Thailand’s push for democracy falters as junta tightens up on civil freedoms

After positive moves towards democracy in the 1990s, Thailand has fallen back into political turmoil, raising doubts over its future, which does not look bright.
Red Shirt supporters of fugitive former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, rally in Bangkok in 2009, above, in a call for him to be given a royal pardon. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP
Red Shirt supporters of fugitive former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, rally in Bangkok in 2009, above, in a call for him to be given a royal pardon. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP

On a hot spring afternoon in 1999 at the investigative reporting section of the Bangkok Post, one of Thailand’s two English-language dailies, the section’s editor marked off a long list of stories on a white board. The section had plenty of targets in its sights – police corruption, Thailand’s drug trade and many other subjects.

The Post’s lively reporting was but one sign of Thailand’s freedom at the time. The country held regular free elections, and had just passed a reformist constitution. The charter guaranteed many new rights and freedoms. And Thailand was not alone; overall, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, South East Asia was considered one of the most promising areas of the world for democracy. By the middle of the 2000s, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, authoritarian states during the Cold War, were all ranked as “free” or “partly free” by Freedom House, a US-based, independent monitoring organisation. 

Today, South East Asia – and Thailand particularly – looks far different. Only Indonesia and the Philippines are still ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House, in its latest annual analysis. Thailand has regressed into a decade of political turmoil that has resulted in elected governments abusing their power and two military coups, the latest in May last year. A year on, Thailand’s regression – and dismal hope for the future – exemplifies many of the challenges that democracy faces throughout the world. 

A junta still runs Thailand, and it has intimated that it may remain in power for years. Successive Thai governments, both elected and unelected, have clamped down on all types of dissent, closing or blocking more than 100,000 websites and jailing hundreds of people on vague charges of lese majeste, a law created to protect the institution of the monarchy but now widely used by Thai governments to lock up all types of opponents.

While Thai courts normally processed four or five lese majeste charges a year in the early 2000s, between 2006 and 2011, they handled more than 400 cases, according to a study by scholar David Streckfuss. Since taking power in May last year, the Thai junta has threatened to get even tougher on critics. When asked in March about the government’s policy towards critical journalists, prime minister – and junta leader – Prayuth Chan-ocha said: “We’ll probably just execute them.” It was unclear whether he was joking. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Thai democracy appeared to have much going its way. Most important, Thailand had a large, growing middle class, which had played a central role in 1992 street protests that erupted after a military coup, calling for free elections. While Thailand had faced numerous coups in the past, this time the Bangkok middle classes demonstrated in force, and eventually pushed Thailand’s king, the head of state, to call the coup leader before him and force the army to hand back power.   

The influential role of the Thai middle class, and middle classes in other South East Asian nations, seemed to once again confirm the modernisation theory, first proposed by political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset in 1959. Lipset argued that as countries developed economically, they would create a middle class, and as the middle class grew in size, men and women would gain more education, build more ties to the outside world of democratic ideas, and increasingly demand more freedoms. 

Thai middle classes played a central role as Thailand passed the progressive constitution in 1997. It set the stage for elections in 2001 that were probably the most free in Thailand’s history, and which resulted in a political system dominated by two major parties, Thai Rak Thai and the Democrat Party. Meanwhile, the Thai media used its new freedoms, along with new technologies, such as the internet, to explore formerly taboo topics. 

But since the early 2000s, Thailand has been consumed by street protests, rising violence and political instability. Under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who served from 2001 to 2006 and remains the most polarising figure in Thai politics, the Thai Rak Thai party, the “red shirts”, appealing to Thailand’s poor, rural majority, won huge victories. Thaksin’s party delivered several initiatives that only boosted the party’s popularity among the poor – a universal health-insurance programme and low-interest loans to villages, among others. But Thaksin also used electoral dominance to undermine Thailand’s constitution and basic rights. 

In this way, Thaksin resembled many of the other first-generation elected leaders in developing Asia, Africa and Latin America, who had come to power in the post-Cold War period – Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Vladimir Putin, and many others. These elected autocrats saw democracy as little more than winning elections and using the vote to crush all opposition; yet they continued to hold elections, tarnishing the brand of democracy.

