If Thai military junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha was a movie character, film reviewers would likely find his role crude and implausible. Ham-fisted, impetuous, and almost comically unaware of how his own words make him seem unhinged, Prayuth seems like a stereotypical dictator from central casting. Since seizing power in a coup one year ago this week, Prayuth has ruled Thailand as a coarsely crafted despot: threatening and arresting dissidents and critics and offering up strings of inaccurate, frightening, and often self-contradicting statements to justify his actions.
Detainees making allegations about torture are lying-in jail they only suffered mosquito bites. Critics are not being detained-Thais held incommunicado in military camps have been “invited” to meetings to “calm down” and “adjust” their “attitudes.” Since May 2014, the junta has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists, and others, usually in secret military facilities. Several detainees who have emerged have made credible allegations of torture, including with electricity. Meanwhile, hundreds of people, most of them political dissidents, have been sent to trials in unfair military courts.
But we’re told Prayuth’s military-led National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is not a junta. Yes, the word junta in Spanish means “council,” which happens to be the second word in the NCPO’s name, and yes, the word junta has been used for well over two centuries to refer to military councils operating in a governance role, as in Thailand now. But the junta thinks it’s not the right word. “One must never use that word, it sounds bad,” said a spokesman.
Democracy is overrated, anyway. “Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy,” Gen. Prayuth said at a press conference on March 23. All the same, Prayuth insists he is ruling democratically. “We are 99.99 percent democratic,” Prayuth said at the same event.
Thais should probably just throw away their dictionaries. Thailand today is a mash-up of Through the Looking-Glass (where Humpty Dumpty says a word “means just what I choose it to mean”) and George Orwell’s 1984 (“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”)
Instead of dictionaries, Thais should consult Prayuth’s new “twelve values” ordered by the junta, promulgated throughout the country and now adapted into poem and pop music form. Children now have to recite those values at schools.
Then again, perhaps it’s best for Thais not to think about values at all – it’s just too dangerous. In March, Prayuth quipped about punching a journalist who questioned the junta’s achievements since the coup. Earlier this year, when asked by a journalist if there were any limits to his power, Prayuth flatly explained that there were none. He lashed out: “Do you want me to use all of my powers? With my powers, I could shut down all media. . . I could have you shot.” In a more recent tirade, Prayuth was asked about the specific punishment for journalists criticizing the government. “Execution, maybe?” he replied.
“What the hell is wrong with them?” he yelled at an event in December. “Are they crazy? I get angry [every time] I read these newspapers. They made me lose my manner and have ruined my leader image. . . . I will shut them down for real. I cannot allow them to continue their disrespect. Otherwise, what’s the point of me being [Prime Minister]? What’s the point of having martial law?”
Quite so. Recently, for the sake of appearances and in response to concerns from the business sector, the government revoked martial law and decided instead to rule through an emergency provision of the interim constitution, article 44, a provision that Prayuth’s own junta promulgated. . . while under martial law.
The revocation of martial law means nothing. Under article 44, Prayuth as NCPO chairman can pretty much do anything he wants without regard to any limits, providing he finds it “necessary for the benefit of reforms in any field, or to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs.” In all such cases, anything Prayuth does is “completely legal and constitutional.” No judicial or other oversight mechanism can curtail these powers.
“Article 44 will be exercised constructively,” Prayuth recently said. “Don’t worry, if you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no need to be afraid.”
Prayuth says he’s had it with all the criticism. He is a sensitive man, and has asked journalists to pity him for his wounded feelings. “I am a human. . . . I also have feelings. I have a life and feelings.”
This may be why Thai journalists are forced by the junta to kneel before Prayuth during press conferences – really. That journalists can be edified, humiliated, and threatened simultaneously, some joke, it is a great example of the efficiencies of Thai military rule.
Prayuth seems genuinely flabbergasted by his critics. To hear him tell it, the junta has not seized power, don’t want power, haven’t exercised power, and don’t understand why anyone fails to understand their motives and explanations in not seizing power and not wanting it while holding it all the same. It really is like Alice in Wonderland.
In apparent response to continued international outcry in the wake of martial law and its abusive replacement, the junta still insists it will schedule new elections soon, just as soon as the junta renovates the country’s political system. Of course, it’s not exactly clear why a council of men trained in affairs like battlefield logistics, naval strategy, and weapons systems procurement have a particularly good at perfecting the art of governance, or know how to pick those who would be, but such is the plan.
What does renovating Thailand’s political system entail? The junta’s proposed model for a new constitution would feature an unelected prime minister and a hand-picked, non-democratic upper house of parliament, both of which will be chosen by a council, whose members will be chosen by… the junta. And many expect the emergency provisions of Art. 44 will remain.
Observers have criticized the proposed constitutional provisions. The junta bristles, but time is on their side. If the new constitution fails in a referendum, then the NCPO remains in power as a new junta appointed drafting committee goes back to the drawing board.
When elections do take place, if they ever do, there are serious concerns that citizens will remain under severe restrictions on their freedoms of speech and assembly. The junta’s view seems to be that the best way to protect democracy is to protect it from democracy, and only give Thais the freedom to choose the government that’s been chosen for them.
It may seem like just a cruel joke, but the reality is tragic. Thailand has become a military dictatorship enforcing authoritarian rule. Its prime minister is an army general who chairs a junta, whose military has a record of committing human rights abuses. There is no reason to believe that any of this is going to improve in the near term without strong international pressure from Thailand’s democratic allies – countries like the United States, European Union countries, and Japan.
Thailand’s democratic allies need to get together and summon the nerve to communicate the situation clearly to Prayuth. He does seem to fear opprobrium on the international level. Prayuth needs to be told that if he continues down the current path, his government will become more than just a joke: it will become a pariah.
John Sifton is Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.