The culture of fear in Thailand today has cemented the nation’s status as an ailing democracy.
The nations of Southeast Asia have collectively achieved a degree of notoriety for their structural instabilities—the typically gradual process of political change abandoned for recurring power vacuums and institutional landslides.
In this respect, Thailand is no different, and has suffered 19 separate coup d’états since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Even so, there has always been cautious optimism about Thailand’s place in Southeast Asia as a liberal voice in a troubled region. With the 2014 coup, however, the same observers who have always patiently held out for Thailand’s return to the democratic fold have started to betray a significant shift in their attitudes toward its current status.
Perhaps it is the Thai electoral commission’s recently filed charges against a group posting on Facebook—accusing them of using foul language about the latest draft of the proposed constitution—that has stripped away the last remaining layers of hope. They were charged with sedition and computer crimes, and two are facing lèse-majesté charges under the notorious article 112.
That these charges are being filed at all is a direct result of coup leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s highly restrictive laws on discussing the charter. Ostensibly to deter political bodies from influencing the vote of the electorate, it has swiftly become apparent that the true motive underlying these laws is to silence any criticism of a patently undemocratic process ahead of the August referendum—a referendum that will allow Thais to vote for or against a new draft constitution.
On May 2, the 14 rules governing the limits of free speech on discussing the constitution officially became law. “Rude, aggressive, or intimidating” interviews with government figures are banned, as well as wearing “T-shirts, pins and ribbons” that encourage others to campaign. Transgressors face up to 10 years in prison.
The law is already changing the attitudes of journalists and bloggers. In the words of one Facebook commentator quoted by Voice of America, “I have to think twice about what I post and share now.”
The charges filed against the Facebook group, in tandem with a number of arrests of critics across the country and the frequent censoring of international media publications, have promoted a culture of fear that is clearly far removed from the electoral commission’s pretense of organizing a free and fair election. It’s no small wonder that The New York Times decided to end printing and distributing its print edition in Thailand.
The new constitution has been presented to the Thai public as the sole means to get democracy back on track—the beginning of a handover process that will see the junta’s influence recede. However, the nation’s major political parties, as well as interested human rights organizations, have been swift to criticize the most recent draft (released on March 29) as further entrenching the powers and influence of the military in Thai politics, and falling far short of the promises that Prayuth’s junta had made.
Not only has the draft given the military further scope to silence critics, with sweeping powers to arrest and detain at will, but the very possibility of returning to civilian rule is doubtful. In this new constitution, for instance, all 250 members of the senate would be appointed by the junta, with six positions permanently open to appointments from the military. That senate would then oversee the country’s governance for the next five years, until such a time that it saw fit to hand the reins of power over to a democratically elected government.
Yet there are worrying hints that this already most unsatisfactory of situations might prove only a temporary compromise. Since the coup of 2014, Prayuth has repeatedly backtracked on his promises to organize elections and, in order to legitimize his heavy-handed approach to governance, the general now appears determined to riddle the new constitution with subversive clauses—most worryingly the introduction of legal avenues to provide for an unelected premier. The details regarding these avenues are, as to be expected, intentionally vague, but it is not a great stretch of imagination given Prayuth’s recent track record that they might be utilized toward the end of the five years to further thwart the democratic process.
Beyond the Point of No Return?
A public vote in favor of the constitution this August is a distinct possibility—given the overriding desire of the Thai populace to get their lives and businesses back on track—and might seem something of a victory for Prayuth and his generals.
Sadly, even a public rejection of the constitution might play even more firmly into the military’s hands. Prayuth has already said that, if the draft is rejected, he will keep on making suggestions indefinitely until it is passed. The inference here is that the junta will only accept a democracy that is paradoxically governed by an unelected body and sanctioned by the military. Either the Thai public must legitimize the Thai junta through elective means, or have it forced upon them.
A return to a true form of civilian rule is now virtually impossible and the May 2014 coup should, therefore, be seen as a watershed moment in Thailand’s political history. While many observers were expecting the junta to pass the baton in short order, Prayuth’s behavior is indicative of a deep desire for a system that abides solely according to army rules and hierarchies. The ambitions of the Prayuth administration have gone beyond simply preserving the legacy of the monarchic establishment, and King Bhumibol’s ailing health provides the perfect springboard for Prayuth’s cynical ambitions of staying in power.
There has been a paradigm shift not only in the nation’s traditionally coy affair with democracy, but also in the fundamental institutions that made it possible. We are now entering a dark new era in Thai politics more reminiscent of a time when the nation had a different name: goodbye Thailand and hello again Siam.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.