Thailand’s political crisis has been dragging the country down for nearly a decade now but things went from bad to worse in 2015. The military junta, which grabbed power in May of the previous year, shows no signs of loosening its grip and will likely remain in direct control for the foreseeable future. Even a draft constitution written by conservative royalists who were handpicked by the junta was rejected in September. The draft, specifically designed to maintain military dominance and hobble elected politicians, could have allowed the return of a weak, illiberal democracy in late 2016. This is now impossible, leaving Thailand with the unwelcome distinction of being the only country in the world currently ruled so openly by its military.
The 2015 report “Freedom in the World” – published annually by Freedom House – downgraded the country from “partly free” to “not free” based on events in 2014. Thailand will almost certainly stay in this category in the 2016 report and may even find its score slips further, given that the generals have gifted themselves almost unlimited power, civilians continue to be tried in military courts, and several harsh sentences have been handed down for the notorious lèse-majesté law, which prohibits criticism of the monarchy. Recent months have also seen the new and worrying trend of high-profile prisoners dying in police custody. So it seems Thailand will remain “not free” throughout 2016 – a designation that will be hurtful to Thais, who often claim that the country’s name means “the land of the free.”
The country’s international standing has suffered in other respects too. In 2014, the United States released its annual Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), which documents human trafficking globally. Thailand was downgraded from Tier 2 status to Tier 3, the worst possible classification. The report identified Thailand as a “source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking” and concluded that Thailand “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” It also found that corruption at all levels and complicity on the part of civilian, police and military officials was at the root of the problem. The downgrade could hardly have come as a surprise to the Thais, who had narrowly avoided falling to Tier 3 in 2012 and 2013 by being granted two consecutive waivers – the maximum number allowed – based on a written plan to bring itself up to standard. Evidently this plan was not followed.
An extra year did nothing to improve matters, even with continuing coverage by the world’s media and assurances from the junta that they were tackling the problem. When the same report was released in 2015, Thailand was again given Tier 3 status, with the conclusion that “corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes continued to impede anti-trafficking efforts.” In response, self-appointed Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-Ocha merely seemed irritated that the issue kept raising its ugly head. In March, when one of Thailand’s more professional and serious journalists, Thapanee Ietsrichai, reported that Thai nationals were being held as slave labor on Thai fishing boats off the coast of Indonesia, she was quickly reprimanded. Prayuth told reporters “not to escalate this news,” citing concerns for the seafood industry, one of Thailand’s biggest exports and the industry most blighted by slave labor. Thapanee was then summoned by the junta and other journalists were advised against reporting the issue.
The case with Thapanee is indicative of a larger problem with media freedom in Thailand, an area in which the country has also fallen below international standards. Freedom House judged Thailand harshly in its report “Freedom of the Press 2015,” which classified the country as “not free” in terms of press freedom. With a ranking of 166 out of 199 countries, Thailand tied with Libya as the two states that had seen the greatest net decline in media freedoms over the course of 2014.
Another international NGO, Reporters Without Borders, described the junta as waging “a blitzkrieg aimed at achieving absolute control over the provision of news and information” since it seized power in 2014. In their 2015 “Press Freedom Index” report, Thailand was ranked 130th out of 180 countries for press freedom. The junta was described as “one of the region’s most authoritarian regimes as regards journalists and freedom of information” and the author of the report was left wondering “what remains of the media freedom in Thailand that was regarded as a regional model just ten years ago?” The organization also awarded junta leader Prayuth the ignoble title “Predator of Press Freedom.” The general is known for his unpredictable behavior during press conferences and made international headlines in March for threatening to execute journalists who did not toe the line. Delivered in deadpan, the comment was likely intended to be humorous but behind the joke was a threat which laid bare the new reality for reporters working in post-coup Thailand.
2015 also saw the reputation of Thailand’s aviation industry take a nosedive. In June, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – a UN agency set up to ensure global standards for aviation safety – “red-flagged” Thailand for failing to remedy problems it said amounted to “a significant safety concern with respect to the ability of this state to properly oversee its airlines.” The wording here is worth noting: The problem is not necessarily with the standards of airlines operating in Thailand but rather that the Thai state is not properly overseeing and regulating the industry. The red flag means that the country falls to Category 2 from Category 1, joining around a dozen other countries, all significantly less developed than Thailand. The announcement led to a ban on new charter flights to and from China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, further damaging Thailand’s wounded tourist industry, which is increasingly oriented towards the Asian market.
The ICAO announcement triggered an audit by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in July, which concurred with the findings of the ICAO and duly downgraded Thailand from Category 1 to Category 2, stating that the Thai civil aviation authority failed to meet “minimum international standards.” There were also concerns that the European Commission would follow the ICAO and FAA by banning Thai airlines from flying to Europe, a decision that would have been financially damaging. Instead, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it would work with Thailand in improving its safety concerns and “closely monitor future developments.” Although the economic effects of these downgrades might not be as bad as initially feared, they are nonetheless an embarrassing loss of face.
