Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Thailand’s political rights rating improved from 7 to 6, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, because of the resumption of limited political activity and the holding of legislative elections by year’s end.
The Council for National Security (CNS)—the military-led authority installed after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a September 2006 coup—charted a carefully controlled return to democracy in 2007. It maintained martial law in nearly half of the country’s provinces for much of the year, effectively dissolved Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, and imposed a host of restrictions on his political supporters after they regrouped as the People’s Power Party (PPP). A new constitution was approved by referendum in August. Despite the CNS’s efforts, however, the PPP won the December 23 elections and formed a ruling coalition at year’s end. Also during 2007, the CNS manipulated the state-run broadcast media in a bid to influence votes, and religious freedom declined as a result of heightened violence in the south.
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonized by a European power. Beginning with a 1932 coup that transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, the army ruled periodically over the next six decades. The military more recently seized power in 1991, but Thailand returned to civilian rule the following year, when the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, convinced the military to appoint a civilian prime minister.
Thailand’s export-led economy experienced strong growth in the decade prior to 1997, when it was dragged down by the Asian 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 (DP) 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 the 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. His Thai Rak Thai (TRT, or Thais Love Thais) party won 248 of the lower house’s 500 seats despite a December 2000 ruling by the new National Counter-Corruption Commission that Thaksin had falsified wealth-disclosure statements while serving as a cabinet minister in 1997. He was cleared of the charges in a controversial move by the Constitutional Court 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. Yet many of Thaksin’s moves undercut the reformist spirit of the country’s new constitution; the prime minister was even accused of subverting the charter itself. The constitution required the prime minister and cabinet members to divest themselves of all business interests, but many officials simply transferred their holdings to family members. Thaksin and his associates also allegedly abused their power for personal gain. Moreover, seeking to portray Thailand as hospitable for foreign investors and tourists, the government clamped down on negative news, denied the presence of terrorists in the country, and maintained that Thailand was safe from the deadly avian influenza sweeping Asia. However, by February 2004, officials had confirmed numerous human flu cases.
The eruption of violence that year in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country’s four million Muslims, and the government’s hard-line response prompted further discontent with Thaksin. The government declared martial law and introduced restrictive security laws in most of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces in July 2005, and the measures were extended in duration and scope in October of that year and January 2006. Many Thais, particularly those residing in the south, feared that the government’s drastic actions would only fuel the insurgency and aid recruitment for the international terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda, both of which had previous links to Thailand. More than 2,600 people have been killed since the insurgency began in January 2004.
The February 2005 parliamentary elections marked a second landslide for the TRT party, which captured 377 of 500 seats in the lower house and formed a government without coalition partners. However, rising inflation and interest rates, mounting fatalities from bird flu, corruption, the government’s general disregard for the constitution, and its heavy-handed approach to the insurgency all combined to fuel significant anti-Thaksin sentiment by December 2005, particularly in Bangkok and the south.
The political crisis of 2006 began in January with the Thaksin family’s highly controversial sale of its Shin Corporation telecommunications firm to Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of Singapore’s government. The move set off a wave of anti-Thaksin protests in the capital, prompting the prime minister to call snap elections for early April. While the TRT secured a majority of the vote, the balloting was perceived to be illegitimate due to a boycott by all three opposition parties. Thaksin promised to step down for the sake of “national unity,” but a political impasse developed when unfilled seats prevented the House of Representatives from convening, and new elections were scheduled for October 15.
A military coup on September 19 preempted the vote, ousting Thaksin from office and installing a junta led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. The constitution was abrogated, parliament was dissolved, and the Constitutional Court was replaced with an appointed military tribunal. A number of restrictions were imposed on the media and freedom of association and assembly. The coup leaders’ Council for National Security (CNS) established an interim civilian government within weeks, with former army commander Surayud Chulanont as prime minister. An interim constitution promulgated on October 1 outlined a process for drafting a new permanent constitution over the next year, but the temporary charter was criticized for its omission of many democratic protections.
