A poll date and elephant in the room
We've heard distant drumbeats and dates are being thrown around. The election will -- may -- happen on Feb 24, 2019, which is the Year of the Pig, if that portends anything. The latest possible date, if things get pushed around by design or by fate, is May. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe never. Who knows? For a regime that prides itself as rule-keepers, rules and promises have been treated like toilet paper since day one.
There's no reason to rejoice. The dates half-promised by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy PM Wissanu Krea-ngam feel like a decoy, a bone thrown at us barking dogs, or at the international community that seems to have other bigger worries in mind. Shipwrecked by the past four years, frustrated by the aborted destiny, we clutch at the dates like cramped swimmers clutching at a stray twig. When, and if, the election takes place next year, it will be the first time for seven million people between 18 and 25 to have a chance to go to the polls, the first time they'll be able to decide something about their own future. That, if nothing else, is perhaps a reason to celebrate, isn't it?
Lost somewhere between pessimism and caution, I have great doubt. Having an election date is the least of the problem, it seems, when we're not sure if the grip will ever be loosened, if the poll will be "free and fair" -- just glance over at Cambodia -- or if the grand design by the military and their cohorts to return Thailand to the conservative past can be challenged. The election date will soon be set, but will Section 44 remain? Will the parties averse to the coupmakers and their policies be treated with fairness? The no-gathering rule will be relaxed, they say, but will soldiers be dispatched to "guarantee peace" at political rallies of those in disagreement with the regime anyway? You know what you've been living through these past four years. You've seen saliva swallowed and promises upturned and law reinterpreted. So you know the answer to these questions.
The latest proof, the latest dismal update: Thanathorn -- notice the "thorn" in his name -- Juangroongruangkit of Future Forward Party, along with two other party members, has been charged by the police for violation of Computer Crime Law. On June 29, Mr Thanathorn held a Facebook live session in which he talked about the "poaching" of influential politicians by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). It's something that everyone was talking about back then, and still do now in fact. Right on cue, a soldier from the army filed a complaint with the police, accusing Mr Thanathorn of importing "false information" into the system. This week the police proceeded to press charges against the three men.
If the campaign to snub criticism is this obvious and laughable even before the date is set, just imagine what will happen when the election becomes a reality. Mr Thanathorn is a thorn, a man who speaks too much, too soon, too directly, and even though the NCPO leadership usually distances themselves from such petty legal disputes that don't even make the front page, it's hard to see this move as anything but nipping the bud, an ominous warning, a flexing of muscle in preparation for the more bloodied fight to come.
It's hard to imagine, too, if the military will keep their promise of playing by the rules once the rule of the election is in place or -- to predict a terrifying scenario that is, however, possible -- once Gen Prayut becomes prime minister after the poll, courtesy of the backing of the sycophantic conservative parties (the Three Allies group, Suthep Thaugsuban's party). If a leader can't withstand some generic complaints and his legal team are stirred to stifle them, how can he endure, say, a parliamentary censure debate, where all the skeletons will be unearthed from the depth of the closet? If the NCPO can't even let a young politician speak to a few thousand supporters, how can we trust that they won't move again when the real campaign starts, when mud-throwing becomes a daily sport, and when it's clear that millions of people are against them? Someone who's always been assisted by special rules won't just snap out of it and accept a level playing field.
We're now excited over the election date, as if it's a once-in-a-lifetime event. But it's time to look beyond that; it's time, sorry for the disheartening overtone, to worry. It's time to wonder if seven million virgin voters will experience genuine democratic participation where the military and its invisible machine will stand aside and watch, or if they will have to remind themselves of our new national motto: You won't have to pull the trigger when the whole room knows who has the gun.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.