BANGKOK – Thailand is an exotic destination for travelers and a big Southeast Asian economy, but it has an ugly side. Freedoms there are under siege from a heavy-handed military government that intends to rule indefinitely.
While Thailand has a shaky political history, the country ramped up its commitment to free markets and free elections in the 1990s, a development that was good for the country and the rise of democracy in Asia. For a while you could put Thailand in the same basket as South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia â€” each a positive example of how economic liberalization can lead to political liberalization.
These days Thailand is defying that model. The Thai military seized power in 2014 for the second time in a decade, damaging the country’s chances of securing a stable, representative government. Rather than rebooting and trying again for democracy, Thailand’s army seems determined to keep order by keeping power.
This is a mistake with far-reaching consequences. The instability is messing up Thailand’s export-driven economy because investors are leery of putting money in a country that looks untrustworthy. For U.S. interests there is a larger concern: whether undemocratic Thailand might drift into China’s orbit. Certainly the Thai military government today has more in common with Beijing than Washington.
In March, Thailand’s rulers, led by a former general, unveiled a proposed constitution that would keep the country firmly in the junta’s grip. How? Through control of an appointed senate, which would have far-reaching powers, including the ability to name a general as prime minister.
The government will put the constitution to a vote in August, but the gesture looks bogus. A few days ago Thailand implemented a draconian law outlawing any aggressive campaigning â€” for or against â€” the constitution. Not surprisingly, the government quickly filed charges against a group of people who criticized the draft constitution, saying they used “foul and strong language” on Facebook. Those arrested face up to 10 years in prison.
So much for encouraging debate about the new constitution, or for respecting the public’s role in guiding Thailand’s future. Any Thais not getting this message risk a chilling punishment: detention in a government camp. The U.N.’s human rights chief says 85 people have been called in by the authorities this year for “attitude adjustment” sessions.
There was plenty imperfect with Thailand’s political system before the army took charge. Former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive billionaire businessman, was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled the country. His best hope for a return came when democracy was restored and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister. But she was kicked out of office before the army took over in 2014.
Clearly the biggest losers are the Thai people, forced to live under a regime that is repressing dissent and driving away prosperity.
The U.S. has pulled back on its relationship with Thailand. Exports are contracting and direct foreign investment was down nearly 80 percent last year. The country is going backward. If Thailand’s leaders want to turn that around, they’ll affirm a commitment to democracy â€” by scrapping the proposed constitution, for starters. More likely, it will fall to Thai voters to summon the strength to reject this undemocratic measure.
â€” Chicago Tribune