BANGKOK – This week’s lifting of martial law by Thailand’s military ruler, Prime Minister Gen.Prayuth Chan-ocha, looks like a brazen attempt to dupe key overseas allies, notably the US, the EU and Japan, into believing the country is on a return path to democracy.
The Military junta, which seized power from an elected government last May, plainly hopes to persuade international investors, trading partners and foreign tourists that it is business as usual in Thailand.
The reality is very different. Within minutes of Wednesday’s announcement, the regime invoked article 44 of the interim constitution that was arbitrarily imposed last year. Known as the “dictator law”, it gives Gen. Prayuth the power to override any branch of government in the name of national security, and absolves him of any legal responsibility. In key respects, the scope for abuse is more threatening than martial law.
“General Prayuth’s activation of constitution section 44 will mark Thailand’s deepening descent into dictatorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand … that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers.” In particular, unlawful detentions of civilian opponents looked set to increase, he suggested.
The junta had detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists and others whom they accuse of supporting the deposed government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, disrespecting the monarchy or backing anti-coup protests, Human Rights Watch said. Military personnel have interrogated many of the detainees in secret military facilities without ensuring safeguards against mistreatment. Yingluck, meanwhile, has been banned from politics and faces criminal prosecution.
Prime Minister Gen.Prayuth insistence on the incomparable virtues of “Thai-ness” and traditional core values, and his self-proclaimed mission to restore “happiness to the people”, have invited open ridicule, even though the media and institutions are closely controlled.
After political gatherings of more than five people were banned last year, university students organised “sandwich parties” – in effect, lunchtime sit-ins. When the idea spread, Prayuth’s military detained the subversive snackers for “eating sandwiches with political intent”.
The retired general, who now styles himself prime minister, heads the Orwellian-sounding National Council for Peace and Order. He claims he did not want the job of national overseer, and took it out of a sense of duty. But he is quick to threaten those who question his powers or conduct.
Like tinpot dictators the world over, Prayuth’s timetable for holding elections keeps slipping. Polls were supposed to be held this year. Now they may happen next year, or later. Meanwhile, the junta, helped by an appointed advisory panel and legislature, is preparing a permanent constitution whose main purpose appears to be to permanently curtail parliamentary democracy and prevent the return of the Shinawatra clan, which has won every poll since 2001.
“The charter includes provision allowing a non-elected official to assume the role of prime minister in times of crisis. The dangers posed to freedom do not need to be spelled out when autocrats brush aside the fundamental principles of democracy in the name of ‘national emergency,’ ‘public order’ and ‘crisis measures’,” said commentator Aron Shaviv.
“The charter also suggests the 200-member senate should be nominated, and not subject to any electoral process whatsoever. And to help promote this thoroughly anti-democratic measure, the junta has enlisted the judiciary, sullying the very bedrock of democracy.”
The prospect of Prayuth’s dictatorial rule being extended indefinitely is not one that is welcomed in Washington. A public row blew up in January when Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state, criticized the lack of democracy. But the Obama administration is conflicted. Thailand is an old and valued ally dating back to the Vietnam war era, which has cooperated on security and military issues, drug interdiction and people trafficking.
More to the point, the US does not want to leave the strategic field open to China in its expanding tussle with Beijing for advantage and influence in south-east Asia. Japan shares Washington’s concern.
Its prime minister, Shinzō Abe, recently hosted Prayuth in Tokyo. Abe urged the restoration of civilian rule, but his focus was also on maintaining a strong bilateral business and trade relationship.
China has fewer scruples. “A month after the coup, China assured Bangkok that it would continue to support Thailand’s development and hosted a delegation of senior Thai military officials in Beijing,” said Felix Chang, a Foreign Policy Research Institute analyst.
“More importantly, China won approval for a new railway that will connect Kunming and Bangkok through north-eastern Thailand. Once completed, that railway will tie Thailand’s economy (and interests) more closely to China … In February, Prayuth agreed to strengthen military ties with China,” Chang said.
The EU also has considerable leverage with Bangkok but, like Washington, has failed so far to exert behaviour-changing pressure. EU foreign ministers condemned the coup last June, suspended some official visits, and promised to keep the situation under review.
Prayuth’s regime badly needs European business and tourism, hence this week’s cosmetic and misleading announcement on martial law. As Bangkok’s third-largest trading partner and second biggest investor, the EU, acting with Washington and Tokyo, must quickly decide whether Thailand’s dismaying slide towards institutionalized dictatorship warrants a tougher stance. The answer is fairly obvious.