Thailand’s Military Dictatorship Lives On

This article appeared on National Review (Online) on June 17, 2019.
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The junta headed by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha lives on. He seized power five years ago, installing himself as prime minister at the head of the self-proclaimed National Council for Peace and Order. He proved to be a clownish figure, befitting a starring role in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. His delusions of grandeur were apparent from the start—sending military entertainers throughout Thailand to herald his seizure of power and penning songs about happiness to highlight his rule.

Unfortunately, he was highly sensitive to the slightest criticism in what once was a vibrant if dysfunctional democracy. He whined that people were “harsh” towards him, adding ominously, “I will have to be harsh in return.” He complained that newspapers “made me lose my manners and have ruined my leader image.” His response: “I will shut them down for real. I cannot allow them to continue their disrespect.” When obstreperous citizens used Facebook to mock his manifold foibles, he ordered their arrest. “They can’t make fun of me” the apparently very unhappy generalissimo opined.

Only praise of the generals was allowed. Seminars and meetings even discussing political issues were canceled or shut down. Political gatherings of more than five people were forbidden. Anyone could be arrested for any act viewed as defying the military rulers.

People were detained for placing duct tape over their mouths, for making the Hunger Games three-finger salute, for holding papers and placards with anti-coup messages, and for aiding those who had been arrested. The military detained people for standing, eating, wearing black on the king’s birthday, holding blank paper, selling goods decorated with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s face, wearing t-shirts with political messages, publicly reading George Orwell’s 1984, publicizing a poem on democracy, playing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” and talking to journalists.

The generalissimo was serious about forcing the population to kowtow when he passed by. At least Prayuth, known as “Mr. Happy” for telling the Thai people they should rejoice in his rule, wasn’t in the habit of routinely murdering his critics. However, once when dismayed by the tough questions asked by journalists, the obviously unhappy generalissimo told them that he could have them shot.

Still, critics paid a significant price for civic insubordination. Some disappeared—presumably secretly detained—and many were ostentatiously jailed. Others were charged with cybercrime and sedition. Hundreds were dragged before military tribunals. Many who showed inadequate appreciation for the generalissimo’s finer qualities were summoned for an “attitude adjustment,” something akin to Maoist self-criticism, at a reeducation camp. One of the greatest abuses was deploying the kingdom’s draconian lese majeste laws against his critics. A snarky fourteen-year-old boy was one target. The mother of a democracy activist was another. Lengthy sentences were intended to intimidate those who did not see Prayuth as deserving of public adulation.

The generalissimo said he had a “democratic heart,” but his rule was thoroughly autocratic. Freedom House rated Thailand “Not Free” last year. The country was at the bottom on political rights and low on civil liberties. Explained Freedom House: “As the military government imposes its rule, it has exercised unchecked powers granted by the constitution to restrict civil and political rights, and to suppress dissent.” Despite promising to hold elections, the generalissimo repeatedly delayed the poll, while continuing to arrest democracy activists and punish even members of newly legalized parties for criticizing the junta.

The State Department offered a depressing forty-nine-page assessment of the military’s brutal assault on the Thai people’s civil and political liberties. “Human rights issues included unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents; torture by government officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; abuses by government security forces confronting the continuing ethnic Malay-Muslim insurgency” as well as “restrictions on political participation; and corruption,” the assessment stated.

Amnesty International compiled a similar list: “Activists, journalists, politicians, human rights lawyers and human rights defenders were arrested, detained and prosecuted for peacefully expressing opinions about the government and monarchy. The government maintained systematic and arbitrary restrictions on human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It failed to fulfil its promise to pass a law prohibiting torture and enforced disappearances.”

Although the regime promised elections, its greatest fear was that an open, truly democratic vote would return to power a populist party supported by Thaksin Shinawatra. He won in 2001, becoming prime minister, only to be ousted in a 2006 coup. But his party won successive elections, ultimately making his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister in 2011. Urban elites, which preferred authoritarian to democratic rule, worked assiduously to make the country ungovernable and invite a military coup, which Generalissimo Prayuth was happy to accept.

Ironically, the two military juntas, especially the egotistical and repressive Prayuth dictatorship, turned the Shinawatras into symbols of democracy. A wealthy businessman, Thaksin engaged in self-dealing and conducted a “dirty war” against drug dealers, presaging Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign. Yingluck’s premiership had few successes and some notable failures, such as the rice subsidy boondoggle. Nevertheless, both Shinawatras were elected and never persecuted their opponents.

However, Generalissimo Prayuth was aware of the fate of the 2006 coup plotters. They quickly organized and participated in new elections, held 15 months later—and were annihilated. Voters restored to power Thaksin’s party, though he remained abroad in exile to avoid charges filed by the military against him.

The new “happy” junta took a different path. Burdened by an awful record—anemic economic growth, decrepit educational system, increasing rural hardship, declining tourism, continued pervasive corruption, falling foreign investment, endless abuses of power, the world’s greatest inequality of wealth—the military had little option other than to manipulate the rules. The generalissimo delayed a new poll several times, before ordering the drafting of a new authoritarian constitution, to ensure the military’s continued control, with Prayuth as “elected” prime minister. Noted the Economist: The generals “have spent the past five years methodically rigging the system to ensure that the will of voters is thwarted, or at least fiercely circumscribed.”

For instance, appointed bodies, such as the Election Commission and Constitutional Court, play an outsize, unaccountable role under the junta’s control. (So, does the monarchy, often operating in tandem with the military.) Moreover, the constitution provided that 250 appointed senators, chosen by the junta, not voters, join with elected members of the lower house to determine the prime minister. And the military is empowered to suppress “any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration state affairs,” which means, well, do anything that the soldiers desire.

