Thailand is due to select its prime minister this week amid a rising number of attacks on pro-democracy campaigners.
The generals who seized power in the May 2014 coup promised that they would clamp down on corruption in government, bring stability and then hand back power after a democratic election.
Instead, the March 24 general election was “structurally rigged”, enabling the generals to extend their grip on power, Human Rights Watch said. The military-controlled authorities maintained a host of repressive laws, dissolved a major opposition party, took control of the Election Commission, imposed criminal charges on politicians and dissidents and filled the senate with generals and other allies. Now it seems the handpicked senators will have the power to determine the next prime minister.
Dissidents have recently been seized overseas and critics are repeatedly attacked domestically, suggesting the junta is quietening its opponents as it looks to defy democratic gravity and maintain its grip for another five years.
The junta’s 2017 constitution allows the unelected senate to vote with the lower house to select the premier.
There are 750 seats in both houses, meaning the target for a majority is 376.
The Nation, one of Thailand’s two English-language newspapers, is expected to close down imminently and its editorial staff might feel suddenly liberated to speak their minds.
“We might add that it is nothing less than ridiculous for General Prayut to choose 250 people in order for them to vote for him to become prime minister,” the newspaper argued in an editorial.
The newspaper has increasingly given Prayut Chan-o-cha the title “general” rather than “prime minister” to remind readers that his authority came from the rifle rather than the electorate.
Last month three exiles were allegedly repatriated from Vietnam to Thailand and have since gone missing. Last week, a Thai asylum seeker was forcibly sent back by Malaysia to be prosecuted on charges related to her involvement with the outlawed Organisation for Thai Federation.
On December 12 last year, dissident activist Surachai Danwattananusorn was abducted from exile across the border in Laos along with two other junta critics, Chatcharn Buppawan, 56, and Kraidej Luelert, 46.
The 78-year-old Surachai, who had a Bt10-million baht bounty on his head, fled to Laos in the aftermath of the 2014 coup along with other critics of the military.
He previously led Thai communist insurgents in the 1970s and 1980s and became Thailand’s most notorious dissident. He was jailed until 1996 and later became prominent in former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Red Shirt movement. The erstwhile militant was jailed again for allegedly insulting the monarchy before being freed in 2013.
Around a fortnight later, the corpses of Chatcharn and Kraidej were found 300km away in a Thai village on the banks of the Mekong,
The bodies’ stomachs were removed and they were stuffed with concrete. They were wrapped in several thick bags, their legs were broken and their hands cuffed. Surachai remains missing.
The dissidents were murdered ahead of the March election and before the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn last month, signalling the beginning of a renewed crackdown.
Other exiles have gone missing. In June 2016, YouTuber Ittipon Sukpaen, also known as DJ Sunho, was living near the Laotian capital Vientiane when he disappeared without a trace. In 2017, the host of an anti-monarchist radio show Wuthipong Kachathamakul was abducted from his Vientiane home.
Domestically, political activist Sirawith Serithiwat, also known as Ja New, was physically attacked in Bangkok on Sunday and left in hospital with injuries to his shoulder and face after at least five assailants beat him with wooden sticks. He had been collecting signatures for a petition to urge the 250-seat military-appointed senate not to vote for Prayut to maintain the role of prime minister he seized after his 2014 coup.
Ja New had been charged several times over his protests since the 2014 coup.
Sunday’s attack was his first physical assault but numerous other recent attacks have been reported.
Another activist, Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich, has been assaulted twice and Ekkachai Hongkangwan seven times, including two arson attacks on his car.
Ekkachai was most recently attacked on May 13, when four men beat him outside the Bangkok Criminal Court, breaking his hand and ribs.
Last week Ekkachai said he received a death threat on Facebook, with other activists making similar claims.
But no arrests are made.
The Nation wrote that the junta “is ignoring the need to protect citizens from political thugs who are waging a campaign of violence and intimidation”.
The international context does not help Thailand’s activists. The “leader of the free world”, Donald Trump, appears to lose little sleep over the political rights of citizens in America’s allies. Meanwhile, the rising influence of China further mutes any democratic pressure. Equally, Asean has never concerned itself with member states’ domestic politics. Rather than offering an example of democratic progress for its neighbours, Thailand remains a bastion of repression in a region dominated by dictatorships.
Thailand’s economy has continued to grow under the junta. Picture credit: Asean Economist