- Linh Pham/Getty Images
- The Thai cave rescue mission may help boost the popularity of Thailand’s military junta.
- The military took power in 2014 and has since cracked down on human rights, banned public gatherings, censored media, and jailed critics.
- But the cave rescue mission helped show what the military, and thus the government, can accomplish ahead of potential elections next year.
- The successful mission may help the military if elections go ahead next year and, in the meantime, likely served as a “soft power” victory for all countries involved.
The cave rescue mission in Thailand saved 12 soccer players and their coach, but it may also go some way in saving something else: the reputation of Thailand’s military junta.
Thailand elected an ordinary civilian government in 2011 but it was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the police and military in 2014. Since then, public assembly has been banned with thousands of police deployed to break up pro-democracy protests; more than 100 people have been arrested on lèse–majesté charges, including one man who was sentenced to 35 years jail; and critical media outlets have been forced to close until they agree to self-censorship.
Polls on the government’s popularity have dropped, even hitting a new low at the beginning of the year, and the junta has failed to return democratic rule as promised. But with elections scheduled for early next year, the successful rescue of the Thai soccer team by global volunteers and hundreds of members of the Thai military, may give the government the boost it needs.
“It does help his popularity,” Kan Yuenyong, head of the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank, told Reuters about Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
“Once this many soldiers come out to help, people view the army as a reliable unit… We lack civilian specialists so when there is a crisis in this country, we turn to the army,” Kan said.
The military’s ability to lead and speedily complete emergency recoveries is thus a welcome shift compared to the slower speed of political change.
“The armed forces, especially the army, serves an important public function as a provider of service in times of natural disasters like this. So people do see the military is positive when serving civil functions,” Aim Sinpeng, an expert in comparative politics at The University of Sydney, told Business Insider.
Aim also said there’s a tendency to overlook Thailand being a “heavily militarized country” outside of the government.
Aside from a large reserve, each year hundreds of thousands of young men are entered into a lottery where around a third of them will be conscripted. As a result, most Thais will have a family member or know someone close to them in the armed forces.
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But Aim rejected the idea that Prayut has, or will, try to take credit for the mission’s success.
“The Prime Minister has kept a good distance from it, allowing [the] special mission to stay focused on the task at hand, and has not tried to personalize and intervene for his own government’s gain. That’s something we can actually give him credit for,” she said.
But Prayut likely didn’t need to do much to benefit after the 12 boys and their coach were rescued, as these types of situations generally heighten existing sentiments, according to Elliot Brennan, a research fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden.
“This kind of good news story raises all boats. Not surprisingly happier populations will prefer the status quo. That may translate as good news for pro-Junta candidates if the election were to go ahead,” Brennan told Business Insider, adding that next year’s repeatedly postponed election could still be pushed back.
Any benefits gained by Thailand’s government may also extend further afield, with “diplomatic point scoring” made by countries who sent volunteers to join the rescue mission, including Australia, whose Prime Minister has already said two of its divers will receive civilian honors.
“Many countries capitalised on the occasion to throw their support behind the rescue – the US, Australia, UK, Japan, China, Myanmar, Laos. Those actions have undoubtedly been a soft power win in many eyes,” Brennan said.
“Despite the global trends to the contrary, the cave rescue showed that soft power isn’t dead.”