News highlights from the Far East.
The academic calendar is changing in the Philippines. Top universities will now start their school year in August rather than June, bringing them in line with other Southeast Asian nations.
In the annals of robust military interventions, Thailand’s recent coup d’état must rank as a pop-gun affair. No tanks rolled through the streets of Bangkok in the 22 May takeover and not a shot was fired. This was not a Burmese-style coup, in which dissenters were mown down by hard-faced troops. For most people outside politics and journalism in “Teflon Thailand”, life has carried on as normal – more normally, at least, than in the preceding months of violent street protests.
The enduring images from this putsch include surreal scenes of affluent, young Bangkok urbanites – some scantily clad – taking selfies with smiling soldiers. Even more incongruous have been the images of ordinary Thais, old and young, carousing with singing colonels sporting berets and tight camouflage outfits at the junta’s “reconciliation and happiness festivals” throughout the country.
Yet while many countries have been embracing neighbouring Burma as an emerging democracy, Thailand was quickly deemed a virtual pariah state by western governments, which promptly suspended high-level contacts and military assistance.
Perhaps the most meaningful image of the coup featured junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha prostrating himself before King Bhumibol, the revered monarch, in late July as he received royal endorsement of the junta-drafted interim constitution.
The photograph spoke volumes about the politics of the takeover. The 2014 “coup constitution” – Thailand’s 18th charter – has given near-absolute power to the junta, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (ncpo). The body has the authority to override the executive, judiciary and legislature and to take any action deemed necessary for “unity” and national security – which means just about anything.
Even so, the junta is clearly anxious for popular support. Its emphasis on reconciliation is a response to the bitter political divides seen in the earlier mass protests. The putsch restored calm and order, at least on the surface. There is already an economic pay-off, with Thai consumer confidence and economic growth bouncing back after a disastrous slide.
But there is a price: amid creeping political correctness, the coup has generated some distinctly North Korean-style propaganda and social-control measures. These include interminable pronouncements by junta leaders in Thai media and proposals to restore “morality” in politics, improve social values and eradicate corruption. The ncpo’s “happiness” gatherings sum up that approach. They are aimed at garnering support and uniting the warring yellow and red camps – the pro-royal establishment and the reds of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. An event in late July was a six-day extravaganza of free entertainment, food and medical services in central Bangkok. The ncpo even orchestrated free World Cup broadcasts.
There is logic behind this seemingly crude ploy to buy loyalty. As a Thai lawyer friend remarked at the Bangkok event, “Looking at those enthusiastic crowds, you can’t help feeling, well, a little bit happy.” Whether such ephemeral pleasures translate into contentment under a micro-managing regime is another question. In its determination to win hearts and minds, the ncpo has also launched sweeping reforms and bottom-up consultation efforts reminiscent of 1970s Thai military “psy-ops” against leftist guerrillas. Consequently, the bemused populace is witnessing a mind-boggling array of new policies, from cleaning up pavements and reforming motorcycle taxis to investigating public-works projects.
If all this sounds harmlessly wacky (in a martial kind of way) there is a darker side. Not surprisingly, members of the deposed regime and activists are targets as the junta moves to rebuild a system which – in a country where more than half the people are poor – regularly elects populist governments. Meanwhile, the lese-majesty machine, which punishes all accused of criticising the monarchy, is cranking up. Within weeks of the coup at least 15 had been arrested or charged with lese-majesty and dozens more accused – with many more likely to follow.
Still, if you aren’t battling censorship or defying the junta’s “morality” rules, you can remain blissfully ignorant of the new martial order. One thing the junta might usefully note, though, is the post-coup surge in sales of the Thai translation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Three things to watch for in the coming months:
The next in line
Any clues to royal succession. Nothing is set in stone and this shift will be vital.
New and increased taxes, particularly on property, and possibly a new capital-gains tax.
The appointment of provisional legislature and reform council in September.
After six years of construction and at a cost of 85.5bn yuan (€10.3bn), work on the latest piece of the Chinese high-speed rail network is finally complete. The 857km-long Guiyang-Guangzhou high-speed rail line will connect underdeveloped southwest Chinese provinces such as Guizhou and Guangxi to the southern economic powerhouses of Guangdong and Hong Kong. It will allow for a massive reduction in travel time between Guiyang and Guangzhou from 22 to four hours.
Following corruption scandals and safety concerns in recent years, Chinese officials insist measures have been taken to improve rail management. While the new tracks are designed to allow trains to reach speeds of 350km/h, trains will be banned from going faster than 300km/h. The entire 18,000km-long national high-speed rail network is due to be completed next year.