Thailand’s Democratic Erosion

The adoption of the junta-drafted constitution is the latest episode in the deterioration of Thailand’s democratic system.

August 8, 2016

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Voters in Thailand may have cast their ballots in favor of the ruling military junta’s draft constitution, but the junta’s win may signal public exhaustion after two years of military rule rather than an expression of political support, says CFR’s Karen Brooks in a written interview. “The passage of this charter represents a considerable step backward in Thailand’s democratic development,” she says. The new constitution may bring fresh stability to Thailand, but it permanently enshrines a government role for the armed forces and “comes at the expense of deteriorating standards on human rights and basic democratic freedoms,” says Brooks.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha casts his ballot during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, August 7, 2016.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha casts his ballot during a constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, August 7, 2016. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

What do the results of the Thai referendum reveal about the country’s political climate?                                            

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While on the face of it, this suggests public support for the junta and its preferred path forward, this vote was carried out under the repressive rule of a military-led government and thus, by definition, is suspect on the criteria of free and fair. The government and its proxies were allowed to sing the praises of the draft constitution, but they passed a law prohibiting opposition campaigning and repressed “no” supporters, including making a host of arrests and shutting down “no”-leaning media. Critics of the draft could serve up to ten years in jail.

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So it will be hard to interpret fairly the meaning of the referendum results with no open debate and no genuine education of the Thai people regarding the implications of the highly undemocratic nature of the charter.

The vote of “yes” for some may have been a reflection of fatigue with two years of military rule and a desire to get on with an election, even if under highly constrained rules.

Does the draft constitution put Thailand’s democracy at risk?

“This vote was carried out under the repressive rule of a military-led government and thus by definition is suspect on the criteria of free and fair.”

Thailand’s democratic system has been in jeopardy for over a decade. This is just the latest episode in the long deterioration of the country’s democratic fundamentals.

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The constitution transforms Thailand’s senate into a fully-appointed body that includes commanders of the military and other security services, thereby permanently enshrining a role for the military in government. It codifies emergency decrees passed by the junta without any parliamentary scrutiny. The referendum further paves the way for the powers that be to install an unelected prime minister under vaguely defined circumstances of “political deadlock” in the future, which in essence provides a permanent mechanism for the military to conduct a coup against elected leaders without having to roll tanks in the streets.

The passage of this charter represents a considerable step backward in Thailand’s democratic development. The only silver lining, if there is one, is that markets are likely to cheer the charter’s passage as at least a way forward and as a harbinger of hoped for stability in the coming years.

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How would you characterize the rule of the country’s military leadership since the May 2014 coup?

Over the past two years, the junta, under the leadership of former army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha, has restored a measure of stability, in that grinding and disruptive protests are no longer a daily feature of Thai life. This has, however, come at the expense of deteriorating standards on human rights and basic democratic freedoms, including freedoms of speech and movement. Journalists and opposition figures have been subjected to arbitrary detentions on a regular basis; leading opposition politicians from the ousted elected government have been required to submit to the junta requests for travel abroad, requests that were often denied; opponents of the junta have been tried in military rather than civilian courts; prosecutions under Thailand’s draconian “lèse majesté” laws, intended to protect the name of the Thai royal family, reached an all-time high; and ordinary soldiers were granted sweeping police powers to arrest and detain, violating fundamental principles regarding the separation of powers between armed forces and police in a democracy.

While Thailand’s stock market has proven resilient since the 2014 coup, the real economy has been characterized by anemic growth. The Thai government blames the poor performance on regional and global factors beyond its control. However, the numbers show that Thailand performed far worse than its neighbors. In 2015, Thailand’s GDP grew of just 2.82 percent, compared with 4.8 percent in Indonesia, 5.8 percent in the Philippines, and 6.7 percent in Vietnam.

Why has the country had such prolonged political upheaval?

