Thailand’s civilian government grapples with dissent ahead of Pompeo visit

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha walks into a meeting with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Government House in Bangkok, Feb. 7, 2018. (DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Thailand’s Prime Minister recently announced the end of five years of military rule. The new government is looking to the US to support its transition but Thailand’s pro-democracy groups continue to face threats and risk being brushed aside in the name of progress.

By Skylar Lindsay

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha recently resigned from his post as head of state for the country’s outgoing military government and declared that five years of junta rule had come to an end. But Thailand’s opposition and pro-democracy campaigners continue to decry recent elections and question whether the country’s new government can be accurately called a democracy.

Prayuth’s announcement comes ahead of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Bangkok from July 29 to August 3 for ASEAN meetings. The visit presents a chance for Thailand to normalise relations with the US and garner support for its transition to democracy.

US President Donald Trump has taken a much softer approach to supporting human rights and democracy in Thailand than his predecessor, Barack Obama, did. As political debate and contests still swirl, it’s unlikely that Prayut’s political opponents will find an ally in Pompeo and the US. 

Thai voters and politicians are working to build a government beyond the legacy of the junta and it’s this movement that most needs the support of international allies.

Opposition parties persist despite losses

Though Thailand’s political opposition lost in March’s election, it continues to push for what it sees as a more representative government.

Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has recently called on the Thai people to fight for a government that will establish rule of law, equality, and democracy.

H.E. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Thailand WTTC Global Summit 2017

“We cannot get this society from the international community. There is only one way to achieve this. We must build it by ourselves and this is the mission of the Thai people,” he said.

Thailand’s pro-democracy opposition has announced plans to submit a bill to amend two articles of the constitution: one that grants the 250 military-appointed Senators power to participate in the vote for the prime minister, and one that currently prevents the government from changing any laws enacted by the military government of the past five years.

Future Forward, Pheu Thai and other opposition parties have objected to attempts by Prayut and the pro-military Phalang Pracharat Party to preserve the power structures of the military government. 

The new cabinet, sworn in on July 16, includes seven high-ranking members from the junta. Paryut also appointed one cabinet member who has faced charges related to drug trafficking and murder, Captain Thammanat Prompao, to serve as a deputy minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives.

Risks to dissidents put Thailand’s democracy up for debate

Threats and violence against pro-democracy activists show that Thailand is still in the midst of a struggle for democracy.

In late June, Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, a prominent pro-democracy campaigner, was attacked and beaten by a group of four men on the street in Bangkok for the second time this month, breaking his nose and eye socket.

Wikimedia Commons

Ekachai Hongkangwan, another vocal dissident, has been attacked nine times in the past two years. 

Attacks like these have become increasingly frequent. No one has been held accountable for the assaults against Sirawath. A suspect was arrested for only two of the attacks on Ekachai.

Sirawath has rejected police protection, as police allegedly said they could only offer him security if he ceases all political activities.

“There’s no such thing as a return to democracy,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch. “The election was a sham, and now it’s clear the repression in place since the coup is still going on. If you get in the way of this regime, you get bloodied.”

The drive to look like a flawless democracy is taking precedence over political debate

Thailand is looking to reshape its diplomatic, trade and military relationships under the new civilian government in order to repair the damage incurred under five years of junta rule. With Pompeo, the top diplomat from the US, visiting in late July, this drive is defining the government’s agenda; it leaves little room for political debate or entreaties by the opposition to reform the nascent democracy.

“We support transparency and good governance around the world and will continue to work with the Thai people and the Royal Thai government to this end,” said Pompeo.

The US also has diplomatic reasons to forge closer ties with Thailand quickly as part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy to balance China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

In October 2017, US President Donald Trump invited Prayuth to the White House, where they discussed ways to reduce the US trade deficit with Thailand. A successful visit from Pompeo could lay the groundwork for Trump to travel to Bangkok in November for the East Asia Summit. But if Pompeo moves ahead to increase ties without addressing the struggles inherent to Thailand’s democratic transition, US-Thailand relations will be built on a farce.

By deepening ties with Thailand but not addressing the country’s governance challenges, the US sends a message to leaders across ASEAN: that the Trump administration is happy to support their governments with talking about democracy. It signals to other anti-democratic leaders in the region like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, that they won’t face pressure to address domestic rights and governance issues either and embolden their embrace of authoritarianism.

In Thailand, the US risks further entrenching the power structures of the outgoing military government. If Thailand wants to stake place as a fledgeling democracy in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, it needs allies that support the country’s struggle to become free and open, not those that are satisfied with a facade of democracy.