WKR Apirat Kongsompong 1
Thailand's new Royal Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong participates in the handover ceremony for the new Royal Thai Army Chief at the Thai Army headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on September 28 Image Credit: REUTERS

The clouds over central Bangkok are heavy and dark, and when the rain will inevitably begin on this steamy Saturday mid-morning, the drops will fall big. For now, the downpour is holding off.

Normally, just below the Skytrain station at Asoke on the busy Sukhumvit artery, such a time would be perfect for a quick stop for a bowl of street noodles, fish balls, holy basil or some satays.

Not today — for these are not normal times.

Since May 2014 the military has been in control of Thailand, and for most foreigners visiting the capital, the most ostensible sign of military rule is that Bangkok’s streets have been cleaned up, litter is being collected —and many of the traditional street food vendors have been removed.

“There is a very noticeable difference on the main streets,” Peter Brewster, a British expatriate bar owner who has lived in Bangkok for the past decade, tells Weekend Review. “The main difference for me is that there’s far less corruption. Now the police know that they have to answer to someone if they do wrong.”

(Brewster’s name has been changed to protect his identity because of Thailand’s strict media laws.)

Until the military came to power and solidified its grip on all aspects of national and municipal administration, Brewster was regularly tapped for weekly payments of 1,000 Thai baht (about Dh110) by local police officers.

“The amount wasn’t large but it was a weekly insurance plan to make sure that we didn’t run into any problems with the police,” he says. “That has stopped. The officers still come by, but they know that if they are seen to be taking money, they have to answer for it now.”

And as far as he’s concerned, the normally snail’s pace of Thai bureaucracy is running more efficiently now — after years of trying, Brewster has managed to get a Thai driving licence and his permanent residency papers are just about processed.

“I know I’m just one person and one business owner, but there seems to be a more effective bureaucracy in place now,” he says.

From the microeconomic to the macroeconomic perspective however, the junta has brought mixed fortunes. The agricultural sector, which accounts for around 8 per cent of the economy, has been particularly hard-hit by the junta’s policies, which have prioritised other sectors. Since 2014, rice and rubber farmers’ groups have threatened to stage protests, demanding the government improve farmers’ livelihoods.

The junta has since promised billions of dollars in loans to help stabilise agricultural prices and offered cash handouts — leading critics to say it has employed tactics akin to the populist policies of the government it ousted.

According to the National Statistics Office, the bottom 45 per cent of Thai population with the lowest income earned less per capita in 2017 than in 2015.

While Thailand saw its GDP growth rise from 1 per cent in 2014 to 3.9 per cent in 2017, the agricultural sector saw negative GDP growth for 10 quarters straight from 2014 to 2016, due to a decline in global commodity prices and weather woes, before recovering to a 6.2 per cent growth in 2017.

Mana Nimitmongkol, secretary-general of the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand, an independent body which monitors state corruption, told Reuters the military government has “done more to battle corruption than any other government in Thai history.”

The junta government has promised to hold an election sometime between next February and May following repeated delays on the grounds it needed more time to organise the constitutional and legislative steps ahead of any vote.

“If you ask whether the election will be delayed, well, if is only others who are saying this,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said recently. “We are still looking at February 24.”

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, 64, former army chief, has indicated he sees a public role for himself after the election to bring in a civilian government and end more than four years of military rule.

When it first came to power, the junta vowed to tackle everything from the so-called ‘taxi mafias’ to the illicit logging of forests.

Its military-backed parliament has passed 298 laws since 2014 and the junta has issued more than 500 orders — including ordering the cleaning up of Bangkok’s street vendors.

Those efforts to thwart the city’s normally rambunctious nightlife have gained traction over the past year.

“It is really quite noticeable” Brewster says. “We’re a relatively quiet establishment, but police are checking now to make sure there’s no music after midnight.”

Elsewhere in the city, bar owners say military officials are barging into their premises demanding to see licences they have long operated without or didn’t even know existed.

In the raucous coastal city of Pattaya, expatriates and tourists were incredulous when authorities went into bars asking to see a licence for those with dartboards.

The government maintains it is simply enforcing regulations that existed long before it came to power. Officially, all bars and clubs must close by 2 am, according to 2004 regulations, a rule long ignored by police — often in return for those bribes paid by Brewster back in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district.

The crackdown has had the biggest impact on after-hours venues and fledgling businesses already grappling with high taxes on imported food and alcohol.

Wong’s Place, a rickety old drinking den where revellers can smoke inside and drink until dawn, was recently ordered to start closing at 2 am.

“It is the first time in 40 years something like this has happened,” complained bar owner Sam Wong, referring to the closing time and to a recent raid by army officers to check whether he has a licence to play music.

Wong, who would leverage his ties with the local police for leeway on the rules, says the military isn’t budging.

“Bangkok has become a much less spontaneous city, and in many ways a more boring city than it was five years ago,” he says.

According to Brewster, the cleanup first began in earnest after the death of the long-ruling King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016.

In many bustling tourist spots, street-food vendors were moved from the main roads into side streets or to newer parts of the city, and many roadside alcohol sellers who would appear after midnight also disappeared. The government said the moves are to create a cleaner city.

The military appears in no mood to back down. In late September, a new chief of Thailand’s army took command, a staunchly royalist general who will oversee a return to the barracks to make way for a civilian government after nearly five years of military rule.

General Apirat Kongsompong, 58, belongs to the King’s Guard faction in the First Infantry Division of the First Army Region — a group at the very heart of the royalist military establishment.

The relationship between the monarchy, the army and politicians is the fundamental factor determining stability in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

General Apirat is the son of General Sunthorn Kongsompong, who led a 1991 coup that triggered a groundswell of opposition from a growing middle class, which resulted in the military’s return to barracks in 1992 for 14 years, until the coup in 2006.

Bangkok’s media portrays General Apirat as a “trusted lieutenant” of Prayuth.

Moreover, the election itself — whether it takes place in February or May — will provide a closely watched test of the popularity of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The former tycoon won widespread support in the countryside for pro-poor policies but the animosity of the military-linked Bangkok establishment, derided his election-winning ways as corrupt vote-buying.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016 following the death of his father, appears to have a smooth relationship with the generals running the country.

Apirat’s appointment indicated the consolidation of that relationship, notes Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University and a specialist on the Thai military. “The army will likely become even closer to the monarchy.”

–With inputs from agencies

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Madrid.