Freedom in the World
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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 6 to 5 due to the transition from a military administration to an elected civilian government in 2008.
An elected civilian government led by the People’s Power Party (PPP) took office in early 2008, replacing a military administration that had ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup; however, the military remained influential. Samak Sundaravej, the new prime minister, was a Thaksin ally. After months of strident antigovernment protests, the Constitutional Court removed Samak in September 2008 for violating conflict of interest laws. Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, was chosen as the new prime minister, but protesters continued to occupy government offices, clashed with police, and shut down Bangkok’s airports. The Constitutional Court in December abolished the PPP and two other parties for electoral violations in 2007, forcing Somchai’s government to resign. Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva formed a coalition government and became the new prime minister in late December. Meanwhile, Thaksin and his family fled abroad in August after returning to the country in February to face corruption charges; in October, he was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison.
Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonized. A 1932 coup transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, and the army ruled for most of the next six decades, with brief periods of unstable civilian government. Under the leadership of General Prem Tinsulanonda in the 1980s, Thailand underwent a rapid economic expansion and a gradual return to limited democracy. The military seized power again in 1991, but the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, convinced the military to appoint a civilian prime minister in 1992. Fresh elections were held in September of that year, ushering in a 14-year period of elected civilian leadership.
The Asian financial crisis in 1997 helped to trigger street protests by middle-class Thais in Bangkok against corruption and economic mismanagement. The parliament voted no confidence in the existing government and elevated Democrat Party (DP) leader Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister with a clean reputation, to the premiership. Lawmakers also approved a reformist constitution, which created independent election and anticorruption bodies and introduced the direct election of the Senate.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated Chuan in the January 2001 elections, having criticized the government for favoring the urban middle class over ordinary Thais. Thaksin’s 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 he had falsified wealth-disclosure statements while serving as a cabinet minister in 1997. He was cleared of the charges in a controversial ruling 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, as low interest rates and populist spending programs fueled economic growth. However, critics accused Thaksin of undercutting the reformist constitution. While the charter required the prime minister and cabinet members to divest themselves of all business interests, many simply transferred their holdings to close relatives. Thaksin and his associates also allegedly abused their power for personal gain, and human rights groups condemned him for media suppression and a “war on drugs” that resulted in at least 2,500 deaths in 2003.
In 2004, violence erupted in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country’s four million Muslims, and the government adopted a hard-line response. The provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani were placed under martial law that year. An emergency decree in 2005 transferred authority back to civilian institutions, but it also allowed police to restrict basic rights, left some internal security powers with the military, and protected security forces from prosecution for abuses.
The February 2005 parliamentary elections marked a second landslide for the TRT party. However, rising inflation and interest rates, mounting fatalities from avian influenza, corruption, the government’s general disregard for the constitution, and its heavy-handed approach to the insurgency all led to significant anti-Thaksin sentiment by December 2005, particularly in Bangkok and the south.
In January, 2006 the Thaksin family drew public criticism for selling its share of Shin Corporation, one of Thailand’s dominant information technology firms, to the investment arm of the Singaporean government. The sale set off a wave of anti-Thaksin protests in the capital—led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which drew much of its support from Bangkok’s urban poor and middle class—prompted the prime minister to call snap elections for early April. While the TRT party 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 lower house from convening, and new elections were scheduled for October 15. Meanwhile, Thaksin remained in office, effectively reneging on his promise to resign.
A military coup on September 19 preempted the new vote, ousting Thaksin—who was traveling abroad at the time—and installing a junta led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin. The constitution was abrogated, the parliament was dissolved, and the Constitutional Court was replaced with an appointed military tribunal. 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.
While the coup initially enjoyed significant public and royal support, 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. By June, the Democratic Alliance Against the Dictatorship (DAAD), a coalition of Thaksin supporters and other groups opposed to the coup and the CNS government, was leading daily nonviolent protests of up to 10,000 people.
In late May, the CNS-appointed Constitutional Tribunal found the TRT party 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 party, specifically prohibiting Thaksin and 111 other party leaders from 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 in December. Former TRT members regrouped under the People’s Power Party (PPP), with Samak Sundaravej as party leader. Samak was seen to be allied with Thaksin, and was known for strongly opposing the coup.
Referendum voters in August approved a new constitution, which contained a number of antidemocratic provisions. The poll results, with 57 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed, showed a significant protest vote and notable societal divisions. Some 62 percent of voters in the northeast, where support for Thaksin and TRT was strongest, voted against the constitution.
