Freedom in the World
Thailand's political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to relatively free and fair national elections in July, which resulted in a transfer of power to the opposition.
Thailand's political temperature cooled in 2011 following deadly street violence between security forces and antigovernment protesters the previous year. The opposition Puea Thai Party won relatively free and fair parliamentary elections in July 2011, and Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister. Despite the new government, prosecutors and security agencies continued to employ lèse-majesté laws to curb freedom of expression and political speech. Also during the year, rights abuses associated with the insurgency and counterinsurgency in southern Thailand persisted, and the government faced criticism over its response to massive flooding that killed hundreds of people in the fall.
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. 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.
The TRT swept the February 2005 parliamentary elections, making Thaksin the first prime minister to serve out a full four-year term and be elected to two consecutive terms. 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.
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. About 57 percent of referendum voters in August 2007 approved a new constitution that contained a number of antidemocratic provisions.
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. 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 subsequently formed a new coalition and won a lower house vote to become prime minister. The red-shirted United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which had opposed the 2006 coup, mounted large protests against the PPP's dissolution and the new government. Abhisit imposed emergency rule in Bangkok for nearly two weeks in April 2009, arresting red-shirt leaders and shutting down pro-UDD radio stations.
Reconciliation efforts later in 2009 made little progress, and UDD protests escalated again in the spring of 2010, with red shirts occupying the heart of Bangkok's commercial district in April. The government, which accused the UDD of intending to overthrow the monarchy, declared another state of emergency, and the army finally dispersed the entrenched protesters in May, at times using live fire. Between March and the end of May, a total of 92 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.
Abhisit established two committees on national reform to advance reconciliation, and his government attempted to garner public support with populist economic policies. However, these efforts largely failed to win over opposition supporters, and in early 2011 Abhisit called new elections for July.
In the run-up to the elections, many elements of the Thai elite, including the military, clearly indicated to voters their preference for the DP, with the army chief appearing on national television to essentially advise voters not to vote for Puea Thai, the successor to the PPP, led by Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. The military also allegedly worked behind the scenes to convince smaller parties to ally themselves with the DP following the vote. Within Puea Thai, some expressed worries that Yingluck would become a proxy for Thaksin, who called her his "clone." Political tensions were further heightened by concerns about the future of the monarchy, as the king's health was reportedly fading, and the crown prince was seen as a more divisive figure.
Puea Thai ultimately won the parliamentary elections outright, taking 265 of 500 seats in the lower house. The DP placed second with 159 seats, and small parties divided the remainder. The army accepted the results, in part because Puea Thai leaders reportedly assured the military that they would not interfere in military promotions or seek trials for anyone involved in the 2010 political violence. Yingluck became prime minister and installed several Thaksin loyalists in top cabinet positions. They began advocating an amnesty for Thaksin, but no such action was taken, and he remained in exile throughout the year. However, some red shirts who had been arrested after the 2010 violence were released by the courts.
Yingluck suggested that she would consider reforming the country's lèse-majesté laws, which had been enforced more aggressively since 2006, and revising the constitution to bring it closer to the 1997 charter. However, she had apparently set aside both proposals by year's end, as she engaged in a delicate balancing game with military and royalist foes who oppose the changes.
Flooding that destroyed many of the industrial estates in the outskirts of Bangkok during the year resulted in the deaths of more than 800 people and caused some $45 billion in damage. The disaster added to the rivalry between Yingluck and her opponents, as the army used its national resources to help with flood aid.
Thailand is an electoral democracy. The July 2011 elections were considered relatively free and fair, yielding a victory for the opposition and replacing a government that had come to power as a result of judicial action and lacked a popular mandate. Although the influential military weighed in against Puea Thai during the run-up to the vote, it was unable to alter the outcome. However, the Asian Network for Free Elections, a leading monitoring organization, reported that several political parties had representatives inside polling stations trying to influence voters' choices, and that vote buying had increased compared to previous parliamentary polls. The Thai Election Commission postponed certifying the election results after receiving complaints of fraud and irregularities in the election of one-quarter of candidates.
The current constitution was drafted under the supervision of a 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 77 elected members and 73 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 500-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.
Corruption is widespread at all levels of Thai society. Both the DP and Puea Thai include numerous lawmakers who have been linked to corruption charges during their time in power. Thailand was ranked 80 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, a drop of nearly 20 points from a decade earlier.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of expression guarantees that were eliminated by the 2006 coup, though the use of laws to silence critics is growing. The 2007 Computer Crimes Act assigns significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security. In 2011, Tanthawut Taweewarodomkul was sentenced to 13 years in prison for posting items on a site critical of the palace. In recent years, the government has blocked as many as 100,000 websites for allegedly insulting the monarchy, and this blocking continued under the new government in 2011. The authorities did ease restrictions on some red-shirt websites and community radio stations, but DP supporters argued that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government had begun trying to shut down radio stations associated with their political camp.
The government and military control licensing and transmission for Thailand's six main television stations and all 525 radio frequencies. Community radio stations are generally unlicensed. Print publications are for the most part privately owned and have been subject to fewer restrictions than the broadcast media. However, most print publications take a clear position on either side of the country's political divide.
The past five years have featured a surge in use of the country's lèse-majesté laws to stifle freedom of expression. According to the National Human Rights Commission, more than 400 lèse-majesté cases went to trial in 2010 and 2011. 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 decades in prison for multiple counts. Others, such as Reuters reporter Andrew Marshall, flee the country, as Marshall did in 2011 after writing an extensive series on the monarchy.
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 Internal Security Act (ISA) or declare a state of emergency to curtail major demonstrations, as it did for much of 2010. In 2011, the state of emergency was lifted for most of the country, though it remained in place in the restive south. Political parties and organizations campaigned and met openly and freely in the run-up to the July election and engaged in pro- or anti-government demonstrations after the election.
Thailand has a vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) community, with groups representing farmers, laborers, women, students, environmentalists, and human rights interests. In 2011, armed men shot and killed environmental activist Thongnak Sawekchinda, who had led a local campaign against pollution created by coal companies
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. Exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are serious and ongoing problems, as are child and sweatshop labor. The UN Human Rights Council reported in 2011 that trafficking of forced labor into Thailand was growing in the agricultural, construction, and fishing industries.
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, for example in the ouster of the PPP government in 2008, generating complaints of judicial activism and political bias.
A combination of martial law and emergency rule remains in effect in the four southernmost provinces. Military sweeps 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. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the past decade.
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 have forcibly repatriated Burmese and Laotian refugees.
While women have the same legal rights as men, they remain subject to economic discrimination in practice, and vulnerable to domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking. Sex tourism remains a problem. Yingluck Shinawatra is the country's first female prime minister, but she has not made women's rights a priority of her administration.