Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra pays his respects to the king's portrait after landing at Bangkok's Don Mueang airport on 22 August 2023. Credit: - Photo: 2024

Is Thailand the “Most Unequal Semi-Democratic” State In SE Asia?

By Jan Servaes

BANGKOK| 18 February 2024 (IDN) —  On January 31, 2024, the Constitutional Court in Bangkok ordered the kingdom’s most popular political party to end its campaign to amend the country’s infamous defamation law – the lèse majesté law or Article 112 of the Criminal Code. Thailand has one of the strictest lèse majesté laws in the world. Criticizing the king, queen or heir apparent can lead to a prison sentence of fifteen years for each offense. Even talking about the royal family is therefore risky. According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), at least 1,938 people have been prosecuted for participating in political protests since July 2020. This included 286 children and young people under the age of 18.

The progressive Move Forward party (MFP), which won the most seats with more than 14 million votes in the May 2023 elections, violated the constitution, according to the Constitutional Court. The Court, some of whose judges were elected through the Prayuth junta-appointed Senate, ordered the MFP to stop “any act, expression of opinion through speech, writing, publishing or advertising or conveying any message in other forms” with the aim of abolishing or amending the law. The court said the plan to amend Section 112 showed “an intention to separate the monarchy from the Thai nation, which is particularly dangerous to the security of the state.”

The ruling is seen as a double standard and a blow to Thailand’s reform movement, especially the millions of young people who dealt a crushing defeat to the conservative, military-backed establishment during the elections.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior editor at Khaosod, therefore concluded that “young Thais who are trying to reform the institution of monarchy… now feel that the moderate path to reforming the institution is becoming increasingly impossible, if not impossible. Some have lost confidence in being monarchy reformers and are becoming anti-monarchists.”

Analysts say this opens the door to further prosecutions, which could see the party dissolved like its predecessor Future Forward Party in 2020 and criminal charges imposed on its leaders.

Already in early February, staunch royalists Sonthiya Sawasdee and lawyer Thirayut Suwankhesorn filed petitions with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) calling for an investigation into the ethical conduct of 44 Move Forward MPs who proposed a bill to amend the controversial 112 law.  Also former Senator Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, a member of the military-conservative Palang Pracharat Party, plans to file a complaint with the Election Commission to demand the dissolution of the MFP. He filed similar petitions last year but was unsuccesful. The special senate of 250 appointed military senators, established during Prayuth’s government, see themselves, like the military, as guardians of traditional conservative royalist values.

Critics believe the law has been abused as a political weapon. As it stands, anyone can file a lèse majesté complaint against anyone else and the police are obliged to investigate – a situation that Move Forward says allows the law to be used for political purposes. Move Forward’s proposed changes include a reduction in sentences and a requirement that complaints be made by the Royal Family.

“Not free”

The US NGO Freedom House stated in its latest ‘The Freedom in the World 2023’ report that Thailand is “not free”: “The combination of democratic backsliding and frustrations over the role of the monarchy in Thai governance led to massive demonstrations in 2020 and 2021. In response, the regime has employed authoritarian tactics, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation, lèse majesté charges, and intimidation of activists. Press freedom is limited, a fair trial is not guaranteed and there is impunity for crimes against activists.”

Also Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt do present Thailand as a champion in lawfare in their new book “Tyranny of the Minority”.

Barely days after the Constitutional Court’s conviction, on February 6, the Pathumwan District Court sentenced MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat and 7 other MFP members to four months in prison each, suspended for two years, for a protest on December 14, 2019 in Pathumwan 150 meters from a forbidden royal domain, the Sa Pathum Palace. The ‘gathering’ was the first major protest of several thousand people after the coup of 2014. It was a response to the election commission’s December 11 decision to dissolve the Future Forward Party.

The 8 MFP members were found guilty of breaching the Assembly Act and using a megaphone without permission. Pita defended the action: “Shaping social agendas through peaceful gatherings is part of democracy. If it affects the freedom of others, protesters may need to be punished, but the punishment should be proportionate to the action.” Because they believe this is not the case, “we will exercise the right to appeal”.

Friedrich Artur Blair notes in the Thai Enquirer: “It is tragic to see how the ideals of democracy are undermined by a dual legal system: one for the elite and one for the common man. As long as impunity for the rich and powerful continues, the dream of a truly democratic Thailand remains a distant mirage.”

The greatest impunity of all lies not only in evading justice for traffic violations or financial crimes, but also in the brutal overthrow of a country’s democratic institutions without facing any legal consequences, the author argues.

There are plenty of examples. Just think of Red Bull’s ‘Boss’ Vorayuth, who is still at large, the paltry 600 Euro fine imposed on 13 ‘yellow shirts’ of the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy after occupying and closing Bangkok airports for weeks in 2008, or the acquittal on February 3, 2024, of Tun Min Latt, a Burmese businessman linked to Myanmar’s junta leaders, for money laundering, transnational organized crime and drug trafficking.

Thaksin’s return

Not to forget Thaksin. Thaksin Shinawatra fled the country in 2008 due to a corruption conviction. Since he returned to his motherland on August 22, 2023, on a private jet, the Supreme Court sentenced him to eight years in prison. Analysts immediately doubted he would serve that time. And, indeed, on September 1, the king reduced his eight-year sentence to one year.

Moreover, he was immediately taken to the Police General Hospital where a special floor had been set up for him. Having disappeared within the walls of the Police General Hospital since the day of his return, his well-being has been shrouded in mystery. The Thai public has only glimpsed him sporadically. This has led to public outrage.

