Freedom in the World
Thailand experienced some of the worst street violence in its history in April and May 2010, as authorities clashed with tens of thousands of antigovernment “red shirt” protesters occupying the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district. Around 90 people were killed, and hundreds of others were injured. In April the government imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and 23 provinces, and it remained in place in the capital and some other areas until just before the end of the year. Also during 2010, the government aggressively employed lèse-majesté laws and the emergency powers to curb freedom of expression and political speech. Following the crackdown on protests in April and May, the government charged red-shirt leaders, including exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with terrorism, and froze the assets of suspected red-shirt financiers.
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to avoid European colonial rule. A 1932 coup transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, but Thailand endured multiple military coups, constitutional overhauls, and popular uprisings over the next six decades. The army dominated the political scene during this period, with intermittent bouts of unstable civilian government. Under the leadership of General Prem Tinsulanonda in the 1980s, the country underwent a rapid economic expansion and a gradual transition toward democratic rule. The military seized power again in 1991, but Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, intervened to appoint a civilian prime minister in 1992. Fresh elections held in September of that year ushered in a 14-year period of elected civilian leadership.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in the 2001 elections. He and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT, or Thais Love Thais) party mobilized voters in rural areas in part by criticizing the government for favoring urban, middle class Thais. As prime minister, Thaksin won praise for pursuing populist economic policies designed to stimulate aggregate demand. However, critics accused him and his government of undercutting the 1997 reformist constitution, and he faced several serious corruption charges and investigations. Human rights groups also condemned Thaksin for media suppression and a violent counternarcotics campaign that resulted in at least 2,500 killings in a three-month period in 2003.
In 2004, separatist violence surged in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country’s four million Muslims. Thaksin mounted a hard-line response, and the government placed the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani under martial law that year. The government was accused of human rights abuses in its effort to put down the insurgency, and two high-profile cases, known as the Krue Se and Tak Bai incidents, resulted in the deaths of 191 people and drew international condemnation.
The TRT swept the February 2005 parliamentary elections, making Thaksin the first prime minster to serve out a full four-year term, be elected to two consecutive terms, and lead a party to win outright without the need for a coalition partner. However, anti-Thaksin sentiment rose markedly during the year, particularly in Bangkok and the south. Facing a wave of protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—a right-wing grouping of royalists, business elites, and military leaders with support in the urban middle class—the prime minister called snap elections in early April 2006. All three opposition parties boycotted the vote, and a fresh round of elections was ultimately scheduled for October.
However, a military coup in September 2006 preempted the new vote and ousted Thaksin, who was abroad at the time. The coup leaders’ Council for National Security (CNS) abrogated the constitution, dissolved the parliament, and replaced the Constitutional Court with its own tribunal. In May 2007, the tribunal found the TRT guilty of paying off smaller parties in the April 2006 elections and dissolved it, specifically prohibiting Thaksin and 111 other party leaders from participating in politics for the next five years.
Referendum voters in August 2007 approved a new constitution, which contained a number of antidemocratic provisions. The poll results, with 57 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed, showed a significant protest vote in the northeast, Thaksin’s regional stronghold.
Former TRT members regrouped under the banner of the People’s Power Party (PPP) and won the December 2007 parliamentary elections. Throughout 2008, yellow-shirted PAD supporters led protests accusing the new government of serving as a corrupt proxy for Thaksin and demanding its dissolution. At the height of the protests in November, the PAD seized Bangkok’s main airports, seriously disrupting travel and economic activity in the country and region. Meanwhile, in October the Supreme Court sentenced Thaksin in absentia to two years in prison for abuse of office.
The PPP-led government—under intense pressure from the PAD, military commanders, and the judiciary—finally fell in December 2008, when the Constitutional Court disbanded the ruling party on the grounds that it had engaged in fraud during the December 2007 elections. DP leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the head of the opposition, subsequently formed a new coalition and won a lower house vote to become prime minister. Throughout 2009, Abhisit struggled to cope with opposition protests, carry out effective reconciliation, and counter corruption charges filed against his allies. The red-shirted United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which had mounted large protests during the period of military rule following Thaksin’s ouster, resumed its activities to oppose the PPP’s dissolution and carried out disruptive antigovernment demonstrations during the year. Abhisit imposed emergency rule in Bangkok for nearly two weeks in April, arresting red-shirt leaders and shutting down pro-UDD radio stations. Clashes between the army and protesters that month resulted in at least two deaths.
Reconciliation efforts later in 2009 made little progress, and the crisis worsened in February 2010, when the Supreme Court ordered the seizure of $1.4 billion of Thaksin’s $2.29 billion in frozen assets, finding him guilty of concealing his assets while in office and abusing his power for personal gain. UDD protests escalated, with red shirts occupying the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district on April 3. In response, the government declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and 23 other provinces on April 7, banned demonstrations, and attempted to regain control of the occupied area on April 10. A total of 21 civilians and five soldiers were killed, and 860 people—including 350 soldiers—were injured, but the protesters remained in place and gradually fortified their encampment with walls of tires and bamboo.
