Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Thailand's political rights score declined from 2 to 3, and its status from Free to Partly Free, due to a progressive weakening of opposition political parties and a lack of political competitiveness.
As Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party strengthened its already strong hold on power in the February 2005 legislative elections, Thaksin began to build on his political majority during the year by incorporating smaller parties into the TRT. Meanwhile, the regime was increasingly troubled by the Muslim insurgency in the south. Toward the end of the year, martial law, which gave security forces sweeping powers to deal with insurgents, was extended and expanded. The government also renewed its "war on drugs" in early 2005.
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 military last seized power in 1991. Thailand returned to civilian rule the following year, when the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Alduyadej, convinced the military to appoint a civilian prime minister.
Thailand's export-led economy experienced strong growth in the decade prior to 1997, before being dragged down by the regional financial crisis. Amid street protests by middle class Thais in Bangkok against corruption and economic mismanagement, the parliament voted no confidence in Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and replaced him with Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister with a clean reputation. The parliament also approved a reformist constitution, which created independent election and anticorruption bodies and introduced direct election of the Senate.
Criticizing the government for favoring the urban middle class over ordinary Thais, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated Chuan in the January 2001 elections. Thaksin pledged to help poorer Thais hurt by the financial crisis by introducing inexpensive health care, a debt moratorium for farmers, and investment funds for each village. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won 248 of parliament's 500 seats despite a December 2000 ruling by Thailand's new National Counter-Corruption Commission that Thaksin, then a cabinet minister, had falsified wealth-disclosure statements in 1997. In what critics considered a controversial move, the Constitutional Court reversed this ruling and cleared Thaksin in August 2001.
Thaksin's government won praise from many Thais for introducing programs to help small businesses and the poor. Low interest rates and populist spending programs fueled a consumption-driven economic growth spurt. Wanting to portray Thailand as a well-ordered country safe for foreign investors and tourists, the government clamped down on negative news, such as the possible presence of terrorists in the country. The government long maintained that Thailand was safe from the deadly avian flu sweeping Asia. However, by February 2004, officials confessed that six million chickens had been culled and numerous human flu cases were confirmed. The revelations led to international bans on Thai chicken and widespread questions about government priorities.
Many of Thaksin's moves undercut the reformist spirit of the country's new constitution. While the constitution requires the prime minister and cabinet members to divest themselves of all business interests, many officials simply transferred these holdings to family members. Critics coined the phrase "policy corruption" to describe alleged efforts by Thaksin and his associates to use government power to enrich themselves. For example, Shin Satellite, a subsidiary of the Shin Corporation, in which Thaksin's family holds a significant stake, won an eight-year tax holiday worth $401 million from Thailand's Board of Investment. In 2005, similar allegations of corruption emerged surrounding tender procedures in the construction of the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
Thailand's four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country's four million Muslims, erupted into violence in 2004. In January, more than 100 attackers raided a military depot, killing four soldiers and making off with 400 firearms in an operation whose meticulous planning and execution led to suspicions of outside involvement. In a series of coordinated attacks on 11 bases and checkpoints in April, insurgents killed five members of the Thai security forces, which responded with attacks that left more than 100 people dead. The most notorious incident thus far in the insurgency came in October 2004, when 78 of 1,300 people arrested for demonstrating suffocated in security trucks while they were being transported to a detention center.
The government declared martial law in most of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces shortly thereafter; the martial law declarations were extended and broadened in October 2005. At that point, government sources reported that 722 violent incidents had occurred between insurgents and security forces between May and October 2005. Many fear that the government's hard-line approach will backfire and create fertile recruiting ground for the international terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda, both of which have past links to Thailand. More than 1,000 people have been killed since the insurgency began in January 2004.
In the February 2005 parliamentary elections, the TRT party captured 377 seats in the 500-seat lower house and formed a government without entering into a coalition.
