend the country's strict royal defamation laws and diminish the power of the military.

    But the party was blocked from taking power by the military-installed Senate, and could soon be dissolved thanks to a court ruling by judges linked to the powerful conservative establishment.

    Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin also faces the very real possibility of being ousted by the Constitutional Court over a cabinet appointment.

    And former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — whose return from exile was widely seen as the result of a deal between his party and the "deep state" elites — has been indicted for allegedly insulting the monarchy.

    This trio of politically charged court cases has exposed how power works in the country as it returns to its all-too-familiar state of turmoil.

    Since 2001, every prime minister elected by the people has been brought down by either the military or the Constitutional Court, working together with the Election Commission and National Anti-Corruption Commission.

    Thailand has had 19 constitutions and 13 coups since 1932 — an average of one every seven years. The last was now 10 years ago.

    Analysts say the so-called "deep state" that fringe groups fear in other parts of the world is very real in Thailand.

    What is the 'deep state' in Thailand?

    Academic and political scientist Eugenie Merieau uses the term "deep state" to describe how power works in Thailand.

    "The fundamental difference between the regular state and the deep state is that the former is visible to the people it claims to serve, whereas the latter is hidden and unaccountable," she writes in the Journal of Contemporary Asia.

    "The deep state is the invisible framework under which institutional interests of unaccountable bodies and co-opted non-state networks are aggregated."

    Ms Merieau argues that in Thailand it's the judiciary that has been chosen as "one of the deep state's main pro-active agents".

    As Ms Merieau writes: "Governments have come and gone, but the deep state (the bureaucracy, the army and the monarchy) has remained unchallenged."

    Political commentator Pravit Rojanaphruk said in the last few weeks there had been "unsettling" rumours of a new coup brewing.

    "I think the chance right now is still very minimal, simply because on the conservative side, there's no probable candidate who could even remotely run the country in a competent way, and the economy has suffered a lot over the past nine years already," he said.

    "But the fact that people are afraid and there's a rumour is very unsettling.

    "And that's why I describe Thai society as — for the past eight to nine decades — being a perpetual hostage to the deep state. The military is a state within a state.

    "And the military has refused to properly return to the barracks to allow so-called civilian supremacy over the military."

    Billionaire former PM Thaksin Shinawatra

    Thailand's controversial billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a military coup in 2006.

    He lived in exile before returning to Thailand last year on the same day Mr Thavisin was sworn in as the new prime minister. 

    At the time, there was widespread speculation that Mr Shinawatra had made a "grand deal" with his former military foes that would absolve him of all the cases against him in exchange for a power-sharing arrangement.

    But last month, the Office of the Attorney General announced he would be indicted for allegedly insulting the monarchy in an interview with foreign media back in 2015.

    The 74-year-old has protested his innocence and on Tuesday was granted bail.

    Mr Rojanaphruk says the indictment may be a warning shot from the conservative establishment for Mr Shinawatra to tone down his public presence.

    "We've been hearing that some conservative elites, including a few junta-appointed senators, have been complaining about Thaksin being overly visible and politically active," he said.

    Mr Rojanaphruk said when Mr Shinawatra received parole, the elites "thought he would just lie low … but I think Thaksin being Thaksin, he couldn't help himself".

    "He had been away from the limelight for basically two decades and you know, if you are a billionaire, if you have everything else, and you are some sort of megalomaniac … in Dubai or London, you're just another billionaire," he said.

    "But in Thailand, there's no-one who doesn't know Thaksin."

    Mr Rojanaphruk said many Thais had been questioning who was really running the country.

    "What we have seen over the past few months is Thaksin increasingly asserting himself, not just behind the scenes, but in front of the public as a very important key player, to the point where it's fair to ask the question: 'Who is running the government?'" he said.

    "The only question is, to what extent Srettha [Thavisin] is in control of the government? Or to what extent is he a proxy or a mere puppet of Thaksin Shinawatra?"

