Thailand’s faux democracy shouldn’t be treated like a real one

I saw the best and the worst of Thailand during a visit to Bangkok last month.

On the positive side, I met with several Thai human rights activists to hear about their outspoken criticism of the country’s military junta. The dissidents’ courage was inspiring, as the junta has become increasingly intolerant of critical voices since seizing power in a 2014 coup and staging an election this year that proved to be a setup for continued de facto military rule.

One young dissident, whose name we are withholding for her security, told me that she first got involved in protests against the government in 2014, appalled by how democratic rule had been taken away from Thailand by force. She says she had never been involved in any political party activity.

“We want democracy”, she told me. “We are not political parties. We are for democracy”.

The United States and European Union have called for a return to genuine civilian rule before relations will be restored to their pre-coup level, but that goal seems distant. The Thai government has been attacking dissidents since the coup, arresting them on spurious charges or calling them into military camps for “attitude adjustment”. And it has been getting worse.

“All around us, we are facing more threats”, the young dissident I met in Bangkok said. “The government tells us we can’t criticize them. They attack us. They bring legal cases against us ... and they insult us”.

She described a litany of crude and sexist attacks by police and military officers during routine interrogations, including offensive questions about her clothes and vulgar innuendo about her relationship with male dissidents. “It’s terrible”, she said. “They attack us constantly”.

That’s not even the worst side. The junta now appears to be resorting to outright violence to intimidate and harass its critics.

On the night of June 28, two days after my conversation with the young dissident, four unidentified men brutally assaulted a prominent Thai dissident named Sirawith Seritiwat near his home on the outskirts of Bangkok, beating him on the head with metal batons. Sirawith was rushed to the hospital, where at one point he fell into an unresponsive state before doctors stabilized him. His injuries were massive: fractures, contusions and a shattered eye socket.

The violence has been worsening all year. Just four weeks ago, thugs attacked Sirawith with wooden sticks. On May 25, six men on motorcycles attacked another dissident, Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich, as he rode his motorcycle in Bangkok, hitting him with metal bars, causing extensive injures to his head, face, arms and legs. Anurak was also attacked in his home on March 31. Ekachai Hongkangwan, yet another critic of the junta, has been attacked at least nine times since early 2018, most recently on May 13, when four unidentified assailants attacked Ekachai outside the Bangkok Criminal Court, breaking his hand and ribs.

There are strong reasons to believe these attacks are being directed by the junta to punish those opposed to military rule.

The first attack on Sirawith occurred shortly after he collected signatures in downtown Bangkok for a petition urging Thailand’s 250 incoming senators — all appointed by the junta — not to support Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha for prime minister. The second came only days before Sirawith was set to speak at a concert to commemorate the 1932 overthrow of absolute monarchy. The attacks on Anurak came soon after he attended a protest against the military junta’s handling of the March 24 vote. Ekachai has frequently and publicly criticized the military government.

The recent violence comes as Thailand, once a leading example of an emerging democracy in Southeast Asia, tries to persuade the United States, E.U. and others that it is back on the democratic track. But this is a losing case. Thailand’s general elections on March 24 were tailored by the junta to keep itself in power. Candidates and political parties were barred from the contest. Borrowing a page from the Myanmar military’s playbook, the junta appointed the entire Senate, which in turn has one-third of the votes necessary to appoint a new government. Thus, even though the party created by the military won fewer seats than the main opposition party, the process predictably led to the selection of Prayuth, the junta’s leader, as prime minister.

Yet Prayuth is struggling to form a new government. Infighting over cabinet posts has led to a stalemate. Ominously, on July 1, Prayuth even raised the possibility of another military coup, issuing a menacing statement about “solving the problem with the old method that no one wants to see happen”.

Some policymakers in Washington and Brussels now appear ready to ignore the problems in Thailand’s fabricated democracy and restore past close military and economic assistance, in part because they are worried about increasing Chinese influence in the region. But the increasingly toxic and violent political atmosphere should force everyone to rethink. If a faux democracy is treated like a real one, the very institution of democracy itself is weakened.

Thailand’s friends should be pressing, not easing up on, the Thai military to respect human rights and restore democratic rule. The only message that silence sends is assent.

John Sifton is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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