In October 2005, Thaksin announced what would be the country's fourth "war on drugs" campaign. The first three such campaigns relied heavily on repression and extrajudicial killings, with as many as 2,500 killed. This latest effort marked a welcome departure and was said to rest more on programs of education and rehabilitation. Thai health officials report that more than three million Thais are addicted to drugs, primarily to methamphetamines manufactured in Burma, Thailand's northern neighbor.
Citizens of Thailand can change their government demo-cratically. Thailand's constitution created a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature. The House of Representatives includes 400 seats chosen by first-past-the-post balloting and 100 chosen by proportional representation, all directly elected for four-year terms. The Senate has 200 members, who are directly elected for six-year terms. Thailand's head of state, King Bhumibol Adunyadet, is an unelected hereditary leader with little responsibility in day-to-day politics but tremendous moral and symbolic influence, particularly in times of national or constitutional crisis. The prime minister is not elected; rather, after national parliamentary elections, the head of the party that forms a majority in parliament becomes prime minister.
Thailand's multiparty democracy is dominated by Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party (TRT, Thais Loves Thais party), which is generally described as populist and draws important support from rural voters. Three other important political parties are: The Phak Prachatipat (Democratic Party), the country's oldest political party with strong middle class support, particularly in Bangkok; the conservative Phak Chart Thai (the Thai Nation Party, an original member of the TRT coalition government in 2001); and the smaller Phak Machacon (Great People's Party). By late 2005, all three of these parties had begun to take increasingly strong opposition stands against the TRT party. Still, as the TRT party has consolidated its political dominance-partly by sweeping electoral victories and partly by absorbing formerly independent parties, such as the Chart Pattana and the New Aspiration Party-the opposition has lost many tools to check the central leadership. With 377 of 500 parliamentary seats, the TRT party has deprived the opposition of the requisite 200 votes necessary to introduce a motion of censure against the prime minister (long an important symbolic measure, even when such resolutions failed). Opposition representatives have also lost their seats on important parliamentary committees, and the government now shows less patience for the basic procedures of democratic consultation and debate.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that official corruption is widespread, including both bureaucrats demanding bribes in exchange for routine services and law enforcement officials being paid off to ignore trafficking and other illicit activities. Many critics allege that the nexus between politics and big business is strong and growing. Thaksin has responded to conflict-of-interest charges made by an opposition politician by filing criminal charges against him. According to the Associated Press, Jaruvan Maintaka, a civil servant who exposed corruption in the Thai government, was pressured to leave her post in September after being locked out of her office and having her salary frozen. Thailand was ranked 59 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Thailand's 1997 constitution contains 67 provisions protecting freedom of speech, making it arguably the strongest constitution on this point in Southeast Asia. However, a number of laws promulgated since then, such as defamation provisions in the 2004 Thai penal and criminal code, as well as government action, have undermined those legal protections. Thaksin's access to state-controlled media combined with the Shinawatra family's Shin Corporation's 50 percent interest in ITV-a formerly independent television station that was established specifically to offer an alternative to state-dominated broadcast media-has narrowed the spectrum of opinion aired on television. The outspoken Nation Group lost is contract to produce news for ITV and was further pressured with advertising boycotts and spurious asset investigations, according to the Nieman Reports. Thaksin associate and current minister of industry Suriya Jungrungeangkit purchased 30 percent of the Nation Group's shares in 2004, leading many to fear that this economic stake will be used to suppress Thailand's most outspoken media.
The print press also comes under attack, not through formal censorship, but through political intimidation, libel suits, and the threat of lost corporate and government advertising revenues-a potent threat to media companies that still carry large debts from the 1997 economic crisis. In February 2005, the editor of the Bangkok Post lost his job when government officials pressured the paper's management about publishing stories deemed too critical of Thaksin. Three editors of the Thai Post and media reformer Supinya Klangnarong are currently being sued by the Shin Corporation for alleging that the corporation has benefited from the Thaksin administration. In early 2005, Thaksin took measures to ensure more pliable media when he purchased The Nation, Thailand's most influential newspaper. Foreign journalists are not immune to pressure from a government that increasingly uses approval of work permits and visa renewals as leverage. Four Far Eastern Economic Review journalists were named in a lese majesty case, The Economist's annual report on Thailand was banned, and a reporter for the International Herald Tribune came under vocal attack for articles critical of Thaksin's economic programs. In 2005, Thailand had 786,226 internet providers and 8.42 million internet users; the internet is not censored.
