U.S.-Backed Thai Junta Will Dominate After Election
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- If Thailand's U.S.-backed military government allows an election next year, the junta leader and his supporters are expected to dominate thanks to heavy censorship, an appointed Senate, and restricted or self-exiled opposition politicians.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup when he was army commander, is widely perceived as manipulating an extension of his prime ministry.
"Why are you so interested in me?" the often moody Mr. Prayuth asked reporters who wanted to discuss expectations he would remain in power after the election.
"I will decide when I will announce. It's entirely up to me. What's the point of exposing myself to criticism so soon?" he said on September 19.
"The laws on the election of members of parliament and selection of senators were announced in the Royal Gazette on September 12, 2018, paving the way for an election between February and May 2019," said New York-based Human Rights Watch.
" Thailand's military junta should immediately lift restrictions on civil and political rights so that upcoming national elections can be free and fair," Human Rights Watch said.
"Current laws, policies, and practices of the [junta's] ruling National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in May 2014, do not permit political parties to freely organize, express their views, or campaign. As a result, Thailand does not yet have an environment for free and fair elections," it said.
Mr. Prayuth could run as a candidate attracting voters impressed by his hard-line rule which crushed political street violence and gained U.S. President Donald Trump's support.
Or he could be reinstalled as prime minister by a squabbling hung Parliament under a 2017 constitution he helped orchestrate.
National elections are for a 500-seat House of Representatives.
The junta will oversee the appointment of a 250-member Senate, including six seats for the head of the army, navy, air force and national police, plus the military's supreme commander and defense permanent secretary.
The regime initially said it would permit elections in 2015, but postponed them each year to 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Mr. Prayuth's main opponent remains the popularly elected, polarizing and authoritarian former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Mr. Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 military coup, in which Mr. Prayuth participated, and became an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for conflict of interest in a Bangkok real estate deal involving his then-wife.
While abroad, the billionaire Mr. Thaksin boosted his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to win a 2011 election and become prime minister.
She was ousted in 2014 for "criminal negligence" two weeks before Mr. Prayuth's most recent coup.
Ms. Yingluck also fled overseas to avoid a five-year prison sentence for "criminal negligence" after failing to stop corruption in her administration's rice crop subsidies.
"There are some people who got rich from these two coups but there are many more who suffered worse, and our beloved Thailand has been viewed unfavorably by people around the world," Mr. Thaksin, 69, recently posted on his Facebook page.
"Hasn't our country suffered enough?" Mr. Thaksin said.
"Thaksin and his legacies, his party, personality cult and populist policy measures," are Mr. Prayuth's biggest threat, said Kasit Piromya, former member of the Democrat Party which opposes Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck.
"Prayuth and his allies have to be certain that they will have the majority before the holding of the election. They will not go to the election in order to lose...they could keep on postponing the election date," Mr. Kasit said in an interview.
"The constitution and related laws are not democratic, so an election in substance cannot be democratic," Mr. Kasit said.
When asked how democratic the poll would be, Tom Kruesopon, former senior advisor to Ms. Yingluck's Pheu Thai ["For Thais"] Party, replied in an interview:
"Less than U.S.A.'s, more than North Korea's."
Sensational new candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 39, is wealthy but inexperienced and his Future Forward Party offers a liberal, anti-junta stance.
Mr. Thanathorn "will win some seats, but their total lack of understanding of the Thai political culture will undermine their chance for real significance," Mr. Kruesopon said.
Two senior party members and Mr. Thanathorn, who is an auto parts billionaire, face recent charges of violating the Computer Crime Act for posting on Facebook statements about Mr. Prayuth which the junta said are false.
The Act is often used to censor conversations on internet and can punish violators with up to five years imprisonment plus fines.
"The use of the Computer Crime Act is used with the objective to silence us, threaten us, to make politics of fear happen in this country," Mr. Thanathorn said after being fingerprinted and questioned by police on September 17.
Though he remains overseas, Mr. Thaksin's enemies -- including Mr. Prayuth -- will not enjoy an easy victory.
"Prayuth seems to be the most likely candidate to lead the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party. But he is not a popular figure, despite military propaganda," Patrick Jory at Australia's Queensland University School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry said in an interview.
"The conservative Democrat Party, which provided the main political opposition to Thaksin's parties since 2001, now looks weak and divided. Their leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is tainted not only by his role in the May 2010 killings, but also his involvement in the 'whistle-blowing' protests that provided the pretext for the 2014 coup," Mr. Jory said.
In 2010, Mr. Abhisit presided over a military crackdown against a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok which resulted in the killing of 90 people -- mostly pro-election Red Shirt civilians who supported Mr. Thaksin.
Mr. Abhisit is also linked to anti-election, whistle-blowing protesters in 2014 who crippled Ms. Yingluck's administration, paving the way for then-Gen. Prayuth's putsch.
Today, younger "aspiring politicians" inside Mr. Abhisit's Democracy Party want it to become a "New Democrat Party".
Asked about election issues, the New Generation Democrats replied in a statement on Sept. 19:
"Almost 70 million Thais have been starved of their basic civil rights and liberties since the military coup over 4 years ago.
"We are pushing forward a case for turning Thailand into a liberal democracy," the reformers' statement said.
"We may face opposition from representatives of the current government who believe in a paternalistic, centralized state with conservative values that may delay or resist a return to full democracy," the New Generation Democrats said.
Election competition currently appears to be between the Palang Pracharat Party which supports Mr. Prayuth extending his prime ministry, and Mr. Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party which has yet to announce a leader based in Thailand.
"Only the Pheu Thai Party and the Future Forward Party have been very clear that they are not going to support the military, whereas the Democrat Party remains reluctant to absolutely shut down the possibility of working with the military-coalition government after the speculated election in 2019," Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty member at northeast Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani University, said in an interview.
"The Pheu Thai Party remains largely popular amongst rural voters in the North and Northeast, whilst the Future Forward Party is starting to gain its support from young and virgin voters," Mr. Titipol said.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo" portrays an American 22-year-old female mental patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco psychiatrist.
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