Thailand has promised that it will return to some semblance of democracy — in 15 months’ time. Is the “roadmap to democracy” just a ploy?
Military coups rarely proceed entirely smoothly and the coup in Thailand is no exception. Rumours that there would be protests in Bangkok over the weekend were met by around 6000 soldiers on the streets on Saturday night.
Hummers equipped with machine guns and foot patrols ensured all was quiet on Saturday night. Just two blocks from one army patrol, however, protesters were taking photos of each other wearing masks with messages saying they had been gagged.
Junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha says the military government hopes to ease curfew restrictions, particularly in Bangkok’s more tourist-heavy areas. But yesterday more than 100 protesters giving the “three-finger salute” — signifying liberty, equality and fraternity — gathered in the middle of the tourist precinct of Asoke. An older woman nearby who also gave the salute was bundled into a car by plain-clothes police.
Australia’s suspension of joint military exercises and banning travel to Australia by officers associated with the coup has been in keeping with other countries’ responses. However, the military junta says it is “gravely concerned” by Australia’s action.
Prayuth says he hopes Australia will reconsider its position now that he has outlined a “roadmap to a return to democracy” — though it will be at least 15 months before Thailand again has some form of elected government. “The country comes first,” he said. “Democracy can follow.”
There is already growing resentment by many ordinary Thais who were not supporters of previously ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra but who are unhappy with the imposed military government.
One of the concerns that many elite Thais had with Thaksin, who was ousted in the 2006 coup, was that he gave huge government contracts to his own supporters. There was less such concern with his sister Yingluck, but Thaksin opponents feared she was trying to engineer his return to Thailand.
The Opposition Democratic Party had, however, engaged in the same practice during its own period in government. When the junta offers contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars under the forthcoming budget, observers will be watching to see whether businesses associated with the army and senior officers will benefit.
Despite Prayuth saying that Thailand would return to democracy, there is also a question over the extent to which a future government will be democratically elected and hence, politically accountable. The junta has appointed a committee to advise on political “reforms”, including again rewriting the constitution.
Thailand’s 1997 constitution is widely regarded as its most democratic, placing the election of both houses of Parliament in the hands of the voters and stipulating a series of human rights and democratic safeguards. It was criticised by a small minority, however, for removing power from previously vested interests.
The replacement 2007 constitution much more narrowly prescribed citizens rights and ensured the Senate was controlled by interests aligned to more traditional sources of power. It was deadlock caused by this Senate, supported by anti-government and other vested interests, that led to the recent political showdown, the ouster of Yingluck as PM and, ultimately, another military coup.
Prayuth’s proposed “roadmap to democracy” then begs the question of whether the political system next put in place complies with the widely prescribed definition of the term “democracy” — sovereignty vested in all the people under a rule determined by a majority in a free, fair and transparent electoral process.
The Thai junta has now started working towards a political “roadmap”. The question that remains, however, whether it will return to the people of Thailand a genuine democracy, or perhaps something that is “democratic” in name only.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, development and Human Rights at Deakin University. He is author of, among others books, South-East Asia: A Political Profile, second edition, Oxford 2005, and Political Development, Routledge, 2007.