Although the CNS and its appointed Election Commission took a number of steps to restrict the PPP’s campaign, the party won the December parliamentary elections with 233 of 480 lower house seats, which the 2007 constitution had reduced from 500 seats. The DP placed second with 165 seats and, as expected, won in Bangkok and the south. The voting itself went smoothly, but there were numerous reports of vote-buying and fraud. Separately, the 74 appointed members of the nonpartisan Senate were chosen in February 2008 by a selection committee of judges and bureaucrats, and elections for the 76 remaining Senate seats were held in March.
The PPP quickly assembled a coalition government that took office in early 2008, with Samak as prime minister. However, Thai politics remained polarized between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces, and the Samak government was hindered from the start by accusations of corruption and an array of political and legal challenges. In one controversy, the government was assailed by the opposition for allowing Cambodia to submit a successful bid to have the Preah Vihear temple—on a disputed portion of the Thai-Cambodian border—recognized in July as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Critics said the government’s stance amounted to an endorsement of Cambodian territorial claims. The Constitutional Court—appointed by the king upon the advice of the Senate and believed by many to be anti-Thaksin—ruled against the government’s actions that month, and Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign. The dispute touched off a military confrontation with Cambodia, as both countries deployed troops to the temple area. Two Cambodian soldiers were killed in an exchange of fire in October.
Also in July, the Supreme Court began hearing the first in several criminal cases against Thaksin and people close to him, including his wife, who was found guilty of tax evasion that month and sentenced to three years in prison. Thaksin had returned from exile in February to face the array of charges against him. The court’s decision to proceed with a related lottery-scandal case caused three members of the Samak cabinet to be suspended from duty in August. Thaksin, who fled the country in August with his family, was convicted of abuse of office and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison in October, though he remained abroad at year’s end.
Meanwhile, in May, after the PPP voted to introduce a number of constitutional amendments, the reestablished PAD protest movement launched demonstrations against the government, accusing it of serving as a corrupt proxy for Thaksin and demanding that it resign. The PAD initially offered a plan in which most members of parliament would be appointed by the monarch, arguing that the rural voters who formed a majority in Thailand were not sufficiently educated to elect lawmakers directly, but this plan was later dropped. Critics of the PAD claimed that it—along with the 2006 coup and anti-Thaksin efforts in general—was orchestrated by elites associated with the monarchy and the military.
The protests continued throughout the summer, and tens of thousands of PAD supporters stormed government offices in August, forcing the government to operate from temporary facilities. In early September, counterdemonstrators with the progovernment DAAD clashed with PAD supporters, leaving at least one dead and dozens injured. Samak called a state of emergency, but the army refused to enforce it. On September 9, the Constitutional Court removed Samak from office, ostensibly for violating a conflict of interest law by moonlighting on a television cooking show. The parliament then chose Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, to replace Samak as prime minister. PAD protesters continued to occupy the government offices, and on October 6 they also surrounded the parliament building. When police tried to clear the area, violence erupted, resulting in three deaths and hundreds of injuries. A week later, military and police commanders appeared on television to ask Somchai to step down, while the PAD and others openly called for a military coup. As the standoff continued in November, the PAD succeeded in blockading Bangkok’s main airports, seriously disrupting travel and economic activity in the country.
The PPP-led government was finally brought down on December 2, when the Constitutional Court confirmed an October recommendation from the Election Commission that the PPP and two allied parties be disbanded for engaging in fraud in the December 2007 elections. The ruling also banned the parties’ leaders from engaging in politics for five years. By year’s end, Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition DP, had formed a new coalition government and taken office as prime minister.
Thailand is not an electoral democracy. The country transitioned peacefully from the military-controlled CNS administration to an elected civilian government in early 2008, but the military maintained significant influence and continued to restrict civil and political rights. Moreover, the new PPP-led government was beleaguered by legal challenges and protests, showed little respect for human rights, and was accused of incompetence and widespread corruption. Constitutional Court rulings in September and December forced the resignations of two PPP prime ministers and the disbandment of the party itself, leaving a new government led by the rival DP in power at year’s end.