While the coup was carried out peacefully and initially enjoyed significant public and royal support, the credibility and legitimacy of the CNS government was undermined in 2007 by its slow progress in restoring democracy, a major dip in the Thai stock market, lagging efforts to hold Thaksin accountable for corruption, and the deteriorating security situation in the south. A poll indicated that as of February 2007, more than 50 percent of Thais had lost faith in the CNS’s ability to resolve political problems. By June, the Democratic Alliance Against the Dictatorship (DAAD), a coalition of groups opposed to the coup and the CNS government, was leading daily nonviolent protests of up to 10,000 people.
Meanwhile, the CNS took steps to prevent Thaksin and his supporters from returning to power. In late May, the CNS-appointed Constitutional Tribunal found the TRT guilty of paying off smaller parties in the April 2006 elections, but it cleared the DP—the main opposition party prior to the coup—of any electoral irregularities. The ruling effectively dissolved the TRT, specifically prohibiting Thaksin and 111 other party leaders from formally participating in politics for the next five years.
A ban on political activity was lifted in June to allow parties to prepare for elections, which were set to be held before year’s end. A ban preventing new political parties from forming remained in place. Former TRT members, including 270 former TRT lawmakers, circumvented the ban by regrouping under the formerly defunct People’s Power Party (PPP), with Samak Sundaravej as party leader. Samak leaned further to the right than Thaksin, but was known for strongly opposing the coup. By October, a host of smaller parties were maneuvering to form coalitions with the PPP or the DP to improve their electoral prospects.
Voters approved a new constitution in an August 19 referendum, reflecting a general desire to end the CNS government and hold elections rather than actual support for the charter. The referendum results, with 57 in favor and 41 percent opposed, also showed a significant protest vote and notable societal divisions. Some 62 percent of voters in the northeast, where support for Thaksin and the TRT was strongest, voted against the constitution, while 65 percent of those in central Thailand, where support for Thaksin was much weaker, voted in favor. The charter secured 86 percent of the vote in the southern provinces. The final version of the new constitution was an improvement on the initial draft, but it included a number of provisions that left Thailand less democratic than under the abrogated 1997 constitution.
Viewing the substantial vote against the constitution as an indication of support for the PPP-led coalition, the CNS went to great lengths to prevent a PPP victory in the upcoming December 23 elections. It maintained tight control over the electoral process through a series of strategic appointments, its election commission imposed a host of campaign restrictions designed to hinder newer, smaller parties, and evidence of a CNS plan to “sabotage” the PPP campaign was discovered. Moreover, martial law was maintained in 34—and later 25—of the country’s 76 provinces, significantly limiting campaign activities in the affected areas.
In a sign of strong public discontent with the military-led government, the PPP nevertheless secured the largest share of the December vote, winning 233 out of 480 contested seats. The DP placed second with 165 seats and, as expected, won in Bangkok and the south. Samak, the PPP leader, announced on December 31 that with support from three smaller parties, it could muster 254 seats and form a coalition government. The election commission meanwhile launched investigations into fraud claims against three PPP candidates who had won seats in the northeast.
Separately, religious freedom declined during the year as violence escalated in the southern provinces, with insurgents increasingly targeting Buddhist teachers and schools. Thaksin remained in self-imposed exile at year’s end.
Thailand is not an electoral democracy. Prior to the September 2006 military coup, the 1997 constitution mandated a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature, including a House of Representatives with 500 members elected for four-year terms, and a Senate with 200 members elected for six-year terms. The head of the party or coalition that held a majority in parliament became prime minister. The interim constitution promulgated on October 1, 2006, replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral National Assembly of 250 members, all appointed by the king, which remained in place through the end of 2007. The charter also gave CNS chairman Sonthi Boonyaratglin the authority to appoint and remove the prime minister at any time. The CNS had final say over the composition of the 100-member Constitutional Drafting Committee and barred anyone who had been affiliated with a political party in the previous two years. All current and former TRT members were thus excluded from the drafting process. The CNS retained the right to select any previous constitution and revise it for use if the new draft was rejected by referendum voters.