In short, it can be expected that the convict in question will continue to serve his sentence at the Police General Hospital, and no one involved in his case will be able to provide straight answers to the public. Perhaps Thaksin’s sister, the also fugitive former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, will sooner or later follow in her brother’s footsteps.

Former Democrat MP Thepthai Senapong reported on his Facebook page on February 8 that the ‘sick’ Thaksin will likely be released on parole on February 18.

That not everyone within the conservative elite is happy about this is evident from a recent report that Thaksin has now been accused of violating royal defamation laws during an interview he gave in Seoul in 2015. Prosecutors will wait for police to complete their investigation before deciding whether to pursue the case against Thaksin. Earlier, the Corrections Department said that given his age and health, Thaksin is eligible for parole under new regulations that will come into effect soon. However, if the attorney general decides to pursue the lese majeste case against Thaksin, police will arrest him and take him back into custody once he is released on parole.

But, surprise surprise, on Valentine’s Day it was confirmed that Thaksin would be freed on parole, together with 930 others, on February 18, without having spent a single night in a prison.

A yellow-red coalition government

Even more happened. A deal between Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party (of red shirts) with the (yellow) military-conservative elite of 11 parties led to the Srettha coalition government on August 21, 2023, the day prior to Thaksin’s return.

Pheu Thai, which appealed to voters with populist promises, such as tackling corruption, raising the minimum wage and providing a digital wallet for the less wealthy, has not yet been able to realize much of this. However, it did succeed in bringing Thaksin back to Thailand.

Prime Minister and Pheu Thai member Srettha Thavisin is not an MP, worked for Procter & Gamble and later founded his real estate company Sansiri. Through family ties he seems to be well-connected to Thailand’s most powerful and wealthy families. Unlike his predecessor, General Prayuth, he appears to be less confrontational. His first policy actions attempted to address some of the ‘hot issues’, such as the still-growing income inequality and air pollution. He also negotiated visa-free travel for Chinese as of March 1. In this way he hopes to welcome 8 million Chinese tourists this year. In a further bid to boost Thailand’s appeal as a tourist destination, the Cabinet approved tax cuts on alcoholic drinks and entertainment venues, and relaxed the opening hours of a-gogo joints.

With law-abiding media in tow, he traveled through the country to sell his image as a compromise figure who can deliver.

The rich get richer; the poor get poorer

In the meantime, nothing fundamental appears to have changed. Rising income and wealth inequality has long plagued Thailand.

A World Bank study shows that Thailand had the highest income inequality in the East Asia and Pacific region with a Gini coefficient index of 43.3 percent in 2019. The average monthly income of rural households was only about 68 percent of that of urban households. Rural households also continue to suffer from low levels of education, a large number of dependents and difficult living conditions.

Thailand’s progress in poverty reduction has slowed from 2015, with poverty increasing in 2016, 2018 and 2020 due to a sluggish economy, stagnant agricultural and business incomes and the COVID-19 crisis.

The report shows that the poverty rate in 2020 was more than 3 percentage points higher in rural areas than in urban areas and that the number of rural poor exceeded the urban poor by almost 2.3 million.

The prevalence of poverty is also unevenly distributed across geographic regions, with the poverty rate in the South and the Northeast being almost double the poverty rate at the national level, according to the World Bank.

Credit Suisse, an international investment bank, had previously reported that Thailand has the largest wealth gap in the world.

The Global Wealth Report and Databook published in December 2023 shows that the richest 1 percent in Thailand controls almost 67 percent of the country’s wealth. In contrast, the bottom 10 percent of Thais own zero percent of the wealth because they are in debt or have no documented household income. The poorest 50 percent of Thais own just 1.7 percent of the country’s wealth, while the richest 10 percent control a whopping 85.7 percent.

The Bank of Thailand has reported that low-income groups are being bogged down by high household debt. At the heart of this economic dilemma are small and medium-sized businesses and people with low incomes. These groups have been hit hardest by the economic crisis, exacerbated by high debt and rising financial burdens.

To address this, the government has allocated nearly 1 trillion baht for social spending on state officials and other citizens for the 2024 financial year. However, a look at the figures reveals the large disparity in per capita expenditure allocation for state officials compared to other citizens. The 1.8 million ‘royal servants’, including the police and army, are apparently better cared for than the rest of the subjects.

Human rights

The way in which political activists are dealt with is also a cause for concern. On February 5, 2024, Amnesty International Thailand, the People’s Amnesty Network, and the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights launched a new global campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of lawyer Anon Nampha, one of the most prominent political human rights defenders. (A brief overview of people sentenced from 50 to 75 years in prison, some of whom died in custody, is available here.)

The organizations urge the Thai authorities to act in accordance with international obligations, which require the Thai government to protect the human rights of all people, including their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and to adopt laws that restrict, revoke or modify human rights.

“Over the past four years, activists and people exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have been charged. This reflects how the exercise of human rights at home can lead to a miserable situation as many of them have been arrested, intimidated, followed or separated from their loved ones.”

In its message to the Thai judicial authorities and the Thai government, Amnesty International Thailand reiterates that the right to bail or provisional release is a human right and a fundamental right enjoyed by everyone. This is in accordance with the legal principle of the presumption of innocence, whereby “any person accused of any crime, is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

In a rather cynical manner, reference is made to Thailand’s candidacy (dated February 27, 2023) for the 2025-2027 term of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). “If Thailand wants to become a member of the HCR, it must respect, protect and promote human rights at home as promised.” [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra pays his respects to the king’s portrait after landing at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport on 22 August 2023. Credit:

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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