Fear and Progress in Siam
All of these blows to the country’s image will be upsetting for Thais, who have long craved recognition as a developed nation on the world stage. They will also provoke anxieties and fears that are buried deep in the national psyche.
Thailand has always been outward looking. Sitting at the crossroads between China and India, the kingdoms which preceded modern Thailand looked with awe on the two great powers and absorbed much of their culture in attempts to emulate their prominence. Seventeenth century Ayutthaya was particularly cosmopolitan, with the palace hiring a stunning array of foreign experts from across Asia and Europe and showing a willingness to integrate with – and learn from – the outside world. The kingdom thrived and became rich and powerful as a result. However, when the European powers came to the region in greater numbers during the first half of the nineteenth century, the Siamese elites developed some rather ambiguous feelings towards them.
As before, the elites were enthusiastic about what they might assimilate from the advanced nations. Western innovations in accounting, navigation, print media and astronomy were of particular interest. European fashions, furnishings and luxury goods also became popular amongst the wealthy of Siam. But the benefits brought by the Europeans came entangled with the threat of colonization. Feeling squeezed by the British to their south and west and by the French to their east, the Siamese began to fear it was only a matter of time before they too were colonized. The concerns heightened when they were forced to sign unequal treaties which awarded extraterritoriality to foreigners and allowed them to trade freely in Bangkok. This semi-colonization was made more humiliating by an awareness that the Europeans residing in the kingdom considered themselves superior to the “uncivilized” natives.
To overcome feelings of inferiority and to fend off the “civilizing mission” of colonization, the Siamese elites undertook a vast modernization project. By bringing Siam in line with the modern European states, they hoped that the kingdom might be permitted to maintain its sovereignty. Modest reforms began during the reign of King Mongkut and broadened during that of his son, King Chulalongkorn. Power in the kingdom became more centralized in bureaucratic institutions, including a finance office, interior ministry, standardized court system and a modern, standing army. The kingdom’s borders were defined and attempts were made to centralize tax revenues. To create tax-paying citizens and divert criticism from the Western nations, new laws were introduced to reduce slavery and forced labor. The word “civilized” – pronounced siwilai to better suit the local tongue – was borrowed from English and came to represent the aspirations of Thai elites to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Europeans as a modern, developed people.
In the end, avoiding direct colonization had more to do with an agreement between the colonial powers to use Siam as a buffer zone than it did with any actions taken by the Siamese themselves. Nonetheless, the narrative of a “proud people who have never been colonized” was seized as a nation-building tool and used to rationalize feelings of exceptionalism and superiority over Southeast Asian neighbors. However, the pride of not being colonized was inextricably linked to the humiliation suffered at the hands of the Europeans – a tension that gave birth to modern Thai nationalism. It is made worse by the loss of significant territories during the period, which continues to cause distress, and by the suddenness and rapid pace of development, which accelerated throughout the twentieth century. The result is a tendency to look inwards and backwards — to react with anger and insecurity to outside interference and to mourn the loss of an imagined “Thainess,” which is thought to have been eroded in the process of modernization.
These feelings rose to the surface in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervened to rescue Thailand with a bailout package that mandated reforms to the country’s currency, banking and financial system, many Thais felt the colonial threat had returned in a new form. The king warned of the dangers of excessive capitalism and urged Thais to “walk backwards into the khlong” (canal), meaning that they should stop trying to compete with industrialized nations and retreat to a simpler, more pastoral Thailand of times gone by. A few years later, Thaksin Shinawatra won his first election, partly by effectively harnessing nationalist sentiment in the wake of the financial crisis. As prime minster, he was credited with overseeing Thailand’s financial recovery and “freeing” the country from the conditions of the IMF. In 2003, when the United Nations raised concerns about extra-judicial killings during the Thai government’s “war on drugs,” Thaksin defiantly retorted that “the UN is not my father.”
The decline of Thailand’s status in recent years will elicit an array of emotions. On one hand, Thais are proud and desperately want to be seen as developed, “civilized” and “free” people who enjoy good relations with the world’s leading nations. It is therefore hard to overstate just how distressed they will be by their recently tarnished image. At the same time, history weighs heavily on their shoulders and produces feelings of insecurity, fear and distrust. With the country currently under the boot of the nationalist military and society swayed by a reactionary, ultra-royalist movement, there is a growing tendency to lash out when criticized. The longer Thailand’s protracted political crisis continues, the further it will decline – and the more withdrawn and isolated it will become.
James Buchanan is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.