Thais of all faiths have traditionally worshipped freely in this predominantly Buddhist society, although Muslims in the south have long complained of discrimination in jobs, education, and business opportunities. Recently, a heightened security interest in Islamic institutions has been deterring Muslims from visiting mosques. This discrimination is not limited to southern Thailand; Muslims in Chiang Mai Province have complained that Thai security forces have been entering mosques for what locals claim are heavy-handed and religiously insensitive inspections. Professors and other educators can generally lecture and publish freely.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Permits are not required for gatherings unless they are held on public property or organized by foreign nationals, and these are granted routinely. Thailand has numerous nongovernmental organizations representing farmers, laborers, women, students, and human rights more broadly. Private associations must register with the government, and such registrations are granted routinely. With the imposition of martial law in southern Thailand, the rights of assembly and association there have been severely circumscribed.
Thai trade unions are independent, though fewer than 2 percent of Thai workers are unionized. Private employers often breach the country's poorly enforced labor laws with violations that include using child and sweatshop labor and paying workers less than the minimum wage.
Although the judiciary is generally regarded as independent, it is sometimes subject to corruption, according to anecdotal evidence. Suspects frequently spend long periods in detention before trial because of heavy case backlogs, and trials often take years to complete. Security forces have been accused of using excessive force in dealing with unrest in the south. Thailand's poorly trained police often are implicated in wrongful killings of criminal suspects, as well as abuse of suspects and prison inmates. According to the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report, conditions in prisons and some provincial immigration detention facilities are poor. Prolonged pretrial detention, including of aliens, is also a problem. Attacks on civilians and government officials continue to occur almost daily, according to Amnesty International. During 2004, a number of prominent activists, including a Muslim lawyer campaigning against martial law in the south, were killed or disappeared.
Many of the estimated one million members of hill tribes have never been fully integrated into society. Reportedly, half of hill tribe members lack citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or be protected under labor laws. In 2000, the government made it easier for hill tribe members to gain citizenship, but corruption and inefficiency reportedly have slowed citizenship processing.
Reversing its long-standing policy of harboring refugees from neighboring Southeast Asian nations, in January 2005, Thailand suspended screening of new refugee applicants from Burma by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, according to Human Rights Watch. This followed a July 2003 decision to send all of the estimated 4,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in urban areas to border camps, despite the fear of cross-border violence and political and ethnic conflict in those camps. The government, which regularly expels as many as 10,000 Burmese migrants a month, also launched a new campaign to round up and deport more of the estimated one million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand. Citing systemic abuses in Burma, rights groups have criticized Thailand's toughened stance toward Burmese fleeing their country who are likely to face reprisals once they return.
Experts worry that gender equality in Thailand has deteriorated. Forty-four percent of married women report having been abused, and reports of rape are also on the rise. Some 200,000 or more Thai women and children work as prostitutes, according to government and private estimates. Many prostitutes work under debt bondage, forced to repay loans by traffickers to their parents. Authorities prosecute relatively few traffickers, and many police, soldiers, local officials, and immigration officers reportedly either are involved in trafficking or take bribes to ignore it. One percent of adult Thais are infected with HIV/AIDS; aggressive prevention and treatment policies have reduced both the number of new HIV/AIDS cases and the number of deaths from the disease. HIV-related deaths fell from over 5,000 in 2004 to around 1,600 in 2005, largely because of a new government program, started in 2004, to provide HIV positive people with anti-retroviral drugs.