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Thailand’s Military Junta Enjoys Power and Postpones Elections

Thailand Red Shirt Democracy Protestors

BANGKOK, THAILAND—Thailand’s capital has lost none of its frenetic motion or relaxed informality. But it is a bit quieter of late, with last year’s demonstrators dispersed by the military.

However, the junta, which took power in May, is not leaving. Instead it recently announced that it was putting off any vote.

The generals appear to enjoy holding political office. For instance, General turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha hosts a weekly television show, “Returning Happiness to the People.”

Thailand’s political crisis has been years in the making. Once an absolute monarchy, the country’s democracy has been oft interrupted by military rule. A new constitution was instituted in 1997, but the business-military-court alliance hadn’t prepared for telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra.

In 2001 he won the votes of Thailand’s long neglected rural poor, giving his party a majority and making him prime minister. He spread state largesse far and wide and won again in 2005.

His frustrated opponents essentially gave up on democracy. Thailand’s political losers launched a campaign of disruptive protests against Thaksin.  The military used the controversy to justify ousting the prime minister in 2006 while he was overseas.

However, new elections gave Thaksin’s successor party a plurality. Again opposition demonstrators took over streets.

Security agencies refused to protect the elected government. Courts abused the law to disqualify pro-Thaksin legislators. Elites which viewed themselves as born to rule then pressured coalition partners to switch sides and join the misnamed Democrat Party. Bloodshed erupted when so-called “Red Shirts,” who backed Thaksin, traveled to Bangkok to protest the quasi-coup.

In Thailand’s 2011 election Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra and their Pheu Thai party decisively defeated the Democrats. A former deputy prime minister then organized new mobs to prevent the government from functioning and block new elections.

In May the army moved in. Emphasizing “national happiness,” the junta organized rallies featuring singing soldiers, female dancers in camo, and musicians.

Although soldiers did not arrive with guns blazing, the coup was real. Hundreds of people were arrested. Demonstrations are banned, as are public meetings of five or more people.

Journalists are barred from criticizing the government. Students are detained for using the three-finger salute from the movie Hunger Games and even posting on Facebook self-portraits raising their fingers. One of the military’s most effective tools of repression is the lese majeste law, which is used to punish even innocent discussions of the monarchy.

Shortly after grabbing control Prayuth said that he hoped not to violate human rights “too much.” In that he has failed dramatically. Human Rights Watch’s Brad Adams reported in November that “Respect for fundamental freedoms and democracy in Thailand under military rule has fallen into an apparently bottomless pit.” In fact, Burma’s people now are freer than Thais.

The junta originally promised new elections next year after the constitution was changed to create “genuine democracy.” However, the regime now expects to rule at least until 2016.

Civilian politics may be the least of the military’s concerns. The military itself is divided, and draws many of its soldiers from areas that support Thaksin. More threatening may be the slow economy, made worse by the junta’s mismanagement. And once king the current crown prince may prove friendlier toward Thaksin.

No one in Thailand’s national soap opera appears innocent. Thaksin engaged in self-dealing and disdained checks and balances. But Thaksin’s opponents represent privileged elites which long used the system for their benefit and disdained democratic governance. When challenged, they responded with a strategy of rule or ruin:  give us the political keys to the kingdom or we will destroy it. Rather like Mussolini’s Black Shirts, the protestors’ only objective was to seize power.

Some sort of grand compromise is necessary to save Thai democracy. The Thaksin family should withdraw from politics. Those who headed the “rule or ruin” movements against Thaksin should barred from the public square. The court and military should agree to no more partisan interventions.

Finally, the junta should allow positive constitutional reform. Central government power, especially to manipulate the economy, should be curbed. The national government needs checks and balances which don’t benefit only establishment elites. Authority also should be devolved on provinces, so national predominance by a Thaksin-like figure and party would not be so threatening to opponents.

There’s not a lot the U.S. can do to encourage restoration of democracy in Thailand. Ultimately Thailand’s future will be decided by the Thai people.

Hopefully they will free themselves from the grip of childish authoritarians. Democracy rarely is an easy ride, but it remains the best path to human liberty and happiness.

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