The government accused the red shirts of intending to overthrow the monarchy, and established a military-dominated Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), which exercised broad detention and censorship powers under the emergency decree. Meanwhile, violent incidents inside and along the perimeter of the red-shirt encampment heightened tensions. Attempts at negotiation, based on a plan for early elections, failed due in part to internal divisions in the UDD.
Finally, in a six-day operation that began May 14, the army violently dispersed the entrenched protesters, at times using live fire. At least 54 people died, including two soldiers, and some 470 people were injured. In the aftermath of the crackdown, 36 buildings in Bangkok were set ablaze; governor’s offices in four northeastern provinces were also torched. Between March and the end of May, a total of 92 people had been killed in the clashes, including civilians, military, and foreign journalists. The authorities arrested red-shirt leaders, and 52 faced terrorism and other charges by year’s end, including Thaksin, who had supported the protest movement from abroad. The CRES used emergency powers to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in assets belonging to those suspected of financially backing the red shirts.
Low-level unrest continued for the remainder of 2010, punctuated by periodic, small-scale bomb blasts in the capital in the summer and fall. Abhisit established two committees on national reform to advance reconciliation, and his government attempted to garner public support with populist policies, including a debt moratorium for farmers, debt-repayment assistance, and the extension of utility and transport subsidies.
Separatist violence in the south continued during 2010, and renewed attacks on teachers in the fall seriously disrupted education in the affected provinces. Peace initiatives remained at a standstill, as the government dismissed a limited unilateral suspension of hostilities offered by the insurgents.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Thailand is not an electoral democracy. The most recent national parliamentary elections in December 2007 proceeded without major disruptions and returned Thailand to civilian rule following the 2006 military coup, but they were not free and fair. The military retained significant influence, and martial law was in effect in 25 provinces at the time of the elections. The CNS maintained tight control over the electoral process and deliberately maneuvered to influence the outcome against the PPP. Moreover, the PPP-led government that emerged from the voting was toppled in December 2008 in what many observers regarded as a judicial coup. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power after the PPP’s ouster, had not sought a popular mandate through new national elections by the end of 2010.
The current constitution was drafted under the supervision of the military-backed government and approved in an August 2007 referendum. It included an amnesty for the 2006 coup leaders, and in a clear response to the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government the coup overthrew, the charter limited prime ministers to two four-year terms and set a lower threshold for launching no-confidence motions. The constitution also reduced the role of elected lawmakers. Whereas the old Senate was fully elected, the Senate created by the new charter consists of 76 elected members and 74 appointed by a committee of judges and members of independent government bodies. Senators, who serve six-year terms, cannot belong to political parties. For the 480-seat lower chamber, the House of Representatives, the new constitution altered the system of proportional representation to curtail the voting power of the northern and northeastern provinces, where support for Thaksin remains strong. Members serve four-year terms, and the prime minister is elected from among them. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the head of state, and while he has little responsibility in day-to-day politics, he has historically wielded tremendous moral and symbolic influence, particularly in times of national or constitutional calamity. The palace’s relative silence during the most recent political crisis has been interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the Abhisit government’s actions in suppressing the red-shirt movement.
The CNS-appointed interim legislature passed the Internal Security Act (ISA) shortly before the 2007 elections. The law created an Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), headed by the prime minister and the army chief, which retains the authority to override civilian administration and restrict basic civil liberties to suppress disorder, even without a formal state of emergency. The government invoked the ISA in Bangkok in early March 2010, well before opposition protests became violent in early April. In addition, under Thailand’s 2005 Emergency Decree, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency, which grants the government the following powers: extended detention without charge or trial, the use of unofficial detention centers, the suppression of information about detainees, and unfettered government censorship. Like the ISA, the Emergency Decree grants legal immunity to officials who violate human rights law in the course of their duties. The government announced a state of emergency in Bangkok and 23 other provinces outside the south in April 2010. Though emergency rule was gradually lifted in the north and northeastern provinces, it remained in place in Bangkok and neighboring provinces until December 22.
Corruption is widespread at all levels of Thai society. It ranked among Thais’ top frustrations with the Thaksin government and was cited as part of the military’s justification for the 2006 coup. Despite Abhisit’s clean image, his party and coalition cohorts have faced numerous corruption charges since coming to power. The Office of the Attorney General forwarded two cases to the Constitutional Court in 2010that could have resulted in the dissolution of the DP, the country’s oldest political party. One involved the alleged misuse of electoral funds in the 2005 election, and the other revolved around the alleged acceptance of an unlawful donation of about $8 million from the former head of a large petrochemicals firm. The Court dismissed both cases by year’s end. Thailand was ranked 78 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of expression guarantees that were eliminated by the 2006 coup. However, harsh defamation provisions remain in the penal code, and suits are often used to silence government critics. The 2007 Computer Crimes Act assigns significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security. In 2010, the long duration of the state of emergency and the creation of the CRES, along with existing legal restrictions, enabled the government to suppress criticism of the government and target opposition broadcast, print, and internet outlets. During the year, the CRES blocked more than 2,200 websites seen as pro-UDD, and another 50,000 sites were censored without any proof that they had incited or were connected to political violence.
