July 19, 2014

DEMOCRACY’S VITAL signs are fading fast in Thailand, three months after its 12th coup d’etat.

Hundreds of academics, politicians and pro-democracy activists have been arrested and temporarily detained since May, as the junta attempts to silence all opposition. State officials have been purged from office. Protests, including readings of George Orwell’s “1984” and outdoor picnics in solidarity with prisoners, have been banned. Media are tightly restricted, and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic, has had his passport revoked for writing an op-ed in The Post last month. The junta plans to introduce a state-owned Internet gateway that will be easy to monitor and censor.

Fear, unlike anything seen in the past few decades, has descended on what was once Southeast Asia’s model democracy.

The coup’s main purpose was to eradicate from Thailand the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular but allegedly corrupt prime minister whom the military deposed in a 2006 coup. With strong support from the rural poor, his party won elections after his ouster, and his sister became prime minister in 2011. The monarchy, army and urban business elite felt threatened by Mr. Thaksin’s popular movement and backed an overthrow in May. Except for a courageous student group, few protesters dare hit the streets today. The only formidable anti-coup organization remains outside the country.

With dissent criminalized, political debate has been dominated by reactionary members of the urban elite who reject democracy. Their suggestions for the new constitution, which the army intends to draft before holding elections, include increasing the power of a biased Electoral Commission and reserving a portion of the legislature for the military.

Despite the army’s desperate attempt to win over the public — through a “happiness” campaign of free haircuts, concerts and World Cup telecasts — these autocratic reforms will be rejected by a majority of the country. The rural poor, having lived through two coups and two major protest crackdowns, value political rights more than freebies from the military. Ongoing human rights abuses further alienate them. These violations have alienated pro-democracy supporters who previously had no sympathy for Mr. Thaksin.

The junta can continue down its repressive path, which will likely lead to unrest. Or, mindful of public opinion, it can restore civil liberties and return the country to democratic rule before fall 2015, as promised. This latter option must come with a constitution approved by referendum, with an elected legislature and mechanisms to ensure neutrality in the judiciary.

The Obama administration has rightly condemned the coup as having “no justification,” suspended half of Thailand’s aid and canceled some joint military exercises. But it’s also signaled a willingness to dial back some of the pressure by deciding not to move the regional Cobra Gold military exercises out of Thailand. The big test is whether it will play along if the junta imposes a phony democracy.

Thailand’s political ground is shifting. With the country’s king apparently in frail health, the administration should understand that the smartest bet is not with the traditional elite but with a democracy that respects both the vocal minority and silent majority.