This week the Thai government met with political opponents to confirm February 24th, 2019 as the date of its first democratic election since it seized power in the 2014 coup. With the confirmation of an election date following five previous missed deadlines, concerns are now turning to the fairness of the election process and the restrictions of the rights afforded to opponents of the government. These concerns are in light of scores of arrests made during the junta’s four year reign, of people such as academics, journalists and political opponents, who were simply exercising freedom of speech by calling for elections and the restoration of human rights for all Thai citizens.
With campaigning not permitted until early 2019, opponents of the government will have less than two months for their electioneering, putting them at a significant disadvantage. There are also accusations that redrawing of electoral district boundaries favours the existing government. Furthermore, the most senior 250 politicians in the upper senate, including the Prime Minister, will be handpicked by the junta, a fact that casts significant doubts over the legitimacy of the elections. The government has also banned foreign observers from overseeing the elections. Some commentators have suggested that the elections have already been won before a single vote is cast.
Amnesty International advocate Katherine Grerson lamented the junta’s human rights record, citing their imposition of “a raft of repressive and unwarranted bans on political activity and the exercise of human rights”, including those of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Of the ban on impartial observers, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai noted “Allowing foreign observers means we have problems… It means we can’t take care of ourselves.” However, Lee Morgenbesser, an Australian academic who specialises in authoritarian regimes, told the Jakarta Post that the barring of international observers was uncommon – “You can either invite professional observers into the country at the risk of them discovering how fraudulent the process is, or you can bar them altogether, which suggests that the process is going to be fraudulent anyway.”
While the confirmation of an election date after almost five years of unelected rule is a positive step, any election result will be rendered meaningless if the rights of opponents are suppressed and the elections are not open and fair to everyone. In the current climate where opponents are too afraid to publicly oppose the government for fear of harassment or imprisonment, the likelihood of fair and representative elections seems remote.
Division and turmoil is not new to Thai politics, with the current landscape marred by deep divisions between two ideologically opposed factions known as the ‘red shirts’, who represent the poor and rural population of Thailand, and the ‘yellow shirts’, who largely represent the urban elite. When the military seized power on 22 May 2014, citing the need to restore stability after a prolonged period of civil unrest, it was the 13th successful coup since democracy was introduced to Thailand in 1932. In the months prior to the 2014 coup, political violence resulted in 28 deaths and hundreds more injured. In 2010, violent political protests led to more than 90 deaths and more than 2000 injuries. These protests arose as a result of the red shirt dissatisfaction with what they saw as a “silent coup” in the form of the election of a prime minister who had earlier been resoundingly defeated in the polls. After the 2014 coup, the military imposed a raft of draconian laws aimed at suppressing opposition to their rule. This included the blocking of hundreds of websites, closing down television stations, and even going as far as banning the use of a three fingered salute, borrowed by protesters from The Hunger Games, to silently express opposition to the government.
The lead-up to the 2019 elections is one of the most important periods in recent memory for Thailand. After years of failing to meet deadlines around the return of democracy, the fairness of these elections and the way in which the government acts in relation to political opponents and their supporters will be under intense scrutiny. The government must act in good faith towards its political opponents and allow them the same electioneering rights as the parties it supports. A good start would be to free those who are currently awaiting trial or have already been sentenced simply for exercising freedom of speech. Tolerance should come from both sides – the government should be tolerant to opposition political rallies, and opponents should rally peacefully and without the violence and destruction of past protests. Years of political turmoil have undoubtedly damaged the cohesiveness of Thai society, and anything less than a full and free election could set in motion a repeat of the politically motivated bloodshed seen in previous years.