The Road Back to Democracy in Thailand

by Rachel Wagley
January 15, 2015

The Thai military government’s consolidation of power and crackdown on political expression are preempting a crucial national dialogue on the country’s approach to democracy. The military government is gambling on the Thai people’s willingness to surrender their basic rights for an undefined political future.

Democracy in Thailand took a turn for the worse in 2014. General Prayuth Chan-ocha triggered Thailand’s twelfth successful military coup in May following months of antigovernment protests, the constitutional court’s dismissal of February 2014 elections, and the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The military government suspended the 2007 constitution (Thailand’s eighteenth constitution), banned gatherings of five or more people, shut down major media outlets, and gave itself power to arbitrarily detain people. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has settled comfortably into power and is prolonging a process to rewrite the Thai constitution. Recent announcements that elections will be delayed until 2016 have prompted cynicism over whether the military actually intends to pave a road back to democracy over the next two years.

2015 began with the high-profile impeachment trial of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in 2006. The impeachment proceeding, initiated over a populist rice subsidy program that cost the government billions, is largely considered to be a ploy to keep the Shinawatra family away from future polls. Successful impeachment would ban Yingluck from politics for five years. In early January, she stood before the National Legislative Assembly—appointed by the military government—and argued that an impeachment would be superfluous given that the constitutional court removed her from power in May.

The assembly is scheduled to vote on the impeachment on January 22 and 23. Also on trial are the former speakers of the lower and upper houses of parliament, ironically facing impeachment for attempting to amend the constitution. The military government, which will decide the motion, did away with the constitution entirely and replaced it with an interim charter that allowed General Prayuth Chan-ocha to become prime minister. The charter grants blanket amnesty for members of the NCPO and removes avenues for citizens to participate in politics.

The protracted timeline for drafting a new constitution is helping the military justify holding elections in 2016 or beyond. In late December, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan backtracked on the NCPO’s earlier commitment to hold elections in October 2015. Elections will now be held in February 2016 “at the earliest,” but a potential constitutional referendum could delay them until mid-2016.

The military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee aims to produce a draft in fall 2015, which will be followed by time-consuming election procedures and lawmaking processes. The new constitution will attempt to diminish the possibility that the rural majority will be able to vote in a populist parliament supporting policies that middle and upper class Thailand have repeatedly rejected. The constitution could also include a continuing role for the military in postelection Thailand.

For its part, the United States cut military assistance funding to Thailand, its long-standing ally, and called the decision to delay elections unwise. But the United States has not canceled Cobra Gold, the prestigious multinational military exercise held annually in Thailand, though the exercises have consequently shifted to “focus on non-lethal activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

Without major international pressure, the military may extend its power indefinitely. Beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej has long been in ill health, and the eventual accession of his less popular son could ultimately change the country’s attitude toward the monarchy and the Thai political system. Thailand needs an open, uncensored national dialogue to explore the country’s approach to democracy, monarchy, majoritarianism, and the role of the military in politics. Rather than creating room for dialogue, however, the military has severely stifled political expression. The NCPO has declared martial law, cracked down on democratic activists, imposed harsh penalties on journalists, and arrested youth mimicking the anti-totalitarian salute from the popular Hunger Games trilogy. Bangkok police transferred these students to an army camp for alleged “attitude adjustment,” and youth around the country are being forced to recite the military government’s “12 core values” in school.

Meanwhile, the economy stagnates and voters are disenfranchised. The military, having learned from past coups and the subsequent re-election of populist leaders, is attempting to rid Thailand of the Shinawatra family’s influence for good. But to do so, it is gambling on the Thai people’s willingness to give up their basic rights for an undefined political future.

Thailand’s coups are mounting in democratic significance, shadowed by an electorate now accustomed to political participation and the royal accession on the horizon. The military has not curbed the public spending it found so repugnant in the former government, and it faces considerable internal disagreement over how to reform the country’s political system. The Thai people have little reason to believe that the current suspension of civil liberties will lead, as the military attests, to national reconciliation and political empowerment in 2015.