The document, explained Freedom House, was “designed to weaken political parties and elected officials while strengthening unelected institutions,” largely controlled by the military and its civilian allies. The constitution “essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity,” complained Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch. Thus, “the rules are designed to produce a certain outcome for the military regime,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University observed. “And that outcome is to keep the one side down, away, weak and keep the military side with its parties and allies strong enough to run the government after the election.”

In 2016 the generalissimo presented his self-serving constitution to the Thai people in a rubber-stamp referendum. Criticism was simply banned. The junta leader declared that the Thai people “have no rights to say that they disagree.” When critics ignored his command, he said: “I don’t allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for ten years. No one will be exempted, not even the media.” The junta followed through on such threats: A former cabinet member was arrested for voicing “divisive” opinions and those who protested his detention were jailed in turn.

The media was no problem, since long before it had been cowed. Explained Freedom House, the junta had “systematically used censorship, intimidation, and legal action to suppress independent media.” Nevertheless, any journalists who spoke up faced arrest. Said Sunai Phasuk: the referendum “is a redo of a military coup, using fear and intimidation to force Thai people to grant an extension of their control of power.”

Indeed, a no vote was futile. Rejection would result in continued military rule. The generalissimo indicated that he would simply impose a variant of the repressive interim constitution that authorized military rule. Like the Hotel California, the Thai people could vote against military dictatorship, but never escape it.

With the election finally held in March, Human Rights Watch noted fears, borne out in practice, “that political parties, media, and voters will not be given the opportunity to participate in a genuinely democratic process.” The junta’s Election Commission took two months to announce the final results, which had been carefully manipulated to turn out as desired.

Districts to gerrymandered to the military’s benefit. The commission disqualified an entire party allied with Thaksin. The military threatened to send soldiers to shut down campaign events that criticized its record. Violations by the junta’s favorites, especially Prayuth’s chosen party, were ignored. A multiplicity of parties fractured the result. After the vote, the regime filed charges against a leading opposition candidate critical of the military, Future Forward’s billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The sedition claim was based on assisting anti-junta demonstrators in 2015 and will be tried before a military tribunal—and almost certainly will drive him from politics. He has been suspended as a member of Parliament by the junta-controlled Constitutional Court on separate charges. Observed Umesh Pandey, fired as editor of the Bangkok Post for being critical of the military, “they are looking to politically execute Thanathron. And all this is to basically be able to get what they want.”

Also after the poll the election panel disqualified a number of candidates and changed the rules on apportioning votes to party lists, stealing away numerous members from opposition parties. With scores of election complaints filed, the commission may disqualify additional opposition candidates and order new votes. “They have a whole year to disqualify people, so the number can be changed the whole time,” Explained Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee of Chulalongkorn University. Even later the military’s minions can remove members of Parliament for violating “ethical standards,” which translates to “anything.” Years ago a Thaksin-supported prime minister was so ousted for hosting a TV cooking show.

The 250 senate members, lackies appointed by the junta—including Prayuth’s younger brother—joined with junta supporters to choose the generalissimo as prime minister. Among his parliamentary supporters was the much reduced (and misnamed) Democrat Party, which before the coup gave up on democracy and refused to even contest the last free election, having lost five straight polls to Thaksin’s forces. Now it formally backs dictatorship.

Optimists argue that the military now is somewhat constrained and will have to share power, since it must seek the support of elected parliamentarians to maintain a majority necessary to form a government. However, army commander-in-chief Apirat Kongsompong warned against criticism of “Thai-style democracy,” meaning continued military rule. The fate of Thanathorn, who campaigned to cut military personnel and spending, will be on the minds of anyone inclined to challenge the junta. The regime has a range of coercive tools to ensure that it can amass whatever support is necessary. The ability to ban parties, oust candidates, and jail opponents ensures the absence of real democracy. Any opponent of the junta can be eliminated at will.

It would have been easier for the junta to simply keep the status quo, but the military apparently desired international respectability, hence the lavish but meaningless democratic Kabuki theater. Military dictatorship will live on, with Generalissimo Prayuth continuing as prime minister. Which makes more repression inevitable, since the thin-skinned autocrat does not know how to rule otherwise. Neither civilian politicians nor Thai voters will threaten his power. The only challenge might be posed by other military factions, which are less enamored of generalissimo, who has lost direct control over the army with his political role. The possibility of an intra-military coup already is being whispered about Bangkok.

Although neither the United States nor Europe can force the junta from power, both should avoid taking any actions that legitimize what remains arbitrary undemocratic rule. Washington should retain restrictions on arms sales and other military cooperation, for instance.

After President Donald Trump’s election then-U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies spoke of the need for reconciliation, since the Obama administration had distanced itself from the junta, which in turn warmed relations with China. Davies expressed Washington’s desire to “continue to evolve the relationship, to grow the relationship, to deepen it.” However, the United States should not allow itself to be held hostage by an inconstant, unstable, and vain dictator. America cannot rest its security upon such a dubious partner.

Business, too, should avoid ennobling a repressive regime. Last October Forbes, a name long associated with journalistic and economic liberty in America, highlighted the generalissimo as a keynote speaker at its Global CEO Conference in Bangkok. The wooden Prayuth is not known for his prescience or eloquence, though a rendition of a happiness song might have been worth the price of attendance. In any case, whatever prestige and financial support Forbes gained from his attendance was dearly bought by the publication’s association with repression and autocracy.

Thailand offers yet another example, as if one was needed, that elections are not enough for democracy. After finding the Thai people insufficiently appreciative of the last round of military rule, Generalissimo Prayuth ensured that he retained control. Friends of freedom should treat him like the destructive dictator that he remains.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.