Angry protests have broken out in Thailand following the military junta’s decision to postpone democratic elections until next year. This is the third time the Thai military is postponing elections since taking power in a 2014 coup. Elections were supposed to take place in November 2018 but are now scheduled for early 2019, news which has resulted in renewed social unrest and protests.

Hundreds of Thais took to the streets to demand free and fair elections, but the protests were soon dismantled by the military. Gatherings of five or more people are officially banned by the junta, so anyone taking part in such gatherings is subject to arrest. Such rules have led the United Nations to express its concern over what it calls a deteriorating rights situation in Thailand. [1] Since the junta’s decision, several activists have been charged and arrested because of their participation in pro-democracy protests. [2]

Activists warned they would hold another protest on February 10 if the junta didn’t reverse its decision. [3]And it didn’t. Around 400 Thais took to the streets of Bangkok on Saturday calling on the junta to give up its power and keep its promise to hold elections this year. [4] The march was one of the largest Thailand has seen in recent years, despite the junta’s threats of arrest and crackdown. This shows the lack of credibility the junta has in the eyes of many Thai people, mainly the result of recent corruption scandals and increasingly repressive actions against the public.

But why exactly is the military in power in Thailand and why is there no democracy? To understand this, we have to look back at over a decade of Thai politics. In 2006, a coup removed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power after large protests by opposition supporters. His two successors suffered the same fate. Then in 2011, after massive protests by pro-Thaksin supporters, which left nearly 100 dead and 2,000 injured, [5] a pro-Thaksin government was put back in place with his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister. But her time in office was overshadowed by protests caused by fears that her real goal was to return her brother to his former position. In 2014 she was forced out of office and and the military junta has been in power ever since.

[VIDEO] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU0SBsR3rIE

This power struggle between the Shinawatra supporters (red) and opposition supporters (yellow), is often labeled the red shirts vs yellow shirts struggle. [6] These struggles have consistently been characterized by large protests that often turned violent and have brought cities to a standstill. When they took power in 2014, the junta vowed to bring stability to Thailand and to stop the protests, which they saw as being the main reason for the chaos and division that was plaguing the nation at the time. That is why they decided to ban public gatherings consisting of more than five people. They have actually been quite successful at doing so and the streets of Thailand have been largely peaceful over the past three years.

In fact, there are a large group of Thais who actually support having the junta in power. They see them as being a government which has brought much-needed stability and order to the country.[7] Many (mostly opposition supporters/yellow shirts) encouraged the 2014 coup and perceived the military officials as heroes. The yellow shirts claimed the Yingluck government was nothing more than a US puppet regime trying to destroy the Thai economy.[8] On its part, the military also tried gaining more support by organizing many events for the public that included music, dancing, comedy, free food, and other entertainment. [9]

However, not everyone is content with the military government and are demanding a return to democracy. The junta has broken its promise to return the country to civilian rule several times since they took power. In fact, the most recent 2014 coup marked the military’s 19th attempt at gaining power since 1932 and the 12th successful coup. The Thai media suffered strong crackdowns, the military imposed curfews, the constitution was suspended, those who opposed the coup would be subject to arrest, borders with Laos and Cambodia were closed, and more than one hundred politicians and activists were banned from leaving the country. [10]

The junta has acknowledged its aim to weaken political parties and maintain permanent influence over future elected governments, partly through a new constitution that came into effect last year which allows for an appointed prime minister. [7] This would mean that the current prime minister (the military general in charge of the 2014 coup) Prayuth Chan-ocha may be able to stay in power even after an election is held. [11]

An increasing amount of Thai people are coming out to the streets to advocate for democracy. Many are tired of the rigid, often repressive, governing system set up by the junta and want a chance to elect those who run their country. Thailand has been largely peaceful the past three years; no large chaos, protests, violence, or massive unrest like before the 2014 coup.

Nevertheless, the people seem ready for elections and for democracy to be restored again. [12] However, after having been in power for over three years, the junta will not go easily. It will take much more than a couple of hundred protesters on the streets. The Thai people have done it in the past and they can do it again; if they truly want a change in government then they will have to take massive, collective action and demand an elected and representative government be put in place.

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Article written by Gabriela BERNAL


References

[1]: Reuters Staff. (2016). Thai junta leader, opposition call on U.N as tensions rise. Reuters. Retrieved from  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-politics-un/thai-junta-leader-opposition-call-on-u-n-as-tension-rises-idUSKCN0Z60XK

[2]: Reuters Staff. (2018). Thailand charges eight activists as public frustration at junta grows. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-politics/thailand-charges-eight-activists-as-public-frustration-at-junta-grows-idUSKBN1FK161

[3]: Reuters Staff.  2018. Thai pro-democracy activists protest against junta delaying polls. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-politics/thai-pro-democracy-activists-protest-against-junta-delaying-polls-idUSKBN1FG0I5

[4]:Vejpongsa, T., Peck, G. (2018). Thai protesters urge military rulers to give up power. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/thai-protesters-urge-military-rulers-give-power-52981716

[5]:  Hodal, K. (2013). Bangkok protesters make final push to topple Yingluck Shinawatra. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/01/bangkok-protests-anti-government-yingluck-shinawatra

[6]: Vice News. ( 2014). A civil war in Thailand? Bangkok Rising. VICE. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bodSHgCtWCc&t=1s

[7]: Thepgumpanat, P., Tanakasempipa, P. (2017). Three years after coup, junta is deeply embedded in Thai life. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-military/three-years-after-coup-junta-is-deeply-embedded-in-thai-life-idUSKCN18G0ZJ

[8]: Al Jazeera. (2014). The stream: Thailand- between coups and democracy. The Stream. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY-F-1gi9-g&t=1599s

[9]: Vice News. (2014). The junta’s police state: Thailand on the brink (Dispatch 5). VICE. retrieved from  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7JL5YiyW08

[10]: Dominguez, G. (2014). HRW: Thai junta has ‘severely harmed’ faith in democracy. DW. Retrieved from http://www.dw.com/en/hrw-thai-junta-has-severely-harmed-faith-in-democracy/a-17710833

[11]:  Reuters Staff. ( 2018). Thai PM calls for a little more time in office to prepare for vote. Reuters. Retrieved from  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-politics/thai-pm-calls-for-a-little-more-time-in-office-to-prepare-for-vote-idUSKBN1FJ14Y

[12]: Jaipragas, B. (2018). Is time up for Thailand’s junta after watchgate scandal? Chiangrai Times. Retrieved from http://www.chiangraitimes.com/is-time-up-for-thailands-junta-after-watchgate-scandal.html

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