Don’t be fooled by the Thai junta’s “smoke and mirrors”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

While international human rights organisations and western governments have rightly been calling for an end to martial law and speedy elections, it is important to look at the fine details of any lifting of martial law or the holding of elections in the future.

The junta and its academic servants have been mulling over the replacement of  martial law with article 44 of the military’s temporary constitution, which was brought in after the 22nd of May 2014 military coup. This article can be enacted in the event that the military junta sees fit to use this article for the purposes of so-called “reform” or in order enforce unity or to prevent actions deemed to be a threat to national security, the monarchy, the bureaucracy, or the economy. The article can be invoked whether the threat comes from within the country or from outside. Article 44 gives total power to the junta to order or act in any capacity; legal, executive or judicial, in whatever way is deems necessary.

The mention of any so-called threat to the economy gives the junta a blank cheque to suppress workers’ strikes.

The lifting of martial law and its replacement by the use of article 44 is clearly not a step forward towards freedom of expression or assembly in any way. It could even be a step backwards.

Equally important is the fine detail about any future elections. The junta and its anti-reform servants are busy designing a political system similar to the “Guided Democracies” that exist in Burma or Singapore. The democratic space will be severely curtailed with elected politicians having to check their policies and actions with military-appointed bodies such as the senate, the anti-corruption committee or the election organising committee. The parliament will be deliberately weakened and there will be measures designed to discriminate against Taksin’s political party or any other party that gains mass popular support. The junta will live on in another form, controlling Thai politics from the shadows.

Any measure of the democratic qualities of Thailand’s future elections will have to include serious assessments of the role of unelected bodies and the balance of power between them and democratically elected representatives, parties and governments. For genuine democracy there must be measures to stop military influence in politics and elected governments must be free to set policies rather than be placed in a political straight-jacket by the anti-reformists. There must not be any legal restrictions on the freedom of political parties and the number of politicians in any parliament must clearly reflect the voting preferences of the electorate.

Some western governments will no doubt be eager to jump at the chance to give Thailand’s democracy a “clean bill of health” when martial law is lifted and elections are held. The attitude of many western governments towards Burma’s current military-dominated political system is an important example. But pro-democracy activists and human rights organisations should not be fooled by any trick of smoke and mirrors created by the junta or any false clean bills of health given to the Thai regime by western governments.

Even if there were to be an end to martial law and the abolition of article 44, followed by free and fair elections, which is highly unlikely in the near future, there is still the festering problem of the draconian lèse majesté law. This law has been used with impunity against free-thinkers and activists. Only the other day a pro-democracy activist was sentenced by military court to 50 years in prison (reduced by half because he confessed) for posting comments on Facebook. Lèse majesté is used by the Thai elites in a similar way to the use of blanket and abstract “terrorism” charges in other countries, but Thailand uses both. The result is that there can be no freedom of expression or assembly, and thus no real democracy, until lèse majesté is abolished.