The new constitution approved in August 2007 was more democratic than the initial version issued by the drafting committee in that it called for an elected rather than an appointed prime minister and did not provide for the establishment of an emergency council with discretionary powers to dismiss the prime minister. However, it did contain a number of provisions—clearly designed in response to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s overreach while in office and the dominance of his TRT party—that left Thailand less democratic than under the 1997 constitution. In addition to establishing a two-term limit for the premiership and lowering the threshold for launching a no-confidence vote against the prime minister (from two-fifths to one-fifth) and cabinet ministers (from one-fourth to one-sixth), the new constitution reduced the role of elected lawmakers. The Senate was cut from 200 elected members to 150 members—76 elected and 74 appointed. Moreover, the means of appointment somewhat compromises legislative and judicial independence: a committee of seven judges selected by the Senate, along with independent government bodies, would appoint half the Senate. For the House of Representatives, the new constitution altered the system of proportional representation to lessen the voting power of the northern and northeastern provinces, where support for Thaksin remains strong: while 100 members were previously elected according to their parties’ shares of the national vote, 80 members are now elected according to party performance in eight groups of provinces with 10 representatives each. The remaining 400 members of the lower house are elected in 157 multiseat constituencies.
Thailand’s head of state, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has little responsibility in day-to-day politics but retains tremendous moral and symbolic influence, particularly in times of national or constitutional crisis. In early December 2007, hundreds of thousands gathered in Bangkok and campaign activities were suspended to celebrate the 80th birthday of the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
While the December elections returned Thailand to democratic rule, the CNS maintained tight control over the process and deliberately maneuvered to influence the outcome. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont appointed himself to head the Interior Ministry, which supervises elections, and then appointed CNS leader Sonthi as deputy prime minister when his term as army commander expired in September. Surayud also placed Sonthi in charge of the committee responsible for preventing voter fraud. At least three investigations were brought against PPP candidates between the elections and the end of the year.
Martial law remained in force in 34 provinces through October and in 25 through the rest of 2007, limiting campaign activities. The election commission imposed a host of restrictions in October that disadvantaged smaller, newer parties by limiting their ability to promote their plans and platforms. Candidates were barred from holding public forums unless they were specifically organized by the commission itself, and media outlets were prohibited from hosting candidates from one party without including candidates from all parties. Evidence of a CNS plan to “sabotage” the PPP, specifically employing the state-run broadcast media, was published online after it was discovered.
Prior to the 2006 coup, Thailand’s multiparty democracy was dominated by Thaksin’s populist TRT party, which drew important support from rural voters. Under Thaksin, the government generally showed less patience for the basic procedures of democratic consultation and debate. The coup suspended all party activity through June 2007, when the ban was finally lifted. The CNS-backed Constitutional Tribunal’s April 2007 ruling against the TRT effectively dissolved the country’s largest political force and prevented its leadership from contesting the upcoming elections. The continued ban on the formation of new parties served to obstruct the reorganization of the TRT, but its members managed to regroup as the PPP, a defunct older party. The DP, the country’s oldest political party, was left intact by the tribunal’s ruling. With its strong middle-class support, particularly in Bangkok, it was the main opposition force before the coup and following the December 2007 elections. Meanwhile, despite clear campaign disadvantages, the PPP won 233 lower house seats in the elections and joined with three smaller parties—the Thai Unity Party, the Middle Way Party, and the Royalist People’s Party—to form a majority coalition by year’s end.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that official corruption is widespread, with bureaucrats and law enforcement officials accepting bribes in exchange for routine services. Corruption ranked among Thais’ top frustrations with the Thaksin government and was cited as part of the military’s justification for the coup. The main complaints arose from the strong nexus between politics and big business, particularly the Thaksin family’s ownership of significant national assets. After seizing power in September 2006, the CNS reinstated the county’s anticorruption commission, which had been dormant for more than a year, and established the Asset Examination Committee (AEC), a body with the power to seize assets from Thaksin and other former officials. While it was criticized for a slow start and was driven by clear political motives, the AEC filed two suits against Thaksin in 2007 and froze 21 of his and his family members’ bank accounts—containing roughly 53 billion baht ($US1.5 billion)—in June. In late November, shortly before the elections, the AEC indicted Thaksin and 46 others, mostly former cabinet officials, for launching a controversial two- and three-digit lottery in 2003, accusing them of violating the 1974 Government Lottery Act and the 1948 Treasury Reserves Act. All 47 were asked to pay significant sums to the government for lost revenue. A few corruption allegations were made against Prime Minister Surayud, and in September and October, five members of the interim cabinet resigned after being cited by the National Counter-Corruption Commission for holding stakes in companies exceeding 5 percent. That was an apparent violation of the new constitution, which took effect in September. Thailand was ranked at 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The new constitution restored and even extended strong legal protections for freedom of expression that had been eliminated by the September 2006 coup. Yet media freedom remained significantly restricted for the better part of 2007 due to the passage of harsh new legislation and the manipulation of state-run media to influence voters. In a positive move, the draconian 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, which reserved the government’s right to shut down media outlets, was replaced with the less restrictive Publishing Registration Act in late August 2007. A new Computer Crime Act, however, came into effect in July, threatening significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security. That law was first invoked against a blogger in August, but the charges were dropped in October. The penal code continues to include harsh defamation legislation. Although the use of libel suits to silence government critics was more frequent under Thaksin, the tactic was employed against journalists who insulted CNS officials in 2007. A Bangkok court sentenced two talk-show hosts to two years in prison in April for saying that the deputy Bangkok governor had taken bribes on two occasions.