    The new PM, Srettha Thavisin

    Mr Thavisin is facing his own legal dramas and the possibility of being kicked out of office for allegedly breaching the constitution by appointing a cabinet minister who had previously served time in jail.

    The petition was filed by 40 outgoing senators and relates to the appointment of Pichit Chuenban in a cabinet reshuffle in April.

    Mr Chuenban was jailed for six months in 2008 for allegedly trying to bribe court officials on behalf of then-prime minister Mr Shinawatra.

    Mr Thavisin was unable to attend Tuesday's court hearing after announcing on Monday he was sick with COVID-19, coincidentally after Mr Shinawatra was afflicted with the virus during his own court hearing earlier in the month.

    The case has been adjourned until next month but if Mr Thavisin loses, it will throw the nation further into turmoil.

    The Move Forward Party

    At the same time, the Constitutional Court is also weighing up the future of the main opposition party, Move Forward.

    The party was the first to directly challenge these major Thai institutions that some label "deep state" and call for real institutional reform.

    The party campaigned on a platform of reforming the country's controversial royal defamation or lese majeste laws which carry penalties of up to 15 years in jail for criticising the monarchy.

    The laws have long been seen as a political weapon to silence opponents and have seen hundreds jailed since 2020, including some of Move Forward's own politicians.

    Voters overwhelmingly endorsed the reform agenda at the 2023 general election, with Move Forward finishing first and winning the most parliamentary seats of any party.

    It was a clear endorsement by 14.4 million Thai voters of an appetite for change to the country's biggest taboo.

    But the military-installed Senate blocked the party from taking power and in January, the Constitutional Court found the party's proposed amendments to the royal defamation law amounted to an attempt to overthrow Thailand's constitutional monarchy.

    As a result, the Election Commission asked the court to dissolve the party and ban its leaders from politics.

    The party's charismatic former leader Pita Limjaroenrat told the ABC he was "not concerned but not careless" and would fight the case all the way — for the sake of democracy.

    "In a sentence, who watches the watchdog?" he told the ABC.

    "This is the fifth vicious cycle of political parties being destroyed by judicial means rather than the democratic way which is when the party is no longer relevant to the people and people don't vote for them anymore.

    "That should be the way."

    The court is expected to continue its deliberations for weeks if not months but it's not looking good for Move Forward.

    Thailand has a political graveyard full of parties that proved too great a threat to the establishment.

    Four years ago, Move Forward's predecessor Future Forward was also dissolved by the Constitutional Court and many of its leaders banned on a legal technicality.

    That led to a huge wave of youth protests in 2020, many leaders of which have since been charged with lese majeste as a result.

    Before that, several parties aligned with Mr Shinawatra were dissolved and his family were of course victims of two coups in 2006 and 2014.

    Punchada Sirivunnabood from Mahidol University said that if it is dissolved, the people behind Move Forward will likely re-group and re-form into a new party.

    "I think most of the politicians and the party leaders will move to another host. We don't really know the name of that new political party yet, but I think they're already prepared," she said.

    She said whatever political movement emerges from the ashes of Move Forward will likely have even greater support at the next election.

    "I think they will win the landslide in the following elections," Dr Sirivunnabood said.

    "I believe that many people who supported the [ruling] Pheu Thai party before … might switch to support Move Forward because they want to see real democracy."

    But in the short term, Dr Sirivunnabood doesn't expect to see the kind of widespread civil unrest Thailand has experienced in the past.

    "I don't think that there are going to be any protests on the street like a couple of years ago," she said.

    "Most of the protest leaders were arrested. Some of them went to jail and they are still in jail so I don't think there will be another generation who really want to be the head of the protest movement."

    As Mr Rojanaphruk sums it up: "Thai politics is a little like jazz music. You improvise, okay? You wait until the very last minute, and then you can decide what would you like to play."

    Thailand is no stranger to political turmoil and while governments come and go, the only constant seems to be the so-called "deep state" operating in the shadows.


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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