Commentary

Thailand’s Military Junta Rigs Constitutional Referendum, Wins Vote for Continued Authoritarian Rule

The Thai people voted on the latest constitution pushed by the reigning military junta. A no vote was the only way to protest General/Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s dictatorship, but a majority of Thais apparently hoped to return to at least nominal civilian rule. No one knows what would have followed rejection of the military’s handiwork, though few believe the generalissimo was prepared to acknowledge his many mistakes and yield power.

Thailand long was characterized as the land of smiles: a friendly people, warm climate, and informal atmosphere all beckoned backpackers and businessmen alike. But politics has become less hospitable in recent years.

In 1932 the all-powerful king was turned into a constitutional monarch. However, military coups were frequent and the court, along with the military, bureaucracy, and business, long dominated democratic politics. Well-connected elites prospered while the rural poor languished, seemingly forgotten by their own government.

That came to a dramatic end in 2001 when flamboyant business mogul Shinawatra Thaksin (the latter his given name, by which he is known), ran a populist campaign and won the support of the long-suffering rural poor. The usual governing elites refused to accept their loss of control and complained about his spend, spend, elect, elect policies, a staple of modern democracy. Thaksin was charged with corruption, but his adversaries, including in the military, also appeared to do well while supposedly doing good. In contrast, his government’s most serious misbehavior, some 2000 extra-legal killings in Thailand’s drug war, was largely ignored.

An extended, often violent political struggle ensued, culminating in a coup in 2006. The military’s constitutional rewrite preserved democracy, albeit with elite-dominated commissions, courts, and other institutions designed to thwart the popular will. Despite the military’s hopes, however, Thaksin’s allies (he was in exile abroad) regained power in the next election.

Thailand’s only hope for the future is to end the wannabe dictator Prayuth’s starring role in the country’s political comic opera.

Members of the opposition remained frank about their hostility toward giving Thaksin’s voters any say in the nation’s future. Acting as a modern variant of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, his opponents made the country ungovernable and invited military intervention. While refusing to back prime ministers allied with Thaksin against violent street mobs, in 2010 the military shot down scores of Thaksin supporters who protested the forced ouster of the government they had voted into office.

But this soft coup only led to a large majority voting for Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, in the election that followed a year later. So the opposition again deployed mobs in a successful attempt to destroy democracy. When she called another election which the Thaksin-friendly Puea Thai Party was certain to win, the opposition Democrat Party demonstrated that its name was an oxymoron by refusing to contest the poll. Worse, anti-government protestors blocked voting. In May 2014 Gen. Prayuth seized power, while proclaiming that he had a “democratic heart.”

However, he channeled George Orwell when establishing the National Council for Peace and Order. The anodyne name mimicked the fraudulent titles promulgated by the Burmese military to cover its brutality. The Thai junta challenged anyone who called it a junta or said it took power in a coup. The NCPO also engaged in the usual repression accompanying a military putsch: banned public protests, prohibited political meetings, seized radio and televisions stations, censored print media, blocked websites, threatened dissidents, detained critics, and tried opponents in military courts.

So far more than 1300 people have been detained for “attitude adjustment” and even more have been charged with criminal offenses. More than 1600 people have been tried in military courts, not noted for procedural fairness. Those punished include academics, students, politicians, and journalists. The junta dropped charges against officials indicted in the 2010 massacre of pro-Thaksin demonstrators while filing criminal charges against his sister for the political offense of pork barrel politics.

Although many detainees were released after promising to eschew criticism of the military dictatorship, others were held incommunicado and likely tortured, though anyone reporting such incidents faces prosecution. For instance, Amnesty International has taken up the cause of three activists arrested in July for exposing torture and other ill-treatment by the army and police; they have been charged with criminal defamation and computer crimes. In July the regime filed criminal charges against 25-year-old Naritsarawan Kaewnopparat for seeking justice for her uncle, a military conscript beaten to death by other soldiers in 2011.

The junta also has targeted opponents with Thailand’s oppressive lese-majeste laws. Although the king criticized criminalization of virtually any discussion of the monarchy, the military treats even harmless comments as threats to “national security.” Freedom House observed: “The charges have been used to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians.” Sentences tend to be long—two recent ones involving Facebook messages ran 28 and 30 years—and scores of cases are pending.

Earlier this month the government charged 40-year-old Patnaree Chankij for responding to a private Facebook message critical of the monarchy with “ja,” the equivalent of “yeah,” meaning either yes or noncommittal, depending on the context. For this word she faces trial before a military court and a possible 15-year-sentence. The charge likely is intended to silence her son, Sirawith Seritwat, a student member of both the New Democracy Movement and Resistant Citizen group, which oppose military rule.

The brutality of generalissimo Prayuth’s rule cannot be disguised by his cartoonish nature. The generalissimo appears to be a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. One of his first acts was to send service personnel out to sing and dance while proclaiming the return of happiness to Thailand. He penned a song on the subject and hosts a weekly television show in which he lectures the nation. All the while he appears to be genuinely befuddled, even shocked and outraged, that the people do not adore him and follow his orders without question.