The country’s print media remained largely unaffected by military rule and continued to cover controversial developments, including the dissolution of the TRT and the drafting of the new constitution. However, the CNS significantly obstructed the state-run broadcasting sector and online media. In January 2007, it invoked Military Order No. 10, issued in September 2006, which urged media cooperation in promoting “peace and national unity.” Television and radio executives were convened and asked to prevent their outlets from being used as platforms for Thaksin’s return. Television broadcasts of Thaksin were blocked, and community radio stations were temporarily closed down for airing interviews with the ousted leader. State-run media were barred from broadcasting calls for a “no” vote in the constitutional referendum, and state outlets were similarly restricted ahead of the December elections. Moreover, in March the CNS tried to prevent the launch of People’s TV (PTV), which supported the PPP, by denying it the internet access it needed. The station managed to begin operations, but the authorities immediately blocked its broadcasts. Also in March, the Public Relations Department took over Thailand’s only independent, private broadcast television station, iTV, which was formerly run by a Thaksin-owned company. Officials claimed that it had illegally changed its operating concession with the former prime minister’s office and thus owed significant fines. Websites that were considered a threat to the military regime were blocked, and the video-sharing site YouTube was temporarily banned for carrying a video deemed insulting to the king.
The interim constitution did not specifically protect freedom of religion, but Thais of all faiths have traditionally worshipped freely in this predominantly Buddhist society. The new Thai constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination against a person on the grounds of "a difference in religious belief,” yet religious freedom declined markedly in 2007 as a result of mounting violence in the southern provinces. The fact that the chairman of the CNS was a Thai Muslim initially raised hopes for progress toward a resolution of the insurgency. The military government pledged to improve justice, education, and socioeconomic conditions in the south, but bombings, assassinations, and arson all dramatically increased following the coup, with attacks occurring daily. The victims included Buddhist monks and, increasingly, Buddhist teachers; 64 teachers were assassinated between January 2004 and February 2007. An August 2007 report by Human Rights Watch found that ethnic Malay Muslims who collaborated with the Thai government were also targeted, including religious leaders or parents who opposed the insurgency or obstructed rebel recruitment.
A coup-related ban on political activity and gatherings was lifted in December 2006, but freedoms of assembly and association were not protected by the interim constitution, and martial law restricted these rights in much of the country in 2007. Several peaceful protests by the DAAD drew thousands in early 2007, however, voicing support for PTV, opposition to the CNS, and calling for the head of the Privy Council to step down. Sonthi urged the restoration of martial law throughout the country in response, but the prime minister allowed the protests to proceed. The government prepared security forces for major protests after the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to dissolve the TRT, but the expected demonstrations did not materialize. The new constitution officially restored the rights to assembly and association later that year, but martial law continued in certain provinces.
Thailand has an extremely vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) community, with groups representing farmers, laborers, women, students, and human rights interests. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 human rights report, NGOs that dealt with sensitive political issues or obstructed government-backed development projects faced harassment. Human rights groups focused on the volatile southern provinces reportedly met with intimidation by both sides in the conflict. Private associations are legally required to register with the government, but the rule is not observed in practice.
