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Thailand received a downward trend arrow to reflect increasing official intimidation of the independent media, as well as an expansion of executive power over key administrative institutions.
Buoyed by the comfortable parliamentary majority enjoyed by his Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai, or TRT) party as well as his own considerable financial clout, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra progressively expanded his control over Thailand's major political, administrative, and economic institutions in 2002. Bureaucratic reshuffles elevated Thaksin's political allies and relatives to positions of power, and reformist politicians and activists remain worried that the effectiveness of new anticorruption institutions is being systematically undermined. Relations with neighboring Burma soured in May, leading to the closure of the border for six months. An unexplained surge in violence in Thailand's southern provinces that left a number of policemen dead had abated by the end of the year.
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never colonized by a European country. Beginning with a 1932 coup that transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, the army ruled periodically for the next six decades. The army last seized power in 1991, when it overthrew a hugely corrupt elected government. After soldiers shot dead more than 50 pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok in March 1992, Thailand returned to civilian rule when the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Alduyadej, convinced the military to appoint a civilian prime minister.
Thailand's export-led economy registered strong growth in the decade prior to 1997 before being hit by the regional financial crisis. After spending billions of dollars fruitlessly defending the baht against speculators, the government floated the currency in July 1997 and agreed to a $17.2 billion bailout led by the IMF. As members of Bangkok's middle class protested against corruption and economic mismanagement, parliament approved a reformist constitution and elected the Democrat Party's Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister with a clean reputation, to head a coalition government. The new constitution created independent elections and anticorruption bodies and introduced direct Senate elections. Hoping to stabilize the baht, the Chuan government kept interest rates high. The opposition blamed the tight monetary policy for pushing the economy into recession in 1998.
Criticizing the government for supposedly favoring the urban middle class over ordinary Thais, Thaksin, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated Chuan in the January 2001 elections. During the campaign, Thaksin pledged to help poorer Thais hurt by the financial crisis by introducing cheap health care, a debt moratorium for farmers, and investment funds for each village. Thaksin's TRT party won 248 out of parliament's 500 seats and then formed a comfortable majority coalition government with three other parties. The TRT won the elections despite a December 2000 ruling by Thailand's new National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) that Thaksin had deliberately falsified wealth-disclosure statements as a cabinet minister in 1997. Had the Constitutional Court not cleared him in August 2001, Thaksin could have been banned from holding office for five years. Amid the distraction posed by Thaksin's court case, his government launched populist programs aimed at helping poorer Thais and small-business owners.
Since its election victory, the TRT has absorbed two of its smaller coalition partners, consolidating its hold over parliament. A September military reshuffle placed Thaksin's family members and close aides in positions of power, while an October cabinet reshuffle rewarded TRT supporters and several political allies who are facing impeachment proceedings for corruption or violation of the constitution. Also in October, controversial bureaucratic reform bills were passed into law despite concerns over the constitutionality of some of the articles by the opposition Democrat Party. Meanwhile, the administration has continued to undermine the authority of the NCCC and has failed to reestablish the credibility of the Anti-Money-Laundering Office (AMLO) following the implication of two of its officials in an illegal investigation.
Thailand's constitution vests executive power in a prime minister and his cabinet. The House of Representatives has 400 single-member districts and 100 party-list seats, all directly elected for 4-year terms. The Senate has 200 members who are directly elected for 6-year terms.
Thais can change their government through elections that are marred by fraud, irregularities, and some political killings. As in previous elections, candidates doled out huge sums of money to buy votes in the January 2001 balloting. Politicians handed out to voters at least 20 billion baht ($465 million) during the campaign and on election day, according to Bangkok's Nakhon Ratchsima Rajabhat Institute, which monitors poll fraud. In 62 districts, the Election Commission either disqualified candidates or warned them about graft allegations and ordered a second round of polling. The commission, however, took little or no action on many of the more than 1,000 allegations of fraud. Some critics suggested that Thaksin's party might have pressured commission members to overlook violations.
Observers say that official corruption is widespread and linked to trafficking and other illicit acts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ordinary Thais often must bribe bureaucrats to receive basic government services and that officials routinely take bribes to ignore many types of crime. Transparency International's 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Thailand in 64th place out of 102 countries. In a positive development, the AMLO has indicted many small-level money launderers and has ordered police to seize the property and assets of many drug traffickers. The agency has acted under tough laws passed in 1999 that cover crimes ranging from white-collar fraud to prostitution.
