Given they lead an institution whose attitude toward the media can be described as ambivalent at best, the past few months have perhaps been predictably awkward for Thailand’s new military rulers.
Having taken on the role of Prime Minister of Thailand, former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha was at first greeted with lavish praise – one newspaper’s biography claimed he was “the best looking boy in class” when he was in school.
Since then, however, Prime Minister Prayuth has had a more testing introduction to the public scrutiny that a political post brings.
One comment to have raised eyebrows is the general’s revelation that he sought advice from fortune-tellers.
“There’s no harm in listening to fortune-tellers,” Prime Minister Prayuth told a group of reporters last month. “Fortune-telling is an art. But if a fortune-teller tells a person that they will be rich and then they stay in bed all day, then what is the use?”
In another instance, the general lashed out at the divisive nature of Thailand’s popular soap operas, saying the drama and arguments they aired resulted in conflict in Thai society. Instead, the prime minister said he had ordered a group of writers to set about penning scripts that would promote harmony and tourism.
“They [the scriptwriters] are writing plots at the moment,” he told reporters. “If they can’t finish it I will write it myself.”
The biggest uproar, however, was over the general’s remarks that female tourists to Thailand should not wear bikinis unless they were “not beautiful”. The comments came in the wake of the brutal double-murder of two British tourists in the island of Koh Tao. The female victim had been raped, and many in the media took Prime Minister Prayuth’s words as an act of blaming the victim. It seemed an inappropriate thing for a modern-day head of state to say, and the prime minister subsequently apologized.
Most of these faux pas have so far been tabloid fodder – but far more serious questions were raised when it was revealed that the general’s brother had assets worth about $2.5 million dollars, a very high amount for someone who had spent most of his life in Thai public service.
All this early scrutiny could serve as notice to the new administration that running a 21st century economy is very different from the 20th century heydays of military-led Thailand.
Eventually, this administration will be judged on how people fare under it – and currently, the signs are unclear.
Military governments in the past have tended to be conservative in their economic policy. And with the country currently in a period of slow growth, this could have a negative impact.
There have been discussions of raising Value Added Tax – or VAT, a consumption tax that’s added on to the purchase price of a good – from 7% to 10%. This would have a large effect on the purchasing power of people across Thailand, possibly hampering household consumption, which is often a key driver of economic growth.
It’s too soon to draw judgments, though. While the general wisdom around the world is that coups slow growth, the economy of Thailand did not suffer too much after the previous coup in 2006.
As for the publicity surrounding some of his comments, Prime Minister Prayuth is hardly the first Thai politician to court controversy. He’s definitely not the first Thai politician to consult fortune-tellers – Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister who is the general’s biggest rival, is known to have done the same.
At least Prime Minister Prayuth is showing a sense of humor about it all. When asked about fortune-tellers, he said: “I listen to their words. They warn me that I might clash with the media.”