Thailand: The West no allies of democracy

September 1, 2016
Protest against coup regime in Thailand
Protest against coup regime in Thailand, October 31, 2015.

It can be said that any “international bad press” about Thailand's military junta generated by the comments from Western governments is welcome — especially when they demand the release of political prisoners. But none of these governments can be relied upon or trusted to maintain a principled stand against the military dictatorship.

Instead, democratic change can only come about by building mass movements of ordinary people within the country to overthrow military rule.

The junta came to power with a 2014 military coup that overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The regime has consolidated its rule by silencing dissent and jailing opponents.

On August 7, a new constitution drafted by the junta, which entrenches military power, was approved by referendum. The new constitution creates an entirely appointed Senate, which would also be granted key veto powers over the elected House of Representatives.

The results of the referendum, in which 59% voted in favour, are disappointing and are a set-back for democracy. But we should not forget that this was never a democratic referendum.

The junta arrested and intimidated all those who wished to express their opposition to its appalling charter. It tried to ensure the media reported a one-sided pro-junta account.

Troops were sent into communities to “explain” the authoritarian constitution. Many who live and work outside their home provinces were unable to vote for bureaucratic reasons.

A number of people would also have mistakenly voted to accept the constitution because they wanted to see elections as soon as possible. Yet future elections will not be democratic and any government will be under the potential control of the military and the conservatives.

Only 55% of those eligible to vote actually went to the polling stations. This means that only 33% of the population approved the junta's awful constitution.

Another reason the junta won was that the Red Shirt pro-democracy movement had been demobilised by its leaders. Given this, it is remarkable that 10 million people voted to reject the draft charter.

After the referendum, the US ambassador to Thailand issued a statement, saying: “Given [the result] we, the United States of America, as a long-time friend and ally of Thailand, urge the government to return to civilian democratically elected government as soon as possible.

“As part of moving back to civilian elected government, we strongly urge the government to lift restrictions on civil liberties, including restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

The European Union also issued a statement, noting: “During the campaign period, however, there were serious limitations to fundamental freedoms, including restrictions on debate and campaigning…

“It is essential that the current restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are lifted to allow for an open, inclusive and accountable political process. The EU continues to call upon the Thai authorities to create the conditions for a genuine democratic transition leading to early general elections.”

If we read between the lines, it is clear the West is not demanding the authoritarian constitution, which will prolong military domination of Thai politics, be scrapped or amended. This is the aim of all democratically minded Thais. The referendum was neither free nor fair — and the new constitution cannot lead to a genuine democratic transition.

The EU statement goes on to say that “all main stakeholders in Thailand need to engage in an inclusive dialogue and work together peacefully towards this aim.” In practice, this means the EU would like to see pro-democracy activists cooperate with the military and the conservatives in the run up to elections — which, incidentally, may not be held until 2018.

Talking about the need for “civil liberties” is also vague. Does it mean the abolition of the lese-majeste (insulting the monarch) law? There is no indication it does.

Does it mean that the military should stop banning demonstrations under the pretext of protecting national security? Given that governments in the West, such as France and the US, do the same thing, this is unlikely.

The nice sounding pronouncement from Western governments, which in the main are right-wing pro-business governments, are there to legitimise future good relations with the Thai government — irrespective of whether we have genuine democracy or not. The pronouncements are mainly for internal consumption within the West.

Western government are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of Thais. They are actually terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.

It would be a waste of time believing Western governments could be an important factor in bringing about democracy in Thailand. Their only interest is being able to conduct business with Thailand. They want to be able to “keep the lines open” to talk to the elites.

[Compiled from Uglytruth-Thailand. Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist and political commentator, who has lived in exile since being charged with lese majeste for writing a book that criticised 2006 military coup.]

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