In 2005, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s political party (Thai Rak Thai) became the first in Thai history to win an absolute majority of parliamentary seats. That historic consolidation of power, which was inherently threatening to traditional Thai elites, including the military, the bureaucracy, and above all, the monarchy, prompted a military coup in 2006 and helped fuel the conflict with which Thailand still wrestles today.

“The real issue bedeviling Thai politics for the past decade has been a lack of consensus regarding how political and economic power should be allocated in the Kingdom.”

It would be a mistake, however, to understand the conflict as one of personalities or individuals—the Shinawatra family versus the traditional Thai elite. Thaksin was polarizing—beloved by the people of the countryside for his populist policies and hated by human rights and civil society groups due to allegations of various abuses, including corruption. But the real issue bedeviling Thai politics for the past decade has been a lack of consensus regarding how political and economic power should be allocated in the Kingdom. 

Is power to be distributed as a function of elections, where politicians compete for power at the ballot box? Or are traditional Thai elites who have wielded power for the better part of a century to remain at the center of the Thai power structure indefinitely? Thaksin, however flawed in the eyes of many, has represented the electoral path to power. The military, acting in the name of the monarchy and with the support of the bureaucracy, has repeatedly intervened to overturn election results in an effort to restore power to traditional elites, including itself.

Hence we have the decade-long tug-of-war between the two competing visions for how one attains power. Moreover, this sequence is part and parcel of a broader historical pattern that has seen nineteen coups and now its twentieth constitution since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is in bad health. Why are there such grave concerns about his succession and the future role of the royal family?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, having ascended to the throne in 1946. During the seventy years of his reign, he guided the nation through an extraordinary range of challenges, from the end of the Second World War, through the Vietnam and Cold Wars, from the go-go days of the high-growth 1990s, through the economic pain of the Asian financial crisis. While governments in Bangkok came and went, the King was always there—a strong, benevolent presence that was the glue that held the Thai family together.

“While governments in Bangkok came and went, the King was always there—a strong, benevolent presence that was the glue that held the Thai family together.”

Most Thais have only known life with King Bhumibol on the throne, thus his poor health understandably generates concern. This anxiety is exacerbated by questions as to what comes next, as the reins pass to an untested and less beloved son. Can Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn reign with the dignity, wisdom, and self-control for which his father was famous? Rumors and even YouTube videos of the Crown Prince’s salacious private life and his seeming lack of appetite to follow in the father’s philanthropic footsteps have raised doubts. The stakes are even higher in light of the real fissures in Thai society—urban versus rural; rich versus poor; north versus south—exposed over the past decade of political conflict.

Indeed, the 2014 coup that brought the current junta to power must be understood against the backdrop of the king’s declining health, as the military, which defines itself as the protector of the monarchy, was and is determined to be fully in control when the monarch passes from the scene.

Washington has heralded Thailand in the past as a partner and model for democratic transition in Southeast Asia. How have post-coup developments affected the U.S.-Thailand relationship?

Thailand is a longstanding treaty ally of the United States, and the two countries have been close partners on many fronts for decades. U.S. troops fought side-by-side with Thai troops in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and they have had critical partnerships on counternarcotics and counterterrorism over the years. Having worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, I can say without hesitation that there is considerable bipartisan support for strong relations with Thailand, and that the U.S. military places a high value on its partnerships with Thai security forces.

Having said that, the Thai military’s repeated intervention into the democratic process over the past decade has put considerable strains on U.S.-Thai relations. We have laws governing what we can and cannot do in the wake of a military coup, and this has necessarily placed constraints on our activities and cooperation with a valued partner. We have strategic interests in maintaining a close relationship with Thailand, but at the same time have both laws and principles that must be upheld when it comes to military interference with democratic development.

How should Washington respond to the political changes in Bangkok?

The Thai story is still very much unfolding, with the recent referendum, plans for elections in 2017, and issues of succession also very much on the radar screen. The United States will need to remain consistent in regard to its support for a return to full democracy while being mindful of the particular sensitivities of this moment in Thai history.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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