BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's fearful and punished political
opposition is no immediate threat to the military's coup-installed
regime which is using arrests, re-education camps, censorship and the
creation of a new, restrictive constitution to enforce peace in the
streets and extend its control.
   Smoldering under the surface here in the so-called "Land of Smiles"
is a mere handful of outspoken students, academics and politicians.
   But an increasingly critical local media, Thai and foreign
analysts, diplomats and others warn that this Buddhist-majority
country remains dangerously polarized.
   The appearance of stability and various claims that the junta is
popular are trumpeted as proof that Thailand is once again an
investment-rich environment for U.S. and other international
   The response has been mixed.
   Some multinational companies are still doing business, making fresh
investments and voicing optimistic predictions despite Thailand's
flattened economy.
   Others are eyeing less risk and increased profits elsewhere in
Southeast Asia.
   In May 2014, then-Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha led the coup
against a popular elected government and became prime minister.
   Mr. Prayuth says he continues to use absolute powers under his
interim constitution's Section 44 and other edicts to prevent a return
to pre-putsch days when competing political groups fought deadly
battles in Bangkok's grimy streets.
    Confidently in control, Mr. Prayuth on September 12 declared
civilian dissidents would no longer be forced to stand trial in
Bangkok's Military Court, and could instead have their hearings in
civilian courts which was the norm before the coup.
   "Over the past two years, peace and order have gradually been
restored with people cooperating well, to bring the country forward
for sustainable development, reform and fair reconciliation," the
junta's order said on September 12.
   "It is therefore appropriate to further relax measures, so all
sides can perform their duties."
   The new order applies only to future trials, starting on September
12, and includes charges such as illegal assembly, political meetings,
failure to submit to the junta's summons, possession of weapons, and a
few other specific crimes.
   Existing cases however would continue in the Military Court.
   Today, capitalist Thailand bustles with normal activity amid a
peaceful ambiance of relative order controlled by the U.S.-trained
   Thailand is a non-NATO U.S. treaty ally.
   "Prayuth the prime minister is seen to be straight, honest and
sincere," said Kasit Piromya, a member of the junta-created National
Reform Steering Assembly.
   "He works within a very small circle of friends and acquaintances.
He has not shown much intellectual capacity and vision [but] it is
quite easy to run a country with military hardware and draconian
laws," Mr. Kasit, 72, said in an interview.
   "There are some sporadic groups of students and lecturers opposing
the military and some of their activities or policy measures.  There
has not been any big or widespread support for such fringe groups,"
said Mr. Kasit who was a foreign minister in an earlier
military-friendly government.
   Mr. Prayuth recently orchestrated the draft of a new constitution
-- Thailand's 20th charter -- to create a "reformed" political system.
   The draft constitution allows the junta to handpick a 250-member
Senate, including six seats for the head of the army, navy, air force
and national police, plus the military's supreme commander and defense
permanent secretary.
   "Capable people will be chosen as senators," Mr. Prayuth said.
   A recent editorial cartoon in the staunchly royalist, English
language Bangkok Post however showed Frankenstein's monster dressed in
an army uniform labeled "The Senate" while being brought to life with
electrodes in his brain.
   A draft constitution writer tells a worried, innocent-faced Thai
child: "Here is your guardian angel!!!"
   The future Parliament will also have an elected 500-seat House of
Representatives after national polls, promised for 2017.
   But the draft constitution also ensures that the next government's
policies can be blocked, weakened or suspended by the National
Anti-Corruption Commission, the Auditor-General's Office, the Election
Commission, the Constitutional Court and other institutions.
   The junta says these controls will prevent corrupt politicians from
destroying Thailand.
   One of Thailand's few active opposition groups is the youthful New
Democracy Movement (NDM), rebranded from a previous Thai Student
Center for Democracy.
   But after staging small sensational protests, they suffered
Military Court trials or "attitude adjustment sessions" under military
confinement -- alongside hundreds of dissidents from other groups --
which left the NDM frustrated and cynical.
   "The public have a problem understanding politics because
conservatives have given false ideas about democracy to the public for
a very long time, to make Thai people think the authoritarian regime
is democratic," said NDM member Than Rittiphan, 24, in an interview.
   "Obedience becomes fundamental in their mentality," Mr. Than said.
   By controlling the media, the regime has often been able to shape
the message, others said.
   "The anti-junta opposition lacks freedom of expression to
communicate to the people at large," said Phongthep Thepkanjana who
was deputy prime minister in the government which the coup toppled in
   "They are not a threat to the junta's current policies. And they
know so well that now it is not the time for them to make any serious
move," Mr. Phongthep, 60, said in an interview.
   "Thailand is passing [through] a crucial time, during which some
influential groups may consider military rule is preferred to
democratic government," said Mr. Phongthep who was also a former
minister of justice, education and energy.
   For many Thais, the new normal of strict law and order is
comforting -- at least for now.
   "Democracy is slow and painful, so slow that sometimes we're
seduced by the brief orgasm of dictatorial muscle," wrote Kong
Rithdee, a respected columnist often critical of the regime.
   The junta's "strict control and monitoring has created a climate of
fear," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty dean at
Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand's less prosperous
Isaan region.
   "This makes the opposition feel extremely intimidated," Mr.
Titipol, 43, said in an interview.
   "The accepting of the military role as a correcting mechanism for
democratic failure is another contributing factor towards the
persisting popularity of the junta," Mr. Titipol said.
   Opposition forces are also burdened with other problems.
   "There are many weaknesses in the anti-junta movement. It is still
led by a handful of people, mostly intellectuals, thus the movement is
top-down and lacks a grassroots element," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun,
a Southeast Asian Studies Center associate professor at Kyoto
University in Japan.
   "Their agenda is issue-oriented, without a grand plan to overcome
the military government," Mr. Pavin said in an interview.
   "Their strength would be how they continue to raise several issues
pertaining to the violation of human rights under the hands of the
junta -- through available platforms including social media,
alternative media and international audiences," he said.
   Mr. Pavin left Thailand 13 years ago. Soon after the 2014 coup, the
junta twice summoned him to return because he spoke out on various
   He "rejected the summons, because I denied the legitimacy of the coup."
   So the junta issued an arrest warrant and revoked his passport. He
has since applied for refugee status in Japan.
   The coup ousted a besieged and stumbling elected civilian
government which had been under former Prime Minister Yingluck
Shinawatra, who acted mostly as a cipher for her authoritarian older
brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
   Mr. Thaksin lost power in a 2006 military coup and fled abroad
dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption during his five year
administration, which also faced allegations of human rights
   Today, both siblings are trying to rouse their Red Shirt and other
supporters, but the regime and justice system have crippled both of
them through trials and restrictions.
   Mr. Thaksin refuses to return to Thailand but travels relatively
freely, including trips to the U.S., Hong Kong, the Middle East and
   Ms. Yingluck faces serious allegations of financial "negligence"
linked to her administration's massive subsidies for rice farmers.
   Many politicians who support them meanwhile are cowed by threats of
imprisonment or a loss of their financial assets if they appear too
critical of the junta.
   Adding to their woes, the next election's candidates will probably
not include Ms. Yingluck or Mr. Thaksin, or several of their allies.
   "They will be blocked from politics [because of] the regulation for
candidates that restricts...persons who have a criminal record to be
in politics," said the New Democracy Movement's Mr. Than.
   "This process clearly wants to make sure that possible potential
threats to Prayuth's powers in the future will be eliminated out of
politics, such as former Prime Minister Yingluck and a lot of her
party members who face a charge for corruption," Mr. Than said.