By: Pithaya Pookaman

The Thai junta’s Dec. 11 announcement lifting of its military-imposed ban on political activity hasn’t created much euphoria among the parties that aren’t nominated by the government. The junta’s order, they say, is ambiguous and lacks clarity.

The ban on activity, in place since the 2014 military putsch that unseated the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, follows a partial easing of the ban in September when political parties were allowed to convene meetings and recruit party members.

Parties can now engage in more political activities such as campaigning and setting up of party branches nationwide. The lifting of the ban is concomitant to the nullification of an order three years ago that summoned and detained politicians and government critics but who were released after they agreed to the conditions set by the junta. 

Since the military coup in 2014, the military has kept a tight lid on the freedom of expression and political activities and banned political gatherings of five or more people.  Under the new order, people who were charged and detained for such political gathering have been decriminalized.

But those not aligned with the government are uncertain whether the nullification of the banning of political gatherings applies to the legal cases of political demonstration of five or more persons that are currently facing prosecution in both the military and civilian courts.   Furthermore, those who were summoned following the 2014 coup but did not report to the junta are excluded from the nullification and are still subject to prosecution in the military court. 

Although the order applies to the political parties and politicians, it does not apply to the media which still have to exercise self-censorship or face closure.

Despite the lifting of the ban, the junta still has the arbitrary power provided by the infamous Article 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution and Article 265 of the 2017 Constitution to restrict freedom of expression.  Article 44 will remain in force until the new cabinet takes office following the election.  Pro-democracy lawyers argue that such use of arbitrary power is in contravention of Article 2 of the Criminal Code which stipulates that there cannot be punishment without the due process of law. However, the military government can also invoke other instruments such as Article 115 of the Criminal Code, the 2017 Computer Crimes Act, and the 2015 Public Assembly Law to limit freedom of expression through prosecution.   

In short, military officials retain the authority to arrest, search and seizure and detain individuals for up to seven days for “attitude adjustment,” which has become a norm.  The “attitude adjustment” is a novel punitive measure conceived by the junta to turn dissidents into subservient subjects. Apparently the military government still expects every Thai citizen to think and act in the manner prescribed by the junta.  This goes to explain the prosecution of more than 100 pro-democracy activists since the coup, including key politicians from the Pheu Thai Party, Thailand’s biggest political party, and from the newly formed Future Forward Party.

Despite the lifting of the ban on political activities, the major parties such as Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party are not taking things for granted when it comes to actual campaigning and would prefer to wait until the passing of the long-awaited royal decree that will make the general election scheduled for Feb. 24, 2019 fully official.  It is expected that the decree will be passed in early January 2019 which would then leave little room for campaigning.  To most political parties, with the exception of the junta-nominated parties, they seek nothing less than full lifting of the ban and the nullification of all previous junta’s orders restricting freedom of expression. 

For the independent parties, it’s all or nothing at all as half measures never appeal to them.  Furthermore, pro-democracy political parties such as the PTP and its offshoots want the junta to ensure fair play as they are already at a disadvantage by what they see as an undemocratic constitution and the organic laws and election laws which are designed to benefit pro-junta parties such as Palang Pracharat Party, Palang Prachachart Thai Party, and Action Coalition for Thailand Party.

Among the pro-democracy parties, the PTP stands out as the bastion against dictatorship and the extension of the junta’s stranglehold on power as personified by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the junta and the current Thai prime minister, who has made no pretence of his intention to serve another term as an elected prime minister. 

The PTP has been hard pressed by the junta and junta-dominated state apparatus, including the so-called independent organs such as the Election Commission, the Counter Corruption Commission, and National Human Rights Commission.  The PTP is currently being investigated by the Election Commission for its alleged ties with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is in self-exile and, if found guilty, the PTP could be dissolved. 

The dissolution of the PTP would remove the main obstacle for the pro-junta parties as a vehicle to secure prime ministership for Prayuth.  New political parties are also facing problems with registration process and in meeting all legal requirements to run in the election. 

Even if the PTP wins a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives, the Senate, indirectly nominated by the junta, can play a key role in choosing the prime minister in a joint parliamentary session.  In an unlikely scenario which the pro-democracy parties come together to form a government after the election, they would be bound by the “20-year strategy” to carry on the junta’s economic plan which locks the country for the next two decades.

The electorate will feel cheated and disillusioned because their votes will not count if the policies of the government they choose cannot be delivered.

Meanwhile, the pro-junta parties have started active political campaigning long before the lifting of the ban on political activities under the guise of “mobile cabinet meetings” in provincial towns.   With informal blessing of the junta, Palang Pracharat Party was formed, named after a government development program called “Pracharat.” Four sitting cabinet ministers have been designated as key party members to take active part in electioneering. 

The military government is also helpings its nominated party by taking a page out from the PTP’s populist policies, which it originally abhorred, by giving state-allotted cash handouts to the poor and organizing international road shows aimed at creating new manufacturing and services hubs across the country, called the Eastern Economic Corridor. 

With the government propaganda machine clicking to full throttle, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak made an outlandish proclamation that Thailand would be free from poverty within one year.  However, the opposite is true as the economy is faltering, the debt burden of the downtrodden increases, commodity prices are at an all-time low, and the country is labeled by Credit Suisse as the top of world’s economic inequality chart.

Notwithstanding the junta’s crafted constitution and its organic laws, all of which are meant to inhibit the PTP’s gain in any election, the Election Commission, apparently at the behest of the junta, has also redrawn constituency boundaries to benefit the candidates of the pro-junta parties as well as to coerce PTP’s seasoned politicians to jump ship to the military camp, with considerable success. With the general election two to three months off, this latest effort to rig the election may not be the last.

Pro-democracy parties are fighting back.  The PTP, spearheaded by veteran politician Khunying Sudarat Keyurapan is urging voters to deny military proxies an extension of Prayuth’s tenure and campaigns on the strength of the past performance of the PTP and its predecessor, the Thai Rak Thai Party.  The youthful Future Forward Party, led by tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, is unequivocal in its disdain of the dictatorship and ultra conservative forces. 

The Democrat Party, with its democratic credentials in tatters because of its past collusion with the military, is plagued by internal splita but has rallied behind former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who is presenting the party as a third choice between the corrupt government and the dictatorship.  Whether the ‘third choice’ status will evaporate after the election in favor of pro-junta camp is any one’s guess.

What is certain is that the pro-democracy political parties will have a bumpy ride while the pro-junta forces will cash in on the benefits afforded by the military government and the undemocratic constitution.  With the over-reliance on junta’s arbitrary power and the propensity for rigging the election in order to keep the military grip on power for a foreseeable future, the prospect of a free and fair election is very dim.

The Thai foreign minister is emphatic in keeping foreign election observers out of the country. The road towards democracy will be a bumpy one, if not altogether off limits.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former ambassador in the Thaksin Shinawatra government. He lives in Bangkok.