Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, the author of “The Despot’s Apprentice” and a Washington Post Global Opinions columnist.
Last week, historian Charnvit Kasetsiri was summoned to a police station in Bangkok. His crime? He shared a Facebook post about a handbag belonging to the wife of Thailand’s military junta leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act — a national security measure — Charnvit could face years in prison.
How did Thailand, once a flawed democracy, lose its way and become an oppressive authoritarian state that criminalizes dissent?
On May 22, 2014, soldiers in green camouflage fanned out across the leafy streets of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city. They took control of the airport, government ministries, closed down roads, blacked out television stations and imposed martial law. Soon, the elected prime minister was out. A military general, Prayuth, was in. For the 12th time since 1932, a coup d’état had toppled Thailand’s government.
But don’t worry: The military quickly promised that the flawed system of “Thai-style democracy” would soon return. The generals pledged that they would consult Thai voters at the ballot box, return to the barracks and let civilians get back to running the show.
Then, as elections approached in 2015, General-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth backtracked, announcing that elections couldn’t possibly be held before early 2016. As that date approached, Prayuth backtracked again, suggesting that a return to democracy in 2017 would be possible. Of course, 2017 came and went, with Prayuth flirting with various dates in 2018 as the new target.
And last month, you guessed it, Thailand’s military junta postponed elections yet again — to “early 2019.” What a tease.
Even if the generals finally deliver on that pledge (“fool me once, shame on you …”), the military government will nonetheless have been in charge for five years. And this week, Prayuth kept open the possibility that the junta would not return to the barracks even after elections in February 2019.
Every time I’ve interviewed generals in the junta in Bangkok, they say the right things. They know how to speak in the Western lexicon of democracy — promising a swift return to elections and human rights protections. But they don’t follow through.
By now, it’s clear that Thailand’s rulers are playing the strategy of “mirage elections.” Like the shimmering oasis that always seems just over the horizon to the parched desert traveler, Thailand’s junta deceives the international community, and domestic reformers thirsty for democracy, with the illusory promise of fresh elections.
The strategy is working. The perpetually delayed elections have already afforded the military government with four years in power facing limited international and domestic pressure. All the while, they are busy stacking the deck in their favor so that they can stay in power even if they lose at the ballot box. The government already changed the Constitution via a hastily held referendum, thereby providing the military with the ability to “manage” politicians — setting generals up to be powerful kingmakers even if civilian government does eventually return.
Or as former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya recently explained it to me: “The military junta’s political doctrine is expressed as a ‘Thai-style democracy’ — which means a ‘democracy’ with the military in control.”
As Thailand’s junta “election-proofs” its grip on power, it is also cracking down on dissent and criminalizing freedom of expression to an absurd degree. On Wednesday, the military government arrested eight activists who tried to organize a peaceful opposition rally calling for a return to democracy — in violation of the junta’s draconian rule that public assemblies cannot include more than five people. They could face years in prison.
Journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk is now facing decades in jail over “sedition” related to two unspecified Facebook posts that allegedly criticized the military regime and called for a return to democracy. (Pravit recently received an award from the international Committee to Protect Journalists for his bravery in advocating for press freedom even though he has been repeatedly detained and summoned for “attitude adjustment.”)
These detentions are part of a broader crackdown on the press and dissent, as Prayuth has joked about executing journalists and has responded to reporters’ questions by placing a cardboard cutout of himself in front of their cameras and telling them to ask it questions instead. And of course, Prayuth has happily co-opted President Trump’s “fake news” slogan for use as a cudgel against any journalist who is brave enough to criticize the government.
So, what can be done to turn the shimmering electoral mirage into a democratic reality for Thailand’s future? The unfortunate answer: not much. The Trump administration rolled out the red carpet for Prayuth at the White House in 2017, reversing an Obama-era policy that refused to bestow such legitimacy on Thailand’s military government.
If European leaders want to fill the vacuum created by Trump’s amoral America Alone foreign policy, they should insist on elections in 2018. They should also demand that charges be dropped against activists and journalists, including Pravit, who have only committed the “crime” of wanting to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives.
Until then, the mirage elections — always looming in the distance but never quite arriving — will continue to be as real as the cardboard cutout of the junta’s ruling general.