Two years after coup, democracy in Thailand still not within reach
Unhappiness with the coup-makers has mounted across the deep political divide
After two years of living under military rule, many Thais are resigned for more of the same in the foreseeable future despite the junta’s promise to hold a general election next year, a prospect thrown into doubt by serious disagreements over a draft charter to be put to a national referendum in August.
On May 22, 2014, then army chief General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, currently Thailand’s prime minister, toppled the democratically elected government in a bloodless coup, saying it was necessary to put a lid on escalating political turmoil before it boiled over.
Under his leadership, the junta, calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order, pledged to bring back democracy in three phases: national reconciliation, comprehensive reforms and reinvigoration of democratic institutions.
In pursuing that roadmap, Prayuth, his Cabinet and the military have undoubtedly made significant progress in maintaining peace and order in the country over the past two years.
However, important challenges remain, including forging reconciliation among fragmented and factionalised Thais and dealing with criticism from home and abroad over the junta’s curbs on freedom of expression.
Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University, said that while peaceful politics and reconciliation in Thailand are the light at the end of the tunnel, they are still elusive goals.
He said the Thai political situation remains gloomy as seen by authorities’ failure to resolve conflicts properly and by the continued detainments and arrests of politicians, students and others who dare to criticise the government.
Wanwichit said the junta is working to control underground movements that could fuel political unrest, while at the same time using Thai diplomatic missions abroad to seek understanding from the international community.
“Although the explanation from the military government is not quite reliable for the world community, it is the best solution at the moment for bringing the situation in control,” he said, while acknowledging that the junta’s measures against critics are a blight on Thailand’s human rights record.
The lecturer doubted reconciliation will happen any time soon due to the mishandling of legal cases against individuals and political groups still loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 after five years in power, and his younger sister Yingluck, who led Thailand between 2011 and 2014 under the banner of the Phue Thai Party before being ousted by the Constitutional Court just weeks before the latest coup.
Amid international criticism over the current lack of freedom of expression, the government justified its repressive measures on grounds that normalcy has yet to return to the country.
In April last year, Prayuth issued an order to lift martial law nationwide, but at the same time he retained executive powers to deal with unexpected situations deemed threats to the country.
Sombat Boonngamanong, a political activist and occasional government critic, said that the government should respect the basic rights of people, particularly freedom of expression. He said people should exercise that right by expressing their opinions, but only in a mature way.
“It doesn’t mean that people cannot talk about politics in this country, but they may not be able to talk in the way that is unsatisfactory to the junta. I think the government has crossed the line with the rights violations,” Sombat said.
Up to now, more than 800 politicians, journalists, academics, and political activists have been summoned by authorities, while a number of seminars related to the political situation were forced to cancel.
The limits on freedom of expression also extend to social media, Facebook in particular. However, on Sunday under the watch of dozens of police officers, hundreds of protesters marked the second anniversary of Thailand’s latest coup with song, dance, speeches and pro-democracy banners, in the largest show of dissent since the military toppled the elected government.
Another challenge for Prayuth and his government - and an important factor paving the way for the election - is the referendum on the draft charter that will be held on August 7.
The previous draft failed to win the support from the now defunct National Reform Council, causing the junta to adjust the timeline of its three-phase roadmap.
The key point of debate over the current draft is the composition of the Senate. A provision in the draft states that 50 of 250 senators would be selected by the junta and would take part in voting to choose the premier.
The Pheu Thai Party, when it was in power, had sought in vain to amend the charter to restore the Senate to a fully elected body as it was before the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin. Under the charter introduced under military rule in 2007, around half of the seats in the upper house of parliament were appointed positions.
Wanwichit is confident that the Senate issue and the issue of a new election system, along with the unclear plan on building reconciliation, will be key factors in the shooting down of the latest draft by voters, even though the government is making utmost efforts to persuade them.
“Another important issue will be an additional question attached to the ballot asking voters whether or not they support the idea to allow selected senators to choose the prime minister. It is undemocratic, as choosing the premier is the job of MPs,” he said, referring to members of the House of Representatives.
The draft charter is being criticised not only by the Pheu Thai Party but also by its main rival, the Democrat Party, which has described it as a “step back”.
Former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, a key member of the People’s Alliance for Democracy that was originally a coalition of protesters against the Thaksin and Yingluck governments, said that the junta has good intentions in moving the country toward the full democracy.
But it should pay heed to criticism from the international community when enforcing the law, not overreact to political provocations and concentrate on moving the country smoothly along the path of reform, including that of the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the police, and decentralisation of power.
“I think most Thais are good people. They have the right to express their opinions. But just a small number of them are agitators. The government knows who they are and who is behind them,” he said.