Larry Diamond, an expert on democratisation at Stanford University, notes that since 2006 the expansion of democracy around the world has stagnated and reversed, in part because of “abusive executives [ie presidents or prime ministers] intent on concentrating their personal power”. 

Thaksin emptied the civil service of anyone who questioned his policies, and oversaw what he called a battle against drug trafficking in which security forces killed more than 2,500 people. It emerged that many of these suspects were executed by police with no trial and that the number of dead included opponents of the government. Meanwhile, Thaksin intimidated many Thai media outlets into running only flattering coverage, according to reporters with the Bangkok Post and The Nation, another leading Bangkok newspaper.

In its latest ranking of countries’ online and print freedom, non-government organisation Reporters Without Borders ranked Thailand 130th out of 180 countries, alongside notoriously repressive regimes such as Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

An elected Thai government also did not improve upon the country’s governance. Corruption continued to hinder growth, and Thailand’s economy continued to suffer from unaddressed challenges, like a poor education system that leaves most Thai students unprepared to find decent jobs. Again, Thailand was not unique. In a January article for the Journal of Democracy, theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote that, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, “the failure to establish modern, well-governed states has been the Achilles heel of recent democratic transitions”, leading to public distrust of democracy. 

As Thaksin consolidated his power, many of the same Thai middle-class men and women who supported democratic change came out into the streets again in 2006, 2013 and last year. But this time, tens of thousands of “yellow shirts”, mostly rich and middle-class Thais called for less democracy. As 2013 protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said, the demonstrators wanted to return Thailand to what he called “an administration system by monarchy” – to a time when Thai kings ruled, rather than just reigned.

Other protest leaders called for a military intervention or a kind of oligarchy by a few “good people” – with the definition of “good” never clearly defined.

The middle classes got what (they thought) they wanted, though it took time. First, the military launched a coup in September 2006, while Thaksin was on a foreign trip. But after allowing elections again the next year, with Thaksin mostly in exile, the army found that a pro-Thaksin party won a big victory. In 2011, with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck leading the party, now called Puea Thai, the pro-Thaksin group won parliamentary elections once more. Finally, in May last year, the military – egged on by the middle class and elite protesters – struck again, with a much harsher coup. This time, the armed forces made clear that they would not hand back power easily, and enforced tight restrictions on dissent. They oversaw criminal charges filed against Yingluck and other Thaksin supporters.

Even if the junta does hand back power, Thailand will not return to full democracy anytime soon. The new constitution being written will create a political system where voting almost surely leads to a plethora of small parties, diluting elected leaders’ power; the new charter will also contain a provision in which Thailand could have an unelected prime minister – perhaps a military man or another elite. “Thailand’s next constitution, as part of the largest scale legislative revamp of its political and legal system in recent history, appears to be instrumental in systematically suppressing democracy,” says prominent Bangkok-based blogger Saksith Saiyasombut.

Yet Thailand’s poor, empowered by years of Thaksinite parties and engaged in politics, are unlikely to simply accept a system rigged to give middle class and wealthy Thais dominance once again. The post-junta environment will most likely fall somewhere between real democracy and autocracy – a highly unstable middle ground. For now, the junta’s tight restrictions on dissent have prevented large protests from breaking out, although there have been hundreds of smaller demonstrations since May last year; severe autocracy has produced some degree of forced stability. 

But once the military retreats even a bit, demonstrations are likely to grow.

In 2010, after the army and palace reportedly manoeuvered behind the scenes to convince MPs to desert the pro-Thaksin party and form a short-lived government led by the Democrat Party, tens of thousands of poor Thais poured into the streets of Bangkok from around the kingdom. After more than a month of tensions in the street, the demonstrators clashed with troops using live rounds. The protesters fought back with homemade bombs and slingshots. Parts of the central business district were burnt to the ground, and at least 98 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured.

As the junta gradually releases some of its hold on power, and Thailand hovers between real democracy and authoritarian rule, many Thais expect a repeat of 2010 – or worse.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Published: May 7, 2015 04:00 AM


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