While all eyes are fixed on the drama and fireworks of the Arab Spring, a much quieter military takeover of government is creeping forward in Thailand, with snap elections expected for early July. Just in case anyone was worried that the rushed process might not be fair, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has already firmly rejected the possibility of election observers with a colorful racial slur, stating that he doesn't "respect Westerners" and won't allow them to impose upon Thai sovereignty. It's safe to assume that the rhetoric will only get more ugly going forward.
Less than one year ago, the military-backed regime, headed up by United Kingdom citizen Mark Abhisit Vejjajiva, oversaw the murder of some 91 protesters in order to avoid an early election it feared it might lose. Now the ruling Democrat Party is eager to hold early elections before a number of opposition leaders are released from prison and the five-year ban expires that prevented some of the most experienced former members of government from political activity.
There is more about the upcoming contests, however, than meets the eye of the casual observer. Perhaps most interesting is the role of the commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who, with every passing day, looks more like the caricature of a Third World dictator pulled straight out of central casting. While Gen. Prayuth is famous for his frequent, public ramblings on a range of topics that are well beyond his narrow constitutional authority and still more limited intellect, his statements provide crucial, if disturbing, insights into the Thai establishment's outlook.
Gen. Prayuth recently promised that the military will "stay neutral" this time around but this scenario is hardly plausible given the resources that the military has expended since 2006 in an effort to either steer voters into returning the desired election results or overthrow elected governments it did not consider worthy of its support. Gen. Prayuth himself has often signaled that he would not hesitate to intervene if things were not to go his way. Most recently, he has echoed the prime minister's warning that the elections are a choice between the Democrat Party's policies and a new cycle of violence and instability. The implication is that if Thai voters reject Mr. Abhisit yet again, the military has no qualms about giving the next elected government the same treatment it offered the last three.
With the choice of Mr. Abhisit as its frontman, the Royal Thai Army demonstrated that it has learned the lessons of 1992, when Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon's insistence on serving as prime minister himself triggered massive protests in Bankgok, complete with the usual massacre of unarmed protesters. To avoid a repeat of that debacle, Mr. Abhisit's urbane demeanor and patrician pedigree are the ideal cover for the military's continued dominance of Thailand's political life. As most Third World dictators, however, Gen. Prayuth finds it impossible to resist the temptation of reminding the public that he is in charge. The military's handling of the border dispute with Cambodia has offered ample evidence for the proposition that the generals take no orders from civilians. Embarrassingly, just this week, Gen. Prayuth and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon rejected Indonesian mediation of the dispute, to which Mr. Abhisit's government had already agreed. The following day, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban was trotted out to bring the government back in line with the generals' position.
While civilian-military relations have always been complex and imbalanced throughout Thai history, the brazen disregard shown by Gen. Prayuth's open disregard for government orders is unprecedented. This was recently demonstrated by the army deciding to adopt its own policy on the issue of Indonesian observers on the Cambodian border dispute, despite conflicting orders from the government. Although Mr. Abhisit doesn't complain, it is clear who is really in control and what the price of admission is to have an election handed to you.
As the prime minister argued some days ago, the elections will offer the Thai people a clear choice. The choice that lies before millions of Thai voters is whether to give Mr. Abhisit the electoral mandate he currently lacks - having come to power only thanks to the intervention of the judiciary and the military - or whether to vote against the ruling Democrat Party, just as they did in 2001, 2005 and 2007.
In the run-up to the possible June-July elections, the government enjoys a massive advantage. The opposition, which has won every election held in the past decade, was crippled by the court-ordered dissolution of four political parties, the disqualification of more than 200 of its leading politicians from elected office, and the defection of powerful factions. It was only due to these measures that the increasingly visible hand that dominates Thai politics was able to install Mr. Abhisit as prime minister in 2008, instead of actually winning the majority of votes.
In the face of the opposition's continued resilience, the government has successfully enacted constitutional reforms designed to artificially boost the Democrat Party's seat share, while some of its politicians have proposed further reforms that would allow the Democrats to form a government even in the event that they might fail to win a plurality of seats.
Aside from competing against a hobbled opposition under suitably redesigned rules, in this year's election the Democrat Party will once again avail itself of the assistance of the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the royalist establishment. These institutions stand ready to commit whatever money, administrative resources and television airtime might be necessary to haul the otherwise unelectable Mr. Abhisit over the hump. The same happened in the 2007 elections, which Freedom House did not deem "free and fair" precisely because of the military's underhanded (and ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to seat Mr. Abhisit in the prime minister's office.
Having repeatedly warned that those who "offend the institution" will be hunted down like dogs, both the military and the simulacrum of a civilian government behind which the generals operate continue to associate those who oppose their rule with enemies of the monarchy. The agenda is transparently obvious - accusations of disloyalty, the frequency with which opposition activists are targeted and the harshness of their legal treatment is designed to both discredit the opposition in the eyes of the public as well as discourage dissidents from making too incisive a case against Thailand's real structure of power.
There is no doubt that the upcoming elections offer the Thai people a clear choice. The decision, however, goes well beyond the endorsement of alternative policies or candidates. The choice before them is whether to accept military rule and legitimize its implausible civilian facade, however begrudgingly, or to once again defy Thailand's unelected establishment with a vote that demonstrates an enduring commitment to democracy and self-determination. Choosing democracy over dictatorship is guaranteed to have its costs, as the Thai military has never taken kindly to the public's effrontery. But it would be worse still for Thai voters to succumb to intimidation and fear, and wait for future generations to deliver the country from military rule.
Robert Amsterdam is counsel to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
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