There’s a boot on the neck of Thailand’s democracy undermining its legitimacy

Thailand declared itself a democracy in March after nearly five years of military dictatorship. But as those who speak out face violence and threats, the government has a long way to go before it can call itself legitimate.

Editorial

An unwashed, blood-stained shirt hung in a clear plastic bag at a recent exhibit of human rights evidence and art in Chiang Mai University. The bloody shirt belongs to Sirawith Seritiwat, known to most as Ja New. The Thai pro-democracy activist was wearing it the day four men in motorcycle helmets and ski masks jumped him in Bangkok on his way to catch a bus; the attackers broke his eye socket and his nose and he ended up in the intensive care unit at the local hospital. 

It was the second time this year that Ja New was jumped by unknown attackers.

Thailand has now ostensibly transitioned to a democratically-elected government, but the exhibit, organized by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, displayed artefacts from five years of human rights abuses and social movements under the country’s outgoing military dictatorship, including banners with anti-junta messages, photos of activists imprisoned and harassed for their work.

The military junta held elections on March 24 after months of controversies and manoeuvring. The junta-aligned party managed to put together a ruling coalition and in June, the military-dominated parliament voted in junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha as the new prime minister.

Despite a cloud of questions around the elections, the transition received a stamp of approval from international governments. In late July, the United States certified that Thailand had once again become a democracy, a move that allows Washington to reinstate normal diplomatic and military ties with Bangkok.

But political dissidents and those who speak out in Thailand, or critique the government from abroad, face harassment, physical attacks and threats to their safety. To become a legitimate democracy, Thailand will need to seriously investigate these cases and hold those responsible for the violence and intimidation accountable. 

The junta has stepped aside but repression continues

Pro-democracy voices in Thailand expressed concerns over election rigging throughout the campaign. Their fears stemmed from the junta’s repression of opposition parties and unfair election laws that put popular opposition movements at a disadvantage. Dissidents claimed the election was designed to keep the junta—the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)—in power.

“It was not really an election,” Yingcheep Atchanont, a program manager for iLaw, a civil and political rights research and advocacy group based in Bangkok, told BenarNews during the group’s visit to the U.S. capital. “It was a play, and the NCPO wrote the script.”

As such, pro-democracy activists didn’t stop when the elections were over. In the three months following the election, at least seven critics of the junta government inside Thailand were violently attacked. Pro-democracy activist Ekachai Hongkangwan has been attacked nine times in the past two years. 

“The failure of Thai authorities to seriously investigate these assaults both encourages future attacks and suggests a possible role by officials,” said Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams.

The attacks have often come at times when the dissidents have been most active in pushing for reform: collecting signatures, speaking in public or attending protests.

Accountability will be messy 

There have been some motions towards accountability for violence and disappearances but the results are far from encouraging.

Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen was a Karen land rights activist and community advocate who went missing in April 2014 when he was arrested for allegedly possessing wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey. At the time, Billy and fellow activists were pursuing a lawsuit against the government for destroying and burning homes and property in their Karen village inside Kaeng Krachan National Park.

The Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced on September 3 that they had found an oil drum containing Billy’s remains in a reservoir inside the national park, near where he was last seen. The drum contained charred bones and a piece of skull, and the DNA matched that of Billy’s mother.

But the investigation isn’t the result of calls for accountability and action by the Karen community and other community-level advocates. The evidence was reportedly found with a sonar-equipped underwater drone. Had the DSI undertaken a thorough and comprehensive search, it could have found Billy’s remains years ago.

“Billy’s case has moved forward not because there is progress, but because of a shift within the government,” an indigenous land rights defender in Thailand told ASEAN Today on the condition of anonymity. The bitter reality of the new government is that accountability trickles out when it is politically convenient, not because of a commitment to end the violence and intimidation that undermine the country’s democracy.

Suppression of dissent crosses borders

Thailand’s new government will also need to prove that it intends to let Thai dissidents abroad live and work without trying to smother dissent. Many of Thailand’s pro-democracy activists and redshirt supporters fled the country after the 2014 coup against the democratically-elected Yingluck Shinawatra government. But since then, a number of them have disappeared in what many suspect to be attempts by the government to stamp out criticism beyond its borders.

In June 2016, Ittipon “DJ Sunho” Sukpaen disappeared while living in exile in Laos. In July 2017, Wuttipong “Ko Tee” Kotthammakhun was abducted: unknown attackers broke into his home in Laos and assaulted him and a group of his supporters with tasers. The rest of the group got away but Ko Tee disappeared.

In December 2018, Surachai Danwattananusorn and two other Thai dissidents vanished in northern Laos. Surachai had been targeted for his communist activities in the 1970s as well as his leadership of Red Siam, a pro-democracy group that questioned the authority of Thailand’s monarchy. The bodies of Surachai’s companions—known as Phu Chana and Kasalong—were soon found in the Mekong River, their hands and feet tied and their bodies stuffed with concrete.

Fai Yen, a group of activists musicians, fled the country for Laos in 2014 when they were asked to report to the military government’s leadership. At least one member already faced charges for his activism. The group is known for performing at protests against military violence and in defence of political prisoners. Concerns for the group’s safety grew earlier this year but Thailand’s Ministry of Defense said the group wasn’t in any danger and wouldn’t be extradited. In August, they arrived in France to seek asylum.

As recently as May, Chucheep “Uncle Sanam Luang” Chiwasut and two other Thai activists disappeared in Vietnam. The three face lese-majeste charges and some suspect they were arrested by Vietnamese authorities and extradited to Thailand.

The Thai government and military have denied any involvement in the enforced disappearances of dissidents abroad and there have been no substantive investigations.

It’s been over four months since Prayuth official stepped down as head of the NCPO and became prime minister. But so far, the new government has only continued the repressive tactics of the junta and continues to deny involvement in the violent attacks and disappearances that threaten Thailand’s democracy. 

The repression won’t stop the pro-democracy and community-level activists that the country so direly needs from organizing and campaigning for reform. The violence, impunity and harassment are only serving to embarrass the new democracy.