Note: This is a regularly updated post for politically interested readers; most developments reported here will remain largely invisible for and/or have no impact on the average tourist.
As previously, Thailand remains safe for foreign visitors, and most tourists will hardly notice that the kingdom is effectively under military rule.
While a return to democracy “as we know it” isn’t really on the horizon yet (martial law has been lifted but fresh polls cannot be expected before sometime mid-2018), you can enjoy your vacation in Thailand as usual.
- On May 22, 2014, two days after martial law had been declared by the military, then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power from the elected government in the country’s 12th successful coup since 1932. The constitution was suspended and, in late July, replaced with an interim constitution. The interim charter grants amnesty to the coup makers and gives the junta, aka the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), sweeping powers.
On July 31, Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), whose 200 members were all appointed by the junta. A clear majority is dominated by active and retired military officers.
On August 21, the NLA unanimously appointed junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new prime minister of Thailand. On August 31, Prayuth received royal endorsement for his 32-member cabinet. More than a third of the members are retired or active military and police officers and members of the NCPO.
The coup has drawn widespread criticism from the international community, including the United States and the European Union, which has urged a quick return to electoral democracy. The NCPO, on the other hand, has mostly ignored its Western critics by insisting on fundamental political “reforms” before the country can return to democracy.
A new general election cannot be expected before mid-2018.
- A nationwide night-time curfew imposed following the military intervention on May 22 was lifted after three weeks. Martial law, imposed two days before the coup, however remained in place for nearly a year and was lifted only on April 1, 2015, only to be replaced with the controversial Section 44 of the junta-written interim constitution retaining sweeping powers for the junta in the name of “national security”.
Democracy and civil liberties remain suspended in favour of a campaign of “re-education” and “returning happiness to the Thai people”, ostensibly to foster unity and end colour-coded disputes. Political activities of any kind, public protests and political gatherings of five people or more equally remain prohibited under Section 44. Criticism of the NCPO and the coup are also deemed illegal.
Foreigners have also been advised against criticizing the junta and the coup, including on social media, and making dissident political statements. Aside from the initial curfew, the coup has however had no relevant impact on tourism, and the country remains safe for tourists. As for a majority of Thais, most developments reported in this post will remain largely invisible for and/or have no impact on the “average” tourist.
- The interim constitution has been heavily criticized for being undemocratic and further strengthening the military’s powers. In particular, the interim constitution puts NCPO chief Prayuth “in charge of national security, allowing him to suppress any action … that could be considered a threat to national peace, security, economy or the monarchy … all orders from the junta chief … on those matters are final.”
While the interim constitution fails to specify a time frame for the country’s promised return to democracy following the implementation of vaguely defined political “reforms”, a new general election is not expected to be held before mid-2017; provided the situation is sufficiently “stable” and the junta-appointed government has accomplished its self-proclaimed task of achieving “reconciliation”. By that time, the military would have been in power for over three years, leaving the kingdom under military rule for the longest time since the 1960s.
- On July 31, 2014, Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej officially endorsed the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), whose 200 members were all appointed by the NCPO. A clear majority is dominated by active and retired military officers. The rest mostly consists of businesspeople, academics, technocrats and former appointed senators who opposed the ousted government and are known for their anti-Thaksin stance. Junta chief Prayuth responded to “criticism that the NLA was not democratically set up”, by saying that under the new government, there would be “temporary Thai-style democracy”.
- On August 21, 2014, the junta-appointed NLA unanimously appointed junta/army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new prime minister. No other candidate was nominated for the post, and no lawmaker voted against Prayuth’s appointment.
On August 31, Prayuth received royal endorsement for his 32-member cabinet. More than a third of the members are retired and active military and police officers and members of the NCPO, while the civilian portion includes longstanding allies of the military.
- On September 2, 2016, the interim parliament voted unanimously to increase its membership from 220 to 250. All new members of the NLA, reportedly “mostly military officers,” will be handpicked by junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha.
- In September 2015, the military-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the controversial draft for what was supposed to become the country’s 20th charter since 1932. Ironically, the constitution draft had been written by a committee that was equally handpicked by the junta, leading to widespread speculation that the military itself wanted the charter to fail in order to further delay an election and extend its rule. The process of writing yet another constitution draft postponed elections to at least mid-2017, provided another draft won’t be voted down again.
- On March 29, 2016, the final draft of the equally controversial, second military-backed constitution was handed over to the junta. A public referendum on the charter was scheduled for August 7, with anyone campaigning against the draft charter facing a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment. The Election Commission also issued an extensive list of “do’s” and “don’ts” effectively crippling the ability of voters to discuss the charter draft in the run-up to the referendum.
But while the content of the charter draft itself – namely its provision for a fully junta-selected Senate during a five-year transition period – faced heavy criticism, an extra question added to the referendum, asking voters whether or not the elected senators should also take part in selecting the next prime minister, was equally contested.
While organized dissent or opposition to the charter was all but banned, the Bangkok Post noted:
Its most controversial clause is a provisional one that sets up a 250-member unelected Senate which will include top military commanders.
“It is a charter which expands military and judicial power at the expense of democracy,” Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based academic, told AFP.
“Because of the transition period outlined in the new charter, military rule in Thailand could well extend to eight years: 2014-2017 of direct military rule; 2017-2022 of military veto power” through the Senate, he added.
- This sentiment was echoed by the former ruling party that quickly issued a statement “calling for the people to reject the new draft constitution on the grounds it is undemocratic” and was “written by a group of people appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order in the aftermath of a coup to serve the interests of the coup makers.” According to the Bangkok Post, the Puea Thai Party said:
The draft charter was intended to curtail the power of the House of Representatives but give more teeth to the Senate. During the five-year transitional period [envisioned by the junta], all of the 250 members of the Senate would be picked by the NCPO. Therefore, the Senate (…) would totally represent the NCPO.
- Despite heavy criticism from political parties as well as activists the military-backed charter was approved by approx. 61% of Thai voters in the August 7 referendum.
- On January 2, 2017, an NLA member was quoted as saying that the military government would not stage elections until sometime mid-2018. He reportedly blamed the repeated delay on the “need for another 15 months to write necessary legislation.”
- The junta cited the risk of “civil war” amid escalating political protests as the main reason for the military takeover. The NCPO said it sought to “return happiness” to the people and establish reconciliation and national unity; aims they were determined to achieve by stamping out “colour-coded” (red/yellow) political divisions and by depoliticizing Thai society.
In brief, the latest power seizure can be described the “ultimate anti-Thaksin punch” that seeks to continue there where the previous coup failed – at ultimately eradicating the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra and his political legacy.
- Following the military’s power seizure and the declaration of martial law, the media were strictly advised to self-censor themselves and prohibited from disseminating “content prohibited by the junta”. All TV stations, including foreign news channels, were banned on the day of the coup (most were however allowed to resume operating later). A total of 14 partisan TV channels with links to political parties and groups were allowed to resume broadcasting only weeks after the military takeover on the condition that they strictly follow the rules set by NCPO, i.e. refrain from disseminating “prohibited content” and criticizing the junta.
- On June 25, 2014, the NCPO announced they had set up five panels to monitor all kinds of media, including radio broadcasts, television, print, online and social media, and foreign media, for content that is considered to be “inciting hatred towards the monarchy” or providing “false information”. As the junta seeks to muzzle all kind of dissent, any media found to be spreading “inappropriate content” will face criminal charges.
On July 18, 2014, the NCPO issued another announcement reiterating its restrictions on freedom of speech, in which it threatened to shut down and take legal actions against any media, including social media, that criticize the NCPO and disseminate “content prohibited by the junta”. Social media users, blogs and websites have been explicitly warned not to post any content and/or allow comments that could “incite unrest”. An “online content monitoring committee” has since reportedly been set up to monitor and block “inappropriate content” on the web.
Following the replacement of martial law with Section 44 of the interim constitution on April 1, 2015, the junta leader has reiterated his threat to shut down critical media and ordered media outlets to toe the regime’s line.
- In related news, in January 2015, the military-appointed Cabinet approved a controversial bill that allows for mass surveillance of online activities and platforms. If passed into law, the so-called Cyber Security Act would authorize a government-run cyber security committee to access information on personal computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices without a court order.
In a “closed-door meeting” in January 2016, Thai officials reportedly also asked Google to bend international censorship rules and immediately remove web content the military government deems to be illegal without asking for a court order. According to leaked documents of the meeting, Google insisted however they would not make an exception to its worldwide policy that stipulates that internet content can only be removed once a court has issued a legal order.
Similar meetings have also been scheduled to take place with representatives of Facebook and LINE.
- Since the military takeover in May 2014, the ruling military junta launched a wide crackdown on dissent aimed principally at elements aligned with controversial ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the “red shirts” / pro-democracy groups.
More than 700 former government politicians, protest leaders, academics and activists, mostly with links to the “red shirt” movement, were summoned to report to the NCPO and temporarily detained; those who defy the order face fines or arrest. Opponents of the coup were reportedly to undergo an “attitude re-adjustment” process while in detention. Most of the detainees were released after 3-7 days but were barred from political activism and expressing dissident political opinions.
As the coup leaders sought to prevent a possible fightback against the power seizure, an unknown number of regional “red shirt” leaders and activists were also temporarily detained; several alleged red-shirt “militants” were arrested. Dozens of state officials, provincial governors etc. aligned with the deposed government have been transferred to inactive posts since the coup.
- On January 23, 2015, the junta-backed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) voted to retroactively impeach and remove ousted former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office over failure to stop alleged corruption and losses in the rice-pledging scheme initiated by her administration in 2011. Yingluck was consequentially banned from active politics for five years. The trial against Yingluck on charges of dereliction of duty over her role in the rice subsidy scheme, where she faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty, started in May 2015.
The decision drew criticism primarily from coup critics and politicians of the ousted administration, but also the United States. Several high-profile members of the ousted government were summoned for a new round of “attitude readjustment” after they publicly criticized the impeachment. Following critical remarks by a visiting U.S. envoy, who called for more inclusive politics in Thailand and insinuated that the impeachment may have been politically motivated, the junta also summoned the U.S. charge d’affaire and criticized the comments as interference in internal affairs.
Junta leader and prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha threatened to “invite” anyone making critical comments against his administration to a round of “attitude readjustment”, in a move apparently aimed at quelling anti-coup elements who have otherwise maintained a low profile since the military takeover.
More recently, in September 2015, two high-profile politicians and a senior journalist known for his anti-coup stance were “invited” (i.e. detained) for a round of “attitude readjustment” after they repeatedly criticized the junta. The military said their detention would only end when they deem them to be “cooperative”. All three were released within less than a week; the journalist was requested by his employer, The Nation newspaper, to resign.
- In view of the renewed temporary detention of two regime critics and politicians of the former ruling party for a repeated round of “attitude re-adjustment,” junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha warned non-compliant critics in March 2016 that the “re-education” detention period could be extended to as long as a full month.
Prayuth has reportedly designed a special “training course” for dissidents himself, saying that “in the past, [critics] were summoned to come and undergo ‘understanding’ but when they went back their behaviour was unchanged. So we need to have a course to train and educate them about ethics and morality as well as good governance so they will no longer criticise the government.”
The seven-day program will target primarily politicians who persistently criticize the draft charter or make comments against the junta.
- On the order of junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military were on March 29, 2016, granted a wide range of powers usually reserved for civilian police. If junta-appointed soldiers suspect involvement in a “crime”, the new sweeping powers of the military include the authority to search individuals and conduct warrantless searches of homes, seize assets and detain suspects for up to seven days without charge.
- On June 1, 2014, dozens of political figures, many of them left-leaning activists and critics of the lese majeste law, were summoned to report to the junta – an early indicator that the lese majeste law would be actively used to fight dissident voices. Another 21 activists and academics, many of them lese majeste suspects living in exile, were summoned by the junta three days later. A number of academics and activists have decided to stay in hiding rather than report to the junta; some have fled the country and sought political asylum abroad. Several lese majeste suspects living in self-imposed exile also had their Thai passports revoked and warrants issued for their arrest.
According to Prachatai, “at least 46 individuals” have been charged with lese majeste during the first year after the military takeover; several suspects have been sentenced by military courts, some to lengthy jail terms of as much as 25 years. This followed the announcement by the NCPO that violators of the lese majeste law and junta orders, as well as violators of internal security laws, would face court-martial proceedings; military court rulings are final and cannot be appealed. (Since September 2016, military tribunals are no longer used for cases deemed security related.)
From the coup to April 30, 2016, “at least 66” have been charged with lese majeste, reports iLaw.or.th.
- On the first anniversary of the coup, Prachatai reported that “about a hundred pro-democracy activists have fled the country” since the military takeover. “Most were involved in the red-shirt movement. Most decided to flee after they were summoned by the junta. Most also face lese majeste charges. Seeing the military court handing down severe verdicts in lese majeste cases with little likelihood of getting bail and no appeals allowed, their chance of walking free in the Kingdom of Thailand is slim …”
- Following a couple of weeks of small anti-coup protests mainly in Bangkok immediately after the coup, no larger coordinated protest activities have been reported and anti-coup sentiment remains confined to social media and occasional smaller protests by student groups. As criticism of the junta is virtually illegal and the NCPO has explicitly warned people against joining anti-coup protests or face arrest and detention, public dissent has been effectively silenced for now and/or forced to “go underground”.
A notable exception was the first anniversary of the coup on May 22, 2015, when anti-coup protests flared up in several locations around Bangkok and in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen. The Nation reported that “at least 48 people were arrested by military or police officers. Some were charged, others were warned and some had their attitudes ‘adjusted’ before being released.”
14 university students from Bangkok and Khon Kaen were arrested in late June 2015 on “charges of sedition and illegal assembly” after staging a peaceful anti-coup protest in the capital. The case has drawn wide media attention and prompted dozens of supporters of the jailed student activists to gather in Bangkok to demand their immediate release. A number of students were also detained following an anti-corruption protest in December 2015.
Several activists were detained by the military in April 2016 for campaigning against military rule both offline and online through social media accounts. Eight have been charged with sedition and violating the Computer Crime Act, three of them also face lese majeste charges.