The current constitution was drafted under the supervision of the military-backed government and approved in a referendum in August 2007. It calls for an amnesty for the 2006 coup leaders, and in a clear response to the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government the coup overthrew, the new charter contains a number of measures designed to limit the power of the executive. In addition to establishing a limit of two four-year terms for prime ministers and lowering the threshold for launching a no-confidence motion against the prime minister (from two-fifths of the lower houseto one-fifth) and cabinet ministers (from one-fourth to one-sixth), the new constitution reduced the role of elected lawmakers. In the 150-seat Senate, 76 members are elected and 74 are appointed by a committee of judges and members of independent government bodies; the 1997 constitution had mandated a fully elected Senate. Senators, who serve six-year terms, cannot belong to political parties. For the 480-seat lower chamber, the House of Representatives, the new constitution altered the system of proportional representation to curtail 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 House members are elected in 157 multiseat constituencies. All serve four-year terms. The prime minister is elected from among the House members. King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains head of state, and while he has little responsibility in day-to-day politics, he retains tremendous moral and symbolic influence, particularly in times of national or constitutional crisis.
To bolster the military’s position ahead of the December 2007 elections, the CNS-appointed legislature passed the Internal Security Act (ISA) in November. The law created an Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC)—headed by the prime minister and the army chief, who serves as deputy director—that would have the authority to override civilian administration and restrict basic civil liberties to suppress disorder, even without a formal state of emergency. The ISA also provides legal immunity to those who commit human rights abuses under its auspices.
The December 2007 parliamentary elections proceeded without major violence or disruptions and returned Thailand to civilian rule, but they were not free and fair. Martial law, declared nationwide after the 2006 coup and gradually reduced in scope thereafter, remained in effect in 25 provinces at the time of the elections. The emergency decree first applied to the restive southern provinces in 2005 was also still in place. The CNS generally maintained tight control over the electoral process and deliberately maneuvered to influence the outcome. The PPP in particular was targeted for harassment and intimidation by the military. Evidence of a CNS plan to “sabotage” the PPP, specifically by employing the state-run broadcast media, was published online after it was discovered. The CNS-appointed Election Commission found that the authorities had indeed acted with bias, but it dismissed the case on the grounds that CNS had done so to safeguard national security and therefore enjoyed constitutional immunity.
After the PPP won the elections and formed a coalition government with three smaller parties, the Election Commission in January 2008 disqualified three PPP politiciansfrom taking up their House seatsand launched investigations into 83 of the 480 lower house members for voter fraud. Of the 83, 65 were members of the PPP, while just 6 were members of the opposition DP. In addition, DP members filed lawsuits against the PPP, claiming that the party was an illegal proxy for the banned TRT party, and that it had broken election rules by distributing recordings of Thaksin at campaign rallies. The Asian Network for Free Elections received numerous reports of vote buying by all major parties, suggesting that the Election Commission’s enforcement actions were heavily slanted against the PPP. By October 2008, the commission had found members of the PPP and two of its coalition allies guilty of voter fraud and recommended them for dissolution. The Constitutional Court’s December ruling in favor of those recommendations effectively brought down the PPP-led government.
Corruption ranked among Thais’ top frustrations with the Thaksin government and was cited as part of the military’s justification for the 2006 coup. Independent organizations such as the National Counter-Corruption Commission have since investigated Thaksin and his associates as well as members of the CNS cabinet, five of whom resigned after facing conflict-of-interest allegations in the fall of 2007. Thaksin’s wife was convicted of tax evasion in July 2008 and sentenced to three years in prison, and in October, the Supreme Court ruled on the first of several corruption cases against Thaksin himself, sentencing him to two years in prison for helping his wife buy property from the state on favorable terms. However, Thaksin and his family avoided imprisonment by fleeing the country in August. The corruption probes also affected Thaksin’s allies in the PPP. Three of the PPP government’s ministers were suspended in August after being implicated in a lottery scheme at the center of one of the Thaksin cases. Also during the year, the PPP speaker of the lower house of parliament was found guilty of vote-buying in July, and the health minister resigned in November over his alleged failure to disclose his wife’s shareholdings. Thailand was ranked 80 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of expression guarantees that had been eliminated by the 2006 coup. 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. However, critics argued that the law placed journalists at greater risk by dropping rules that had automatically included newspaper editors and publishers in defamation suits brought against their writers. Harsh defamation provisions remain in the penal code, and suits have often been used to silence government critics. A Computer Crimes Act that took effect in July 2007 assigns significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security. The country’s lese majeste laws, which allow anyone to file a police complaint against another for defaming the monarchy and include penalties of up to 15 years in prison, have increasingly been used to stifle free expression.