Thai newspapers criticize government policies and report allegations of official corruption and human rights abuses, but journalists exercise some self-censorship regarding the monarchy and national security issues. However, media organizations came under increasing pressure from Thaksin's administration in 2002. Editions of the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Economist were banned early in the year, and in February the government threatened to deport two Review journalists on the grounds that they were a threat to national security. In March, after the administration banned its radio programs from being aired on the grounds that they "unreasonably criticized the government," the independent Nation Multimedia Group announced that it was halting all political coverage on its cable news channel pending an end to excessive political interference in its programming. Meanwhile, media organizations accused the government of intimidation after learning that the AMLO had been authorized to investigate the bank accounts of leading journalists and critical publications. The government or armed forces either directly or indirectly own or oversee most radio and broadcast television stations. By law, radio stations must renew their licenses annually. The 1941 Printing Act gives authorities the power to shut down media outlets. Several journalists were jailed throughout the year following the filing of libel suits by politicians.
Thais of all faiths worship freely, with Buddhism having the most followers. The constitution requires the government to "patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions," and the state actively subsidizes the activities of the three largest religious communities, according to the U.S. State Department's Report on International Religious Freedom for 2002.
The rights of peaceful assembly and association are generally respected. Bangkok's middle class and rural farmers frequently and freely hold rallies against governmental policies. Though not used in recent years, laws broadly prohibit verbally defaming the monarchy, inciting public disturbances, threatening national security, or insulting Buddhism. In addition, the constitution allows the government to restrict free expression on national security, public order, and other grounds.
In the workplace, employers often violate the country's poorly enforced labor laws, use child labor, and discriminate against union members and organizers. Unions can bargain collectively, but in practice private sector employers enjoy considerable economic leverage and generally set wages unilaterally. Less than 2 percent of Thai workers are unionized. Strikes are legal in the private sector but not for state enterprise workers. Press reports suggest that more than half of Thai workers, particularly those in rural areas, receive less than the minimum wage. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) say that upwards of one million Thai children work on family farms and that 2 to 4 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 14 work in urban jobs.
Though "the judiciary generally is regarded as independent, it is subject to corruption and has a reputation for venality," the U.S. State Department human rights report said. The judiciary also lacks a sufficient number of qualified judges and has huge case backlogs. Nevertheless, defendants generally receive adequate due process rights.
Thailand's poorly trained police frequently are implicated in wrongful killings and rights violations against criminal suspects and detainees. Officers at times kill armed drug traffickers and other criminal suspects while apprehending them. While police occasionally may be justified in using lethal force, at least some of the killings are unwarranted, according to NGOs and the press. In addition, authorities have investigated officers accused of raping or extorting sex from female detainees. Police also use torture to extract confessions or to punish and humiliate suspects, according to a June report issued by Amnesty International. Thai prisons and immigration detention centers are severely overcrowded, and inmates generally lack proper medical care, the report added. In January, hundreds of inmates at a juvenile prison rioted over prison conditions.
Roughly half of the 700,000 to 880,000 members of hill tribes reportedly lack citizenship. This leaves them ineligible to vote, own land, or be covered under labor laws and makes it harder for them to access education and health care. The government in 2000 eased the rules for hill tribe members to be eligible for and obtain citizenship, but it is not yet clear how many so-called highlanders have benefited from the changes. Muslims, who make up around 4 percent of Thailand's population and are concentrated in the five southernmost provinces, face some private sector job discrimination, according to the U.S. State Department human rights report.
Maintaining its long-standing policy of harboring refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, the government provides in its border areas temporary asylum to more than 120,000 Burmese refugees. Authorities, however, have arrested as illegal aliens some Burmese living outside designated camps.
Women make up more than half of university graduates and increasingly are entering the professions, but they continue to face unofficial discrimination in hiring and wages. Women also are underrepresented in politics, government, and senior civil service posts. Domestic violence is a serious problem, although rules of evidence make prosecuting offenders difficult and police do not vigorously enforce relevant laws, according to the U.S. State Department report. The government has taken some positive measures such as deploying teams of female police officers in some station houses to encourage women to report sexual crimes.
Tens of thousands of Thai women and children work as prostitutes, many of them after being trafficked to cities from their villages. Authorities prosecute relatively few traffickers, and many police, soldiers, and local officials are involved in trafficking, the U.S. State Department report said. Some women are forced into prostitution, and in addition, many prostitutes work as bonded laborers in order to pay off loans made to their parents by brothel owners. Thailand has at least 200,000 prostitutes, according to NGO and government estimates.