In the two years since Thailand’s army seized control of this Southeast Asian nation in a coup, pro-democracy activist Rangsiman Rome has repeatedly risked jail time to do something few here have done: speak out against the junta.
The 24-year-old law student has taken part in peaceful demonstrations that saw security forces drag him away by the hair. He’s undergone forced “attitude adjustment” sessions at military camps in Bangkok. In all, he’s spent 24 days in custody — most recently for urging Thais to vote against a new constitution that will strengthen the army’s already powerful hand in politics for many years to come.
The charter was easily approved this month, in a vote that underscored just how lonely Rangsiman’s struggle has become. The result carried with it an implicit message: After a decade of political turmoil, the Thai electorate values the forced stability the military has imposed far more than democracy and freedom of speech.
The referendum “was wrong on so many levels,” Rangisman said, noting that open debate was quashed so intensely, criticizing the draft was punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Rangisman was detained four times and has three court cases pending against him on various charges.
He added, however, “We have to accept the will of the people to decide what they want for their country, and this is what they wanted.”
Opponents of Thailand’s military dictatorship seem at a loss over what to do now. One minister ousted in the coup compares their situation to waiting out a storm. Yet that wait could be quite long indeed.
The next major step will be elections, which could be held as early as November 2017, but the army won’t go away at that point.
The new constitution mandates a five-year transition to civilian rule and a military-appointed Senate — with seats reserved for top commanders — that will serve as a check on the elected lower parliament. Other governing bodies, including the courts and the bureaucracy, will also remain under military influence.
In the long run, though, Thailand “still has to come to grips with the sources of the political turmoil that have driven the conflict for a decade,” said Matthew Wheeler of the International Crisis Group.
“Two years of military rule haven’t really resolved any of the fundamental problems … and the constitution won’t succeed in doing that either,” he said. “The day of reckoning is just being delayed.”
Turnout for the referendum was relatively low — 55 percent — and few of those who did vote actually read all of the charter’s 279 articles. Analysts believe some of those who voted “yes” did so out of a sense of resignation, or a desire to speed the army’s departure by clearing a hurdle to the eventual restoration of civilian rule.
The unease that permeates Thai society is often difficult to detect. Life can seem utterly normal despite a junta ruling with absolute power. Foreign tourists still flock to the nation’s idyllic beaches. Shoppers still pack into Bangkok’s gargantuan luxury malls. The city’s streets are still clogged with traffic, and few soldiers are in sight.
A wave of bombings less than a week after the vote, however, made clear that Thailand’s problems are not over. The attacks, which killed four people and wounded dozens more, are suspected to have been carried out by Muslim separatists in the south who are waging a war for greater autonomy that remains unresolved.
The reality is that Thailand remains “deeply paralyzed,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“Nothing has been done to address the conflict boiling just below the surface,” she said. “And when it bursts, people will be out on the streets again.”
A broader political divide has torn Thai society apart since the military staged an earlier coup in 2006. In the years since, mass demonstrations by rival protesters have shut down the government and at times turned bloody. The worst upheaval, in 2010, ended with a military crackdown that killed dozens and left Bangkok’s glittering skyline darkened by the smoke of burning buildings.
At its heart, Thailand’s conflict is about wealth and power, and how to distribute it. The country remains split between a poor, rural majority in the north and northeast striving for a greater share of the economic pie, and an elite minority in Bangkok allied with the military and southern supporters who see northern ascendancy as a threat. To the latter, Thailand’s former democracy only paved the way for what they call “the tyranny of the majority.”
A spokesman for the government, Major General Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, said Thais had ‘too much freedom’ before the coup.
They were “exploited by influential political groups, by hate speech and misinformation, by people who were instigating violence,” he said. “That kind of environment can’t be fixed in one or months, or one or two years.
“The military needs to stay until the country is ready,” he said. “It will take time, but it won’t take forever.”
The transition is taking place amid profound anxiety over the succession of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who marked his 70th year on the throne from a hospital bed and has not appeared in public in months.
Bhumibol is the world’s longest reigning monarch, and while he is widely loved, his son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has not yet garnered the same respect. The military, which sees itself as the principal defender of the monarchy, is keen to ensure succession goes smoothly.
The new constitution was drawn up with little input from the junta’s opponents, and critics say it was designed to neutralize the power of politicians the government sees as corrupt. No. 1 on that list is Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai.
His Pheu Thai Party and previous incarnations of it have won every election here for more than a decade, most recently in 2011 when his sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister. The new charter, however, establishes a voting system that will make it tough for any one party to secure a parliamentary majority.
Chaturon Chaisang, a Pheu Thai member who served as Yingluck’s education minister, said the constitution’s approval was a serious setback, and party leaders are struggling to understand why so many of their constituents voted for it.
That, combined with repressive junta policies that significantly curtail political activity, means “there is little anyone can do” but wait until elections.
“We need to regroup and strategize, but it’s clear now that our party’s role will be quite limited, and remain so for some time,” Chaturon said. “It’s like waiting out a thunderstorm. Nobody can do anything until the skies clear.”
Rangsiman, a Thammasat University student who helps lead a civil society network called the New Democracy Movement, said the pro-democracy forces were not giving up. “But this made us realize that without more people, more support, more funds, we’re doomed to fail.”
The junta has “succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear” that inhibits free discussion of the conflict. And Thai culture, he said, plays perfectly into that.