The government and military control licensing and transmission for Thailand’s six main television stations and all 525 radio frequencies. Many community radio stations operate without licenses. In the four months after the declaration of the state of emergency in 2010, more than 47 community radio stations suspected of supporting the red shirts were raided and shut down, and 49 arrest warrants issued for associated individuals. Broadcasts of pro-Thaksin radio stations and television channels were blocked, and the government required media outlets to air “obligatory” programs and news from the state-run Radio Thailand and army-licensed Channel 5 television station. Print publications are for the most part privately owned and have been subject to fewer restrictions than the broadcast media. Nevertheless, several red-shirt print publications were banned in 2010.
The past two years have featured a surge in use of the country’s lèse-majesté laws to stifle freedom of expression. The laws prohibit defamation of the monarchy, but the authorities have increasingly used them to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians who are critical of the government, exacerbating self-censorship. Some of the accused face decadesin prison for multiple counts, while others have fled the country. The CRES, the Defense Ministry, and the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology werethe prime enforcers of lèse-majesté laws in 2010.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. There is no official state religion, but the constitution requires the monarch to be a Buddhist, and speech considered insulting to Buddhism is prohibited by law. The conflict in the south, which pits ethnic Malay Muslims against ethnic Thai Buddhists, continues to undermine citizens’ ability to practice their religion. Buddhist monks report that they are unable to travel freely through southern communities to receive alms, while Muslim academics and imams face government scrutiny.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of assembly guarantees, though the government may invoke the ISA or declare a state of emergency to curtail major demonstrations, as it did for much of 2010. In September, about 10,000 red-shirt protesters gathered peacefully in Bangkok to mark the fourth anniversary of the coup that ousted Thaksin; this was the first large demonstration since the violence that spring.
Thailand has a vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) community, with groups representing farmers, laborers, women, students, environmentalists, and human rights interests. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2010human rights report, NGOs that dealt with sensitive political issues or obstructed government-backed development projects faced harassment.Human rights groups focused on the volatile southern provinces reportedly encounter intimidation by both sides in the conflict.
Thai trade unions are independent, and more than 50 percent of state-enterprise workers belong to unions, but less than 2 percent of the total workforce is unionized. Antiunion discrimination in the private sector is common, and legal protections for union members are weak and poorly enforced. There are some restrictions on private-sector strikes, and strikes by state-enterprise workers are prohibited, though such workers sometimes engage in walkouts in practice. Exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are serious and ongoing problems, as are child and sweatshop labor.
The 2007 constitution restored judicial independence and reestablished an independent Constitutional Court. A separate military court adjudicates criminal and civil cases involving members of the military, as well as cases brought under martial law. Sharia (Islamic law) courts hear certain types of cases pertaining to Muslims. The Thai courts have played a decisive role in determining the outcome of political disputes, generating complaints of judicial activism and political bias. A series of rulings in 2008 brought down the elected PPP government and cleared the way for Abhisit to take power.
Pretrial detention—often lasting up to 60 days in criminal cases—is a serious problem, and trials frequently take years to complete. Prison conditions are grim, with inmates and detainees facing shackling and abuse by police and military personnel. State officials are rarely prosecuted for such acts. A September study from the National Human Rights Commission found that torture is widely and systemically used in the deep south.
A combination of martial law, emergency rule, and the ISA remains in effect in the four southernmost provinces. Military sweeps since June 2007 have involved the indiscriminate detention of thousands of suspected insurgents and sympathizers, and there are credible reports of torture and other human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, by security forces. To date there have been no successful criminal prosecutions of security personnel for these transgressions. Separatist fighters and armed criminal groups regularly attack government workers, police, teachers, religious figures, and civilians. As of the end of 2010, more than 4,400 people had been killed in the conflict since 2004, and 7,200 had been injured, making the insurgency one of the world’s deadliest.
Thailand’s hill tribes are not fully integrated into society and face restrictions on their freedom of movement. Many reportedly lack citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or receive protection under labor laws. Thailand has not ratified UN conventions on refugees, and the authorities continue to forcibly repatriate Burmese and Laotian refugees.
While women have the same legal rights as men, they remain subject to economic discrimination in practice; underrepresented in local and national government bodies, with about 13 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament; and vulnerable to domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking. Some 200,000 to 300,000 Thai women and children work as prostitutes, according to NGO estimates, and sex tourism remains a problem.
Thailand received a downward trend arrow due to the use of violence in putting down street protests in April and May 2010, and the coercive use of lèse-majesté laws and emergency powers to limit freedom of expression and personal autonomy.