Thailand 'not free' since coup
Thailand bears little resemblance to a liberal democracy and it’s only getting worse. This is the verdict of US think tank Freedom House.
In its new annual country report, it has rated Thailand “not free” for the fourth year since the coup in 2014.
Bad marks were given across the board, particularly for the government's record on political rights. Thailand's overall "freedom score" of 31 out of 100 constitutes a one point downgrade from last year's report, as the new constitution was seen to weaken political parties in favour of the military.
The score is composed of a variety of democratic indicators, such as a fair electoral process, political participation, freedom of expression and association, rule of law and personal autonomy.
In all fields save the last one, the report issued failing grades, as the regime permeates virtually all areas of political life.
Freedom House highlights the lack of ruling legitimacy, as neither the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) nor the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) were elected by the people, and the junta's road map for a return to civilian rule has been repeatedly delayed.
Freedom House also criticised the far-reaching bans on political association and activity, the NCPO's systematic use of censorship and intimidation to suppress dissent in the press, in academia, or online, as well as the impunity with which counter-insurgent forces operate in Thailand's South.
Regarding the NCPO's key promise to fight corruption, the implementation of relevant laws has not kept members of the regime from engaging in graft, cronyism, and nepotism, Freedom House said.
It said the military further consolidated its power in 2017. The new, revised constitution that was signed into law last April "does not annul any of the repressive laws and policies the NCPO had passed since 2014, including the provisions of the interim constitution's Section 44, which give the NCPO head the ability to override existing legislation and issue new laws at will", it said.
In December, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made use of Section 44 to amend the Political Party Act so that "any new parties [would] have to be approved by the NCPO before they can begin operations".
Together with the original act's provisions that all parties must collect membership fees and set up branches across the country, which is likely to trouble small parties, the regime has further weakened parties for its own benefit, the report stated.
Thailand was last classified as "free" in 2004 when it was led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but the military coups of 2006 and 2014 both constituted significant drops in democratic freedom. Ironically, perhaps, the name Thailand itself translates as "land of the free".
Political development in recent years is reflective of a greater global trend that has seen democracy face "its most serious crisis in decades", the NGO said.
Southeast Asia is already one of the most illiberal regions in the world with Myanmar and Cambodia receiving similar scores to Thailand. Vietnam and Laos got even lower scores, while Timor-Leste was the only country ranked "free".
Government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak said "there are a number of factual inaccuracies in the report, which has led to incomplete conclusions and presumptive arguments". The nature of the inaccuracies was not specified.
Lt Gen Werachon said "it would be important to know if these experts took into consideration the historical and cultural differences of Thailand … when making their assessments".
Voices in academia and civil society corroborated the report's assessment.
Kovit Wongsurawat, a political scientist at Kasetsart University, told the Bangkok Post that "the Freedom House assessment overall is fair regarding the state of democracy in Thailand today".
"Clearly, Thai democratic institutions have been completely reconstituted by the military to serve the ends, values and beliefs of the junta and their many supporters," he added.
Edgardo Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said: "The military government has a track record of punishing media outlets that report critically about [its] policy and performance." He cited Voice TV and Peace TV.
Last year, the annual Freedom House ranking of Freedom on the internet also gave Thailand the lowest possible score and rated the country's internet access as "not free".
The internet ranking was based on three areas, with Thailand scoring among the worst: government obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights.