Democracy and the Deluge in Thailand

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By
Rachel Jacobs
Research Analyst, Countries at the Crossroads

Thailand Floods
Photo Credit: LidandPe-Bangkok

As the waters of Thailand’s monsoon-swollen rivers are finally receding and this year’s unusually devastating floods are declared over across the country, the political landscape is still reeling from the disaster. The months-long crisis and the official response raised a number of questions about the weak points in Thai government institutions. Many reports have assigned blame to individuals or focused on structural factors like corruption and overdevelopment, but the most important issue highlighted by the floods may be the unresolved status of the armed forces. The ambiguity of the military’s constitutional role has enabled its long-standing entanglement in all aspects of political life, including at least 20 coups d’état in the last century
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Yingluck Sinawatra
Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra | Photo Credit: Voice of America


Thailand has been struggling to reestablish democratic governance since the most recent military coup in 2006, and the politicization of flood relief efforts this year reflected the enduring fractures that have undermined the process. In Freedom House’s most recent assessment of governance in Thailand, the scores for military accountability to civilian authorities were comparable to China’s, and only slightly higher than those of Venezuela and prerevolutionary Tunisia. In a sign of the Thai military’s clout, domestic media reports on the flooding have championed the armed forces’ successful response and their role in protecting the state. Opinion articles published throughout the crisis claimed that “only the military has shown its commitment” to the Thai people,  while "leaked" statements by high-ranking military officials blamed the devastation on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s inability to govern decisively.

The floods led to declines in popularity not just for Yingluck and her party, Puea Thai, but for all political parties. A recent Bangkok University survey found that satisfaction with Yingluck’s overall performance is at 4.98 out of 10. At the same time last year, then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, from a rival political faction, had a rating of 5.17. Overall satisfaction with the Puea Thai party is 4.84 out of 10, still higher than the opposition Democrat Party’s 4.26.

Despite the relative calm following the July elections, in which Yingluck’s party wrested power from the more pro-military Abhisit, it seems that the military has been using the flood crisis as an opportunity to question the legitimacy of the elected government. The focus on the army’s commitment to flood victims has also deflected attention away from its past actions, so that those who previously called for an investigation into the 2010 killings of 90 protesters were suddenly clamoring to support the military.

Throughout the response, the more conservative forces in the media reinforced the idea that the military is not a part of the constitutional system, but instead an autonomous protector beholden only to the monarchy. These claims illustrate the military’s primary allegiance to the throne and its general disregard for electoral or civilian institutions. They are also consistent with Thailand’s pattern of coups and military interventions, in which the armed forces have taken it upon themselves to circumvent, abolish, or replace existing constitutional arrangements.

Protection and promotion of the monarchy—and by implication, the antidemocratic view of the Thai state that the military espouses—has risen to a new level in recent weeks, with punishments for lèse majesté crimes growing in number and severity. In one high-profile case, a U.S. citizen, Joe Gordon, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on December 8 for posting online translations of The King Never Smiles while in the United States; the book is banned in Thailand for allegedly insulting the king. In another case, a 61-year-old man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having allegedly sent four text messages that slandered the monarchy. Days after the trial, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology inaugurated its Cyber Security Operations Center, and announced that it would be pursuing many more “cybercriminals” who slander the monarchy online. According to the minister, “To worship and protect the monarchy is an important duty of the government…. So it is the main duty of the Ministry to pursue the government’s policy to protect the monarchy, particularly in online social networks.” This practice of placing loyalty to the monarchy above the rights of individuals has not only hampered democratic development, it has also fed impunity for various human rights violations, including unjust imprisonment and extrajudicial killings.

Thai Law Lecturers As Activists

Law lecturers protest amendments to the lese majeste law. | Photo Credit: Prachathai

Holding the military accountable to elected civilian authorities would be an important step in combatting widespread human rights abuses and curbing state policies that actively undermine democratization. There is no doubt that many in the military acted valiantly to save flood victims, but this fac t should have no bearing on matters of justice, freedom of expression, or the political authority of voters and their chosen representatives.

Far from correcting flaws in democratic institutions, the military’s repeated interventions have actually prevented such institutions from functioning properly and establishing a normal pattern of checks and balances—the self-corrective process by which governance improves in a democracy. Moreover, as long as the military claims the right to overrule or overthrow elected civilian authorities in the name of the king, it runs the risk of placing both itself and the monarchy in direct opposition to the people’s will. In that sense, submitting to civilian oversight may be the best way for the military to prevent a return to disaster.