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July 25, 2014

Thailand's Junta Moving Further Away From Democratic Rule, Critics Say

by Steve Herman

Critics of Thailand's new interim charter are saying it does just the opposite of what the military claims: paving the way for a return to democratic civil rule. Further reaction to the temporary constitution, which was issued this week.

A former cabinet minister, considered a fugitive by Thailand's military leaders, is calling the country's new interim constitution one of the most repressive decrees yet from the junta.

New Interim contstitution
 
Jakrapob Penkair, among those who has set up in exile the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy (FT-HD), spoke to VOA via Skype from an undisclosed location outside Thailand.   “This military regime puts itself in the constitution above the whole system," he said. "Even if you have the national assembly elected or appointed or you have a government elected or appointed, the final say would be them, would be the military regime.”
 
Jakrapob, a founding leader of the “red shirts” movement, sees the military returning the kingdom to the political system of the 1980's and 90's when parties were weakened to the point of having no alternative but to form unstable coalitions. “In that kind of fragile political coalition anything could collapse very easily," he stated. "I guess that's what they want.”  
 
 Human rights violations

The international organization Human Rights Watch is calling for the junta to amend what it is characterizes as “a charter for dictatorship,” which gives the military's leaders “sweeping powers without accountability or safeguards against human rights violations.”
 
The Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, fears some of the articles in the interim charter could be implemented in a planned permanent constitution.
 
“This could be the seeds for a very long period of a Burmese [Myanmar]-style military-controlled quasi-democracy. And that should be worrying to everybody in the region and around the world because Thailand has been a country that has embraced democracy in the past and has done reasonably well, compared to a lot of other countries,” Adams noted.
 
Adams, speaking to VOA via Skype from San Francisco, predicts this latest of Thailand's numerous coups is likely to be more enduring.  “Some coups have a very short duration with constitutions that are quickly passed by the military and then elections that are announced as a way back to a democratic path. But, in this case, while they say they're going to do that they've passed an interim constitution that basically gives all power to the military leadership and some to the future prime minister who is very likely to be the current military chief.” he said.
 
Out with old, in with new

Both a deputy and an aide to the junta boss this week said they do not rule out General Prayuth Chan-ocha being selected as prime minister. But they stressed it will be up to the provisional parliament to choose a government leader who would serve until the next election, expected no earlier than October 2015.
 
Yingluck Shinawatra was forced out as prime minister this year following six months of rallies in Bangkok.
 
Yingluck flew to Europe this week. A photograph posted on social media showed her hugging her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, on arrival in Paris.
 
There has been speculation whether Yingluck intends to join Thaksin in self-imposed exile or return home in August, as she has promised, to fight court cases filed against her.
 
There have been no public rallies in Thailand against the interim charter. Public opinion polls published by newspapers, which are under the strictest level of censorship seen here in decades, show the majority of Thais supporting the junta's reform push.
 
The military, since the May 22 coup, has engaged in a number of populist programs, including offering free concerts and movies, as well delving into police matters, such as cracking down on illegal parking and overcharging by motorcycle taxi drivers.
 
Quasi-democracy

The junta has authority to summon anyone making comments deemed to be political or that could cause unrest.
 
Since the May 22 coup hundreds of people have been called in for questioning and temporary detention. Most of those targeted are considered allies of the Shinawatra clan, critics of the military or Thailand’s harsh lese majeste laws.
 
The Committee on the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), part of the Thai Volunteer Service Foundation, Friday released a list of charges  filed against more than 100 people since the May 22 coup.
 
While some of the charges are serious, such as possession of weapons and ammunition, others are as seemingly mundane such as reading aloud anti-coup poems outside a shopping mall.  
 
This week Thailand’s revered monarch formally endorsed the interim charter in a ceremony with General Prayuth, the army’s chief. That took place at a royal palace in the coastal city Hua Hin where the ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been convalescing.
 
The ceremony is seen as providing additional royal legitimacy to the military council by endorsing the new laws it composed.
 
The interim legislature selected by the junta is to choose a committee that will draw up a new constitution, which will then be submitted to a reform committee for approval. It is unclear whether there will be a public referendum on the permanent constitution.
 
The junta’s roadmap for what it calls a return to democracy is essentially in line with what was demanded by protesters in Bangkok who occupied parts of the capital for months calling for the ouster of then-Prime Minister Yingluck.  
 
Since the end of absolute monarchial rule in 1932 Thailand has experienced frequent overthrows of civilian governments by the military. The generals or judicial action have deposed three governments since 2006.
 
The last five national elections in Thailand have been won by parties supported by billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother. He was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup and convicted two years later by a military-appointed panel.  
 
After Yingluck's removal in May of this year, General Prayuth declared martial law and then seized all power himself.
 
Jakrapob, the opposition group leader in exile, said the interim charter appears clearly designed “to prevent the likes of Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai to ever occur again in Thailand.”
 
The Thai Rak Thai party was founded by Thaksin in 1998 and banned in 2007.
 
But Jakrapob expresses confidence that the 2014 coup will not be able to sustain power in the long term.
 
“Many military junta regimes in Thailand have been defeated when people move,” he said. “We hope that is going to happen sometime soon, perhaps in months or years.”