By Bailey Marsheck
On May 22, 2014, the Royal Thai Army successfully seized control of the Thai government, under the claim that that its actions would keep citizens safe and restore order to a country mired in chaos. This was the 10th time Thailand’s constitution was suspended since 1932 (“Thailand Military Seizes Power in Coup”). However, reports of human rights violations committed against non-violent demonstrators marching in protest of the new regime’s authoritarian rule, suggest that the military junta is acting out of its own self-interest rather than for the good of its citizens. The new government has proven its willingness to go to great lengths to retain its power. With the constitution suspended and no opposition, military courts started handing down exorbitant punishments for anti-government speech immediately after the junta came to power. They began denying bail to defendants, and held many prisoners for prolonged periods of time before trial. In an effort to dissuade detainees from speaking out again, the junta uses “attitude adjustments,” a politically correct label for inhumane treatment of prisoners. These “attitude adjustments” include starvation, sleep deprivation, and intensive interrogation sessions (“How Thailand’s Military Junta Tried…”). The military’s violent suppression of free speech is part of a strategy to both silence the opinions of Thailand’s opposing factions and establish a lasting system of government. None of Thailand’s numerous regimes have been able to achieve and sustain these goals in the last 20 years; the odds of the new government faring any better are slim.
While restrictions on all forms of criticism are being enforced, the junta is cracking down most severely on protests involving media use. A blogger from the “Red-shirt” political party named Thiansutham Suttijitseranee , originally sentenced ten years for each of his five anti-government Facebook posts, faces twenty-five years in prison after pleading guilty to violation of Thai defamation laws (“Thailand: Deepening Recession …”). Government officials quickly pulled the movie “Hunger Games,” from theatres across Thailand, after protesters were arrested for using the film’s symbolic three-fingered salute (“Thai Protesters Are Detained…”). In the movie, the gesture is used by common people to commemorate victims of the ruling power’s injustice. The Thai government felt that use of the salute painted its recent rise to power in a negative light. Internet use in Thailand is also heavily monitored in order to remove any anti-government content online. The government went so far as to propose the creation of a “Great Firewall,” that would funnel all Internet activity through a single online gateway and facilitate regulation of online criticism. Although the firewall initiative was halted in October of 2015, amid heavy criticism, the Thai government watchdog group, iLaw, publicly speculated that the project has simply been delayed (“Thailand Scraps Unpopular…).
The initial military takeover didn’t end with the declaration of martial law. The military junta further inserted itself into the leadership of Thailand by removing former Prime Minister Shinawatra from power in May of 2014, on falsified corruption charges. In the farce of an election that followed, General Prayuth, the leader of the military coup, ran unopposed, and was unanimously elected as the new Prime Minister. The electorate was comprised of politicians that the military had hand picked after gaining control of the government. The conviction of former Prime Minister Shinawatra, subsequently followed by General Prayuth’s election, reignited conflict between “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts,” who share a longstanding dispute that dates back to the previous coup in 2006. The “red-shirt” group is mainly comprised of poor, rural citizens; it favors liberal policies that increase public services. The “yellow-shirt” group is mostly made up of wealthier, urban loyalists who promote justice and respect for the monarchy. They wear yellow because it represents royalty in Thailand. While “red-shirts” tended to support Shinawatra, many of the “yellow-shirts” opposed Shinawatra, and benefited from General Prayuth’s rise to power.
The rapidly deteriorating health of Thai King Adulyadej may have been responsible for the political vacuum that allowed the military to step into leadership. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy governed by a prime minister, while the King serves as a figurehead, beloved by the people. Though he doesn’t hold much constitutional power, King Adulyadej’s popularity gives him a considerable amount of influence in shaping the country’s political and spiritual identity. Unfortunately, the 88-year-old has spent the better part of the last six years in the hospital for various ailments, outside of the political arena. The military filled the void created by the lack of monarchical leadership. King Adulyadej is the world’s longest-standing head of state, ruling since 1946. His extended hospital stays suggest that he may be nearing his death. Uncertainty over the successor to King Adulyadej’s throne is compounded with the country’s unease over Thailand’s political instability. Recently separated from his third wife, Crown Prince 2Vajiralongkorn has the reputation of a playboy, and is considered unfit to rule by many within the royal house. It is illegal to discuss succession before the king’s death under lese majeste laws, which also prevent the Thai people from saying anything negative about the monarchy (“Thailand’s Royal Conundrum”). Talking about the King’s successor would be admitting that the King is going to die, which is prohibited under lese majeste. With the King unable to help stabilize the government, and skepticism over whether the Crown Prince will be able to carry out his duties competently after the King’s death, the Thai government is missing an authoritative voice from the monarchy to speak out against the junta’s harsh treatment of the Thai people.
Although he claims to be willing to step down from power, General Prayuth’s recent actions suggest that he is trying to manipulate Thai law to legitimize a further stay in office. Immediately after martial law was officially lifted in May of 2015, the general enacted interim constitutional article 44, a provision often referred to as the “dictator’s law.” This provision grants legal impunity and bestows absolute power to govern Thailand under a threat to national security. (“Thailand Ditch Martial Law…”) The free elections, designed to revert Thailand to a democracy in 2015, were postponed, raising uncertainty over whether the military will allow any democratic processes in the near future. “(Junta Leader Is Named…”). Prayuth has stated that the junta will end with the drafting of a new constitution. This same constitution was supposed to be finished by 2015 and has now been delayed until around 2017. (“Will Thailand’s Junta Ever…”)
General Prayuth and the military junta make up just part of the difficulty Thailand faces on the road back to a successful democracy. Ultimately, the biggest problem for Thailand’s future is that the country doesn’t have a democratic system to revert to even if the military regime were to be removed. Before the coup in 2014, Southeast-Asian scholar and journalist Joshua Kurlantzik wrote an article entitled “Thailand: A Democratic Failure and Its Lessons for the Middle East,” for the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he explained that Thai “democracy” has behaved more like an elected autocracy for the last two decades (“Thailand: A Democratic Failure…”). Thailand was never quite able to shake the military influence on the government, which has in fact been the only constant amidst coups and frequent turnover in leadership. Censorship, mistreatment of prisoners, and harsh punishments were, albeit to a lesser extent, realities in Thailand even under democratic rule. The junta has worsened the situation by intensifying the existing abuse, and manipulating the country’s laws to legalize their actions. The country’s political leaders seem to have given up on democracy for the short term. Many who oppose the current regime have stated that the best course of action is to wait for the dictatorship to play itself out naturally, as more forceful opposition would likely result in another power grab (“Thai Junta Enjoys…”). The current complications in Thailand’s political system suggest that removing the military from power is not a viable path to instating an effective democracy.
With four coups in the last thirty years, Thailand has exhausted all practical solutions to establishing stability in its government, and is functioning in a constant state of unrest. Its leadership changes often, as it is difficult to appeal to the Thai population as a whole and leaders quickly become unpopular. With the population’s loyalty split between the polarizing “yellow shirts” and “red shirts”, any action taken by the government to appease one faction will likely outrage the other. The military has a history of seizing control of the government, as a measure of last resort when the country’s political institutions fail. But in the recent past, the military has had to intervene in response to so many crises that it has become overly sensitive to any sign of the population’s dissatisfaction with the regime. The current military junta seemed to be searching for a reason to step in all too readily. Ultimately, political opponents of the junta are correct in that General Prayuth is a symptom of a much bigger problem. Removing Prayuth by force would only lead to more turmoil and violence. Unless General Prayuth makes good on his promise to end the junta’s rule and answers the protests of Thai citizens, the prospect of an effective and lasting democratic rule remains dim.
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