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Thailand: The Land of Smiles and Dictators

What are Thailand’s prospects for democracy a year after the country’s 19th coup?

As most media outlets have their attention geared toward Iran, Greece and the European Union’s asylum seeker crisis, Thailand continues to struggle with the military government that installed itself by a coup d’état in 2014.

In April, former General and self-appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha lifted the countrys martial law—which was in effect since the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra—and he unveiled a new draft constitution. This document, despite its attempt to massage the authoritarian reputation of the issuing junta, gives leeway to even heavier-handed politics thanks to Article 44, which puts a gag on freedom of opinion and political opposition.

Prayuth’s offhand comments about journalists facing execution, and a Human Rights Watch report stating that “one year since the military coup, Thailand is a political dictatorship with all power in the hands of one man,” show that this is not the time to overlook Thailand’s situation.

Sadly, the country’s democratic credentials have ebbed and flowed with regularity, with 19 coups since 1932. But what sets the latest one apart is its desire to reshape Thailand’s political framework in ways unseen before.

When Prayuth took over in 2014, he presented a “roadmap” to democracy in his first announcement, along with the promise of “sustainable happiness.” This has caused much criticism and ridicule, particularly because Prayuth’s many gaffes prove quite the contrary. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) defended the new constitution by saying it is only temporary and that it is a stepping stone toward building a better democracy.

There is a stark difference between the government’s proclaimed good intentions and the tangible results of its authoritarian rule. According to iLaw, authorities have called in 712 people for “attitude adjustments,” 159 others for “political offense” and detained hundreds of journalists since the coup. With this in mind, one can imagine why Prayuth’s self-proclamation as a “soldier with a democratic heart” was met with derision.

Thais are eerily familiar with paternalist figures assuming power—the pinnacle of which is their monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose “divine” image is enforced with one of the toughest lèse majesté laws in the world.

Rulers with fatherly attitudes are not new, as dictators have had similar approaches in the past. However in Thailand, this traditional style often goes hand in hand with the monarchy and, even if reluctantly so, it is still widely accepted. This is why admirers refer to Prayuth as “Uncle Prayuth,” a name triggered by his “happiness campaign” that includes a commissioned soap opera and a pro-junta pop song called “Return Happiness to Thailand,” which he penned himself. The ease with which Prayuth took power last year also points to a resigned population and a weak political culture where coups are almost accepted as facts of life.

The military junta’s draft constitution does its best to prevent opposition and particularly acts to weaken large parties. Siblings Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra were deposed on separate occasions (Thaksin by a coup d’état in 2006, and his sister last year) and are now facing political charges and live in self-imposed exile. Thaksin is a telecommunications mogul-turned-politician who is accused of concealing his wealth while in power—a charge greatly used to Prayuth’s advantage. Yingluck is indicted for a rice subsidy she offered farmers that didn’t pan out as planned.

The conflict between Thailand’s traditional elite and the new one was made clear in recent years by the ongoing strife between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents in the lead up to the 2014 takeover. This divide is also a marker of Thailand’s economic disparity: Shinawatra supporters are usually young Thais from more rural communities, while opponents are almost exclusively older and from the urban middle-class. Neither political side envisions a country where they could both function together; instead, power is seen as a bounty that is exclusive to a single winner.

The Postponement of Democracy?

In mid-May, Prayuth’s government announced that elections scheduled for 2015 were being postponed until 2016. This set alarm bells ringing for Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams, who commented that “backsliding on respect for basic rights and democratic reform seems to have no end in sight.” Indeed, prospective elections might be a safety net for anyone believing that the military junta is only as temporary as it claims.

It is perhaps because of this original deadline, as well as an alliance dating back to the Vietnam War, that the European Union (EU) and the United States have been reluctant to act. An EU council condemned the 2014 coup, while US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel openly criticized Thailand’s lack of democracy in January. Despite this, neither side has taken any measures against Prayuth. Bilateral trade between Thailand and the EU is worth $30 billion each year, a relationship that could surely be used to pressure Bangkok on grounds of human rights infringements.

The junta, under its interim constitution, states that its members “shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility and liabilities,” and in order to uphold this, the new judiciary system is hand-picked by the government from military officials, giving de facto absolute power to the NCPO. Article 44 of the new constitution allows the NCPO’s jurisdiction to override anything that it deems to be a “national threat,” while the accused have no alternative authority to turn to in cases of mistreatment.

Immediately after seizing power, the military junta took control of satellite TV channels, radio stations and over 200 websites. Acts of defiance, usually performed by students, include singing the French Marseillaise, the Hunger Games’ three fingered salute and public readings of George Orwell’s 1984—perhaps because the junta’s title, “National Council for Peace and Order,” is almost too coincidental. Such small acts can be punished by up to two years in prison and have provoked a ban on gatherings of more than five people.

Faithful to his politics, Prayuth was reported to have pulled a journalist’s ears and thrown a banana peel at a cameraman in 2014, which begs the question he penned in his very own hit single: “To bring back the love, how long will it take?” His government’s reaction was to invite 200 local and foreign journalists to a special conference that would teach them not to offend the loose-canon dictator.

It’s high time the West took notice of Thailand.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Kenneth Lu / Flickr


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