Print publications are for the most part privately owned and have been subject to fewer restrictions that the broadcast media; Thailand’s six main television stations and all 525 radio frequencies are monopolized by the government and military. The CNS government in 2007 had closed down Thailand’s only independent television station. In 2008, the PPP government accused Asia Satellite Television (ASTV)—owned by one of the leaders of the PAD—of inciting violence for airing round-the-clock coverage of the antigovernment protests. The authorities routinely block websites, often for content that is seen as offensive to the monarchy. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology sought court orders to shut down about 400 websites in September 2008 and advised internet-service providers to block another 1,200. In October, the ministry announced plans to build an internet gateway that would improve its ability to block defamatory content.
The 2007 constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. There is no official religion, but the constitution requires the monarch to be a Buddhist, and speech considered insulting to Buddhism is prohibited by law. The conflict in the south—which pits ethnic Malay Muslims against ethnic Thai Buddhists—continued to undermine citizens’ ability to practice their religion in 2008, although the number of violent incidents decreased from the previous year. Buddhist monks reported that they were unable to travel freely through southern communities to receive alms. Muslim academics and imams faced government scrutiny, and a number of Muslim teachers were arrested for allegedly supporting insurgent activity. In March 2008, an imam died in custody after being detained by the army, and his relatives reported that his body showed signs of torture. The southern provinces remained subject to martial law and an emergency decree, which had been in effect since 2006 and 2005, respectively; the nationwide martial law imposed after the 2006 coup had been lifted in the rest of the country by April 2008. Both measures sharply curtailed basic civil liberties and gave security forces sweeping powers. By the end of 2008, more than 3,500 people had been killed since the beginning of the insurgency in 2004.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of assembly guarantees, and major political protests were ongoing for much of 2008. After PAD protesters occupying the seat of government clashed with members of the pro-government DAAD in early September, judges issued arrest warrants for at least nine PAD leaders, who were charged with illegal assembly, inciting arrest, and insurrection. The last charge, which carries a sentence of life imprisonment or even the death penalty, was later dropped. In early September, the government announced a state of emergency in Bangkok, prohibiting the gathering of more than five people for a protest and allowing the military to ban media reports. However, the military did little to enforce the restrictions, and the protests continued; the emergency decree was lifted after two weeks. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets in an effort to disperse demonstrators who had set up a blockade outside the parliament building on October 7, and the ensuing violence killed three people and injured hundreds of others. Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned that day, admitting partial responsibility for ordering the police to attack. Protests continued through November, with the PAD blockading Bangkok’s airports, but the demonstrations died down after the removal of the PPP government in December.
Thailand has a 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 2008 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 U.S. State Department’s 2008 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 compulsory labor are poorly enforced. Exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are ongoing problems, as are child and sweatshop labor. In August 2008, the driver of an unventilated truck in which 54 Burmese migrants had suffocated in April 2007 was sentenced to three years in prison.
The 2007 constitution restored judicial independence and reestablished an independent Constitutional Court, although the new panel was perceived to hold a bias against Thaksin and his political allies. 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. In 2008, the Thai courts played an important role in resolving political disputes, generating complaints of judicial activism and political bias. Key rulings during the year resulted in the removal of two prime ministers, the speaker of the lower house, and the foreign minister, as well as the dissolution of the ruling party and a transfer of power to the opposition.
Pretrial detention—often lasting 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 August 2008 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 southern provinces; despite its reputation for human rights abuses and corruption, the “ranger” paramilitary force has been tripled in size by the army since the violence erupted in 2004. Reports of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture by security forces in the south continued in 2008. Separately, a panel formed in 2007 to investigate at least 1,300 killings stemming from Thaksin’s 2003 “War on Drugs” campaign concluded in 2008that over half of those killed had no links to the drug trade. Meanwhile, the Samak government took measures to resume the antidrug campaign, and Human Rights Watchreported the killing of at least four alleged drug traffickers during the year.
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. In addition, an estimated 140,000 Burmese refugees live in camps along the Burmese border. Thai authorities continued to forcibly repatriate Burmese and Laotian refugees in 2008.
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. 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; however, the numbers began increasing in 2007 due to Thaksin’s nonintervention strategy.