Thai trade unions are independent, though fewer than 4 percent of the workforce is unionized. More than 50 percent of state-enterprise workers are unionized, however. According to the to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Human Rights report, low rates of labor organization can be attributed to the fact that unions are not permitted in the sizable agricultural and informal sectors, and to efforts by the government and the private sector to diminish union cohesion. Labor laws allowing certain workers to join unions, collective bargaining, and protections against forced labor were unchanged by the 2006 coup, but they remained poorly enforced. Exploitation of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos was an ongoing problem, as was child and sweatshop labor.
Judicial independence was eliminated when the coup leaders dissolved the Constitutional Court and transferred its role and cases to a new Constitutional Tribunal. While the interim constitution specified that judicial independence would be upheld, international human rights groups cited the judiciary as one of the institutions most concretely affected by the coup. All appointed judges could be removed at any time, and with the nullification of the 1997 constitution, Thai citizens lost habeas corpus rights. The Constitutional Tribunal’s April 2007 decision to effectively dissolve the TRT party was widely perceived to be politically driven. The new permanent constitution restored judicial independence and reestablished an independent constitutional court. A separate military court adjudicates criminal and civil cases involving members of the military, as well as cases brought under martial law. Sharia (Islamic law) courts hear certain types of cases pertaining to Muslims.
Pretrial detention—often up to 84 days in criminal cases—is a serious problem, and trials frequently take years to complete. Prison conditions are dire, with inmates and detainees facing shackling and abuse by police and military personnel. State officials are rarely prosecuted for such acts. According to an October 2007 International Crisis Group report, a range of paramilitary forces and civilian militias operating alongside the military and police are impeding efforts to defeat the insurgency in the south; despite its reputation for human rights abuses and corruption, the “ranger” paramilitary force has been tripled by the army since the violence erupted in 2004. Reports of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests by security forces in the south continued in 2007. Some progress was made in the investigation of the 2004 murder of Somchai Neelaphaijit, a Muslim lawyer who had been campaigning against martial law in the south and defending five Muslims tortured by police, though the case remained unresolved at year’s end. A police investigation of December 31, 2006, bomb blasts in Bangkok was launched in January, but no one was ultimately held accountable. Separately, the Justice Ministry and police force formed panels in 2007 to investigate at least 1,300 killings stemming from Thaksin’s 2003 “War on Drugs” campaign.
The interim legislature approved a new Internal Security Act in the final days before the December 2007 elections, allowing the establishment of an Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in times of perceived national crisis. The original draft proposed in June was rejected for going too far to retain military control after the restoration of elected government. The second version, introduced in October, called for the prime minister to serve as the ISOC’s head and the army chief to serve as deputy director, but it nevertheless allowed the government to use emergency powers—including authority to suspend the media, search and detain without warrants, and establish curfews—without declaring a state of emergency. The measure was widely criticized by watchdog groups as a threat to basic civil liberties.
Many of the estimated one million members of hill tribes have never been fully integrated into society. Half of hill-tribe members reportedly lack citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or be protected under labor laws. They are required to carry identification cards, their movement is restricted, and they continue to face forced eviction and relocation. Separately, an estimated 140,000 Burmese refugees live in camps along the Burmese border.
Rape, domestic abuse, HIV/AIDS, prostitution, and the trafficking of women and children all present critical challenges. Thai government records indicate that the number of domestic abuse cases per day has multiplied since 2002. According to the U.S. State Department, the Thai police reported 5,269 cases of rape nationwide from September 2006 through October 2007. Rape is illegal, and there are a range of penalties for sexual assault. Some 200,000 to 300,000 Thai women and children work as prostitutes, according to NGO estimates, and sex tourism remains a problem. Authorities prosecute relatively few traffickers, and many police, soldiers, local officials, and immigration officers reportedly are involved in trafficking or take bribes to ignore it. More than 1 percent of adult Thais are infected with HIV/AIDS; aggressive prevention and treatment policies, especially a program launched in 2004 to provide HIV-positive people with antiretroviral drugs, have reduced both the number of new HIV/AIDS cases and the number of deaths from the disease.