The human rights group Freedom House reports that Thailand has regressed from “partly free” to “not free.” Human Rights Watch concluded: “Thailand’s military junta has used dictatorial power to systematically repress human rights throughout the country.” (For its trouble, HRW’s website was blocked in Thailand.)

In its latest human rights report the State Department was blunt and comprehensive. The NCPO had imposed an interim constitution and decrees “severely limiting civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press.” People could not choose their government and security forces often abused human rights, while largely enjoying “official impunity.”

Moreover, added State, other “human rights problems included arbitrary arrests and detention; poor, overcrowded, and unsanitary prison and detention facilities; restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; corruption;” and limits on worker rights. Also evident was insufficient protection for “vulnerable populations.”

Perhaps most shocking is how Bangkok leapfrogged backward over Burma, which is now freer than Thailand. After decades of brutal misrule, the Burmese military yielded much control. Although the civilian government has yet to gain full authority, the Burmese people are mostly free to speak and write; in last fall’s election they gave the opposition an overwhelming majority in parliament. Contrast that with life under Thailand’s NCPO.

Alas, generalissimo Prayuth and his minions were not content with the usual repression. The regime broke new ground in treating almost everything as a prohibited protest. People were detained for placing duct tape over their mouths, making the Hunger Games three-finger salute, holding papers and placards with anti-coup messages, and aiding those arrested. Nor is that all. The military also detained people for standing, eating, wearing black on the king’s birthday, holding blank paper, selling goods decorated with Thaksin’s face, reading George Orwell’s 1984 in public, publicizing a poem on democracy, playing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” and talking to journalists.

Another prohibited act was wearing t-shirts with political slogans and other messages interpreted as political. I’ve worn my Lord Acton t-shirt, with his aphorism about power’s corrupting effect, all over the world, including in China. But I have not taken it to Thailand since the coup, given the junta’s extreme sensitivity to any criticism.

Last year the dictator wannabe complained about critics of the first draft of a new constitution—to succeed the 19 others used since 1932, when the monarchy was first limited. People were “harsh” towards him and had no right to comment. He added ominously, “I will have to be harsh in return.” In December generalissimo Prayuth whined that newspapers “made me lose my manners and have ruined my leader image.” His outrage burned: “I will shut them down for real. I cannot allow them to continue their disrespect.” Yet he insisted that he was restrained in using his authority since, he informed journalists, he had the power to shoot them! His comments did not convince skeptics.

To General/Prime Minister Prayuth’s credit, he quickly gave up his democratic pretenses. In March 2015 he proclaimed: “Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy.” The problem? Thaksin and his allies won five straight elections. The generalissimo originally promised a new vote within 15 months, which was last August. But he quickly pushed that deadline back. Then last summer after an advisory panel rejected the military’s first constitutional try, the NCPO continued on, taking its time to produce another version no less dictator-friendly, which was just ratified.

In essence, the military will continue to dominate the state. There will be elections, but those chosen will not rule. Complained Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch, the constitution “essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity.” Indeed, 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.” Even past juntas generally appointed technocrats to office, allowed dissent, and returned power to the people. Generalissimo Prayuth has taken a far more repressive approach on every particular, including the new constitution.

While presumably allowing a nominally free vote—no one really knows, since Bangkok refused to allow independent election monitors—on its “roadmap to democracy,” the military did everything else possible to force the population to ratify its continued rule from the shadows. The regime promulgated propaganda in the name of explaining the document. Conscripts were deployed to promote a yes vote.

Most important, anyone opposing the constitution, whether online, in print, or in public, faced up to ten years in prison. In his finest dictatorial form, General/Prime Minister Prayuth declared that the Thai people “have no rights to say that they disagree” with him: “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.” No longer any pretense of a having “democratic heart!”

Journalists admitted avoiding reporting on the referendum to avoid causing official offense. One of the courageous activists willing to take a stand, Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the New Democracy Movement, told the Guardian that “The main thing [the draft constitution] represents is the NCPO, the main thing it will do is prolong the power of the NCPO.” But at least 120 people, including former cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, were arrested for criticizing the document. The youngest defendant was an eight-year-old girl charged with obstruction for tearing down a poster because she liked its (pink) color. The generalissimo’s minions were not amused.

With many real democrats boycotting the poll, the outcome comes as no surprise, even though despite the military’s gag on the entire nation it was evident that the document was a blueprint for continued repression. Even former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who originally acted as an enabler of dictatorship, criticized the draft document for violating people’s liberties and failing to confront corruption. Some who initially favored or accepted military rule now recognize that the generals intended to take power for themselves, not the old elites.

However, enacting the constitution is the quickest, and perhaps only, way back to nominal civilian rule, but only nominal. General/Prime Minister Prayuth, with his Gilbert and Sullivan routine, will remain in power in the background. Moreover, the junta will argue that a yes vote ratified its manifold and severe violations of human rights. Finally, constitutionalizing the suppression of the Thai people’s civil and political liberties will be the most destabilizing step of all. Refusing to allow people to choose their path, warned former cabinet minister Chaturon Chaisang, means “there will be conflict in the future.”

In fact, the best outcome would be for the next elected government to propose its own constitution, one true to democracy rather than autocracy. That would ensure a confrontation with the Generalissimo & Co. Such a course is not for the faint of heart, but otherwise democracy will be dead.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.