Opinion: Eight disastrous years with a dictator and a tyrant

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Eight years ago this past Sunday, General Prayut Chan-ocha staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

It would be Thailand’s 12th coup since the 1932 revolution. Since the coup, Thailand has undergone profound change and under Prayut most of it has been reprehensible. 

His first year in power was akin to a scene from a dystopian novel. Prayut promised to “return happiness to the Thai people, while promising to vanquish its enemies, namely supporters of the former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Aided by a partially compliant public, who posed for photographs with soldiers on the streets after a declaration of martial law, the military junta banned literature it deemed controversial, banned people from gathering in small groups, and replaced civilian courts with military tribunals. Even the Hunger Games movie, a film about a grim future under totalitarian rule was banned. 

Thailand had become a place of madness that Thursday morning in May. Repression and the threat of punishment for dissents became commonplace. To beat back an increasingly skeptical public, Prayut launched public relations campaigns, complete with live music and young women dressed in skimpy camouflaged attire.

At the same time, Prayut laid out a vision of what Thailand would look like, as well as the consequences for denying him that vision. There would be a return of “Thai-style democracy” as well as political reforms that would alter the country’s semi-democratic constitution. The penalties for disrupting that vision would be harsh, threatening the very identity of Thai dissenters. As he once said, “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other.”

“Thainess” as a form of nationalism was back.

As months turned to years, the Thai people were promised elections, but they would not come until nearly five years of junta dominion under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Under Prayut, systemic arrests of innocent people would become normalized, as would restrictions to freedom of speech and assembly. Most notably, lèse majesté charges would be used to target regime critics14 cases within the first four months of Prayut seizing power. Outspoken journalists like Pravit Rojanaphruk or democratic activists were summoned by the military, and sent to “reeducation camps” where they were given a steady diet of regime propaganda.

A banner carrying a drawing depicting Thai army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha and a reference to George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel “1984” is displayed during a gathering at a shopping mall which was broken up by security forces in downtown Bangkok on June 1, 2014. Around 6,000 police and soldiers were deployed across Bangkok on June 1, according to a Thai official, as authorities tried to deter anti-coup protesters who have threatened a day of flashmob rallies in defiance of the army. AFP PHOTO/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo by CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

The current environment, where political repression comes swiftly with the threat of severe punishment by the state using an arsenal of legal means, is one hallmark of Prayut’s legacy. Even in the depths of despair, after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the regime almost encouraged Thais to go after one another with charges under Article 112 or through “social sanctions” as recommended by then-Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya.

During the protests that swept Bangkok during the COVID-19 pandemic, Prayut warned that “all laws and all articles” will be enforced against protesters who break the law. In other words, the Thai state has dispensed with any pretenses that it could tolerate a moderate amount of criticism. Prayut intended to punish anyone in his way, himself suing rapper Rapper Danupa “Milli” Kanaterrakul for defamation. Prayut under the NCPO even kept an enemies list, which contained so-called enemies of the state, which included activists, journalists, and even a few teenagers. 

Prayut has contributed to the development of a poisonous, decaying media environment in the country. His contempt for the press was well known even in his first year in office. He came under criticism for patting the head of a journalist and twisting the man’s ear during a question and answer session with journalists in Khon Kaen. Later in December of that year, Prayut threw a half-eaten banana at a cameraman’s head in front of the assembled press. He also threatened the press with Article 44, a draconian measure under the Interim Charter that allowed the junta to arrest people for “flagrant” offenses, and hold them for as long as seven days. During the pandemic, he endorsed a decree that banned publishing or broadcasting news that could incite fear. There’s little doubt as to why Thailand’s Press Freedom Index ranking, issued by Reporters without Borders, ranks near the bottom. 

Prayut’s government was not quick to respond to threats to the Thai economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a result more than 7 million jobs were put at risk. Criticisms were far and wide, from restaurateurs to service workers. The government’s restrictions to combat the spread of the virus were ham-handed and their responses were prone to bouts of petty bickering and fear mongering. Prayut’s top cabinet official, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul was quick to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of migrants. Prayut himself suggested that coronavirus was brought into Thailand by Myanmar migrants, who he saidbrought much grief to the country. Indecisiveness cost Thailand dearly during that period with the economy growing at an anemic 1.6% in 2021

A toxic political environment, punctuated by a flawed military-backed constitution and the March 2019 election has been created and nurtured by Prayut, culminating in a skewed election result that favored political parties that favored the military-backed government and the political assassination of billionaire scion Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, as well as the dissolution of the Future Forward Party. Thanathorn has been subsequently accused of lèse majesté over a speech he made criticizing Thailand’s vaccine strategy. 

As difficult as Prayut’s tenure has been, Thailand’s lack of progress under his leadership is even more concerning. The country has failed to advance beyond the point of political crisis under his watch, and remains extremely vulnerable to the coup trap, a perpetual cycle of political or economic crisis and weakness in critical institutions. The lack of development in Thai society as well as its history of military-backed coups, increases its likelihood of another one occurring. Crackdowns on opposition political parties, economic inequality, underdeveloped political institutions make this a likely reality. 

There might be some respite in knowing Prayut’s time in power may be coming to an end, although this may be debatable. However, the damage done over the past eight years has been catastrophic. Even if democracy returns to Thailand, the volume of work needed to revitalize civil society, encourage political pluralism, restore legitimacy to political institutions, and nurture an environment of free expression and press freedom is nearly overwhelming. Because of Prayut, Thailand may never be the same again. 

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