Thailand long has been the land of smiles, a friendly, informal place equally hospitable to backpackers and businessmen. But politics has gotten ugly in recent years.
As I warn in Forbes online: “Now a cartoonish dictator out of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera runs a not-so funny junta which jails opponents and suppresses free speech. The bombing of a popular Hindu shrine in Bangkok demonstrates the danger of terrorism becoming a tactic by the disaffected, in which case life in Thailand could generate far more frowns than smiles.” General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power, last year, promising happiness, prosperity, and security. But the junta has failed to deliver all three.
Those denied political rights and civil liberties aren’t happy. The generals also found that economic forces do not yield to military dictates. The investigation of the recent Bangkok bombings yielded contradictory official claims, causing the government to threaten the public for circulating “false information.” General-Prime Minister Prayuth suggested that the police watch the New York police drama “Blue Bloods” for help.
The dictator betrays a touch of comic megalomania. On taking power he declared that happiness had returned to Thailand. Irritated with a journalist’s question, he blustered: “Do you want me to use all of my powers? With my powers, I could shut down all media … I could have you shot.” Hopefully he wasn’t serious. However, the generalissimo often has surrendered to his inner autocrat. Freedom House reported that the coup pushed Thailand backwards from “partly free” to “not free,” with a reduction in civil liberties and especially political rights.
The military cowed the media, ordering TV and radio to avoid politics. Print publications were instructed not to criticize the military. Doing so resulted in threats of prosecution. The junta blocked more than 200 websites and is prosecuting online journalists. The regime has prevented around 70 public meetings, including those intending to discuss human rights violations by the junta.
The Prayuth dictatorship has arrested or detained more than 1,000 people, including student protestors, opposition politicians, independent journalists, and even critical academics. Many arrested have been held incommunicado, which, warned Human Rights Watch, increases “the risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment.” Some 700 have been tried in military courts, noted for neither independence nor fairness.
The government banned anything seen as a political protest, including simply standing and eating. On the coup’s May 22nd anniversary 20 protestors were arrested for simply staring at a clock.
The junta has dramatically increased use of Thailand’s oppressive lese-majeste laws to halt criticism in the name of “national security.” Two recent cases, involving Facebook messages, resulted in sentences of 28 and 30 years after guilty pleas.
Overall, AI warned of “an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear” compounded by legal restrictions, prosecutions, and “informal pressure and public threats by authorities, including the prime minister, against media and civil society who voice criticisms.”
Nothing will change in the future if the generalissimo and his apparatchiks have their way. The proposed constitution is designed to prevent, not advance, democracy. Niran Pitakwatchare, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, complained that the draft “gives the state a firmer grip and deprives people of the rights they earlier enjoyed.”
The proposal would immunize the junta for its crimes, fracture the popular vote, encourage weak coalitions, provide for the possibility of an unelected prime minister, establish a largely appointive Senate, use biased administrative and judicial organs against democratic movements, and allow the armed forces to intervene in a crisis. Yet further repression risks convincing Thais that violence is their only option.
The Obama administration has pressed for a return to democracy. Future efforts would be most effective if coordinated with likeminded Asian and European democracies. It’s tempting not to take Thailand’s blustering generalissimo seriously. But the longer he rules, the less likely Thailand is going to enjoy stable democracy.