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The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, elected in 2011, consolidated its grip on power during 2012. However, Yingluck’s links to her brother, deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, remained a matter of contention, and new opposition protests called for another military coup. Separately, prosecutors and security agencies continued to employ lèse-majesté laws to curb freedom of expression and political speech, and rights abuses associated with the insurgency and counterinsurgency in southern Thailand persisted.
Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to avoid direct colonial rule. An elite-led revolution in 1932 transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Over the next 60 years, Thailand endured multiple military coups, constitutional overhauls, and popular uprisings. The army dominated politics during these years, with intermittent periods of unstable civilian government. Under the leadership of General Prem Tinsulanonda in the 1980s, the country experienced rapid economic growth and a gradual and heavily contested transition toward democratic rule. The military seized power again in 1991, but Thailand’s monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, intervened to appoint a civilian prime minister in 1992. Fresh elections held in September of that year ushered in a 14-year period of elected civilian leadership.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a former deputy prime minister who built his substantial fortune in telecommunications, unseated the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in the 2001 elections. He and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT, or Thais Love Thais) party mobilized voters in rural areas in part by criticizing the government for favoring urban, middle class Thais. As prime minister, Thaksin won praise for pursuing populist policies designed to stimulate the economy, especially in rural provinces. However, critics accused him and his government of undermining the progressive intent of the 1997 constitution. Human rights groups condemned Thaksin for seeking to suppress independent media. In 2003 a violent counternarcotics campaign resulted in at least 2,500 killings in a three-month period; in most cases the perpetrators were not brought to justice.
In 2004, separatist violence accelerated in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country’s four million Muslims. Thaksin mounted a hard-line response, and the government placed the Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani under martial law. The government was accused of human rights abuses in its effort to stamp out the insurgency.
The TRT dominated the February 2005 parliamentary elections, making Thaksin the first prime minister to serve a full four-year term and be elected to two consecutive terms. However, anti-Thaksin sentiment rose during the year, particularly in Bangkok and the south, where the DP was most popular. In January 2006, the prime minister’s family was criticized for the tax-free, $1.9 billion sale of its Shin Corporation to the investment arm of the Singaporean government, which opponents said put the family’s interests before the national interest. Facing a wave of protests led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—a coalition of royalists, business elites, and military leaders with support among the urban middle class—Thaksin called snap elections in early April 2006. All three opposition parties boycotted the vote, and a fresh round of elections was ultimately scheduled for October.
A military coup in September 2006 preempted the new vote and ousted Thaksin, who was abroad at the time. The coup leaders’ Council for National Security (CNS) abrogated the constitution, dissolved the parliament, and replaced the Constitutional Court with its own tribunal. In May 2007, the tribunal found the TRT guilty of bribing smaller parties in the April 2006 elections and dissolved it, specifically prohibiting Thaksin and 111 other party leaders from participating in politics for the next five years. About 57 percent of referendum voters in August 2007 approved a new constitution that contained a number of antidemocratic provisions.
Former TRT members regrouped under the banner of the People’s Power Party (PPP) and won the December 2007 parliamentary elections. Throughout 2008, yellow-shirted PAD supporters marched in protests accusing the new government of serving as a corrupt proxy for Thaksin and demanding its dissolution. Meanwhile, in October the Supreme Court sentenced Thaksin in absentia to two years in prison for abuse of office.
The PPP-led government—under intense pressure from the PAD, military commanders, and the judiciary—finally fell in December 2008, when the Constitutional Court disbanded the ruling party on the grounds that it had engaged in fraud during the December 2007 elections. DP leader Abhisit Vejjajiva subsequently formed a new coalition and won a lower house vote to become prime minister. The red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), which had opposed the 2006 coup, mounted large protests against the PPP’s dissolution and the new government. Abhisit imposed emergency rule in Bangkok for nearly two weeks in April 2009, arresting red-shirt leaders and shutting down pro-UDD radio stations.
Reconciliation efforts later in 2009 made little progress, and UDD protests escalated again in the spring of 2010, with red shirts occupying the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district in April. The government, which accused the UDD of intending to overthrow the monarchy, declared another state of emergency, and the army finally dispersed the entrenched protesters in May, at times using live fire. Between March and the end of May, a total of 92 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.
Abhisit established two committees on national reform to advance reconciliation, and his government attempted to garner public support with populist economic policies. However, these efforts largely failed to win over opposition supporters, and in early 2011 Abhisit called new elections for July.
In the run-up to the elections, many elements of the Thai elite, including the military, clearly indicated to voters their preference for the DP, with the army chief appearing on national television to counsel against votes for Puea Thai, the successor to the PPP, led by Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. The military also allegedly worked behind the scenes to convince smaller parties to ally themselves with the DP following the vote. Some expressed worries that Yingluck would become a proxy for Thaksin, who called her his “clone.” Political tensions were heightened by concerns about the future of the monarchy.
Puea Thai ultimately won the parliamentary elections outright, taking 265 of 500 seats in the lower house. The DP placed second with 159 seats, and small parties divided the remainder. The army accepted the results, in part because Puea Thai leaders reportedly assured the military that they would not interfere in military promotions or seek trials for officers involved in the 2010 political violence. Yingluck became prime minister and installed several Thaksin loyalists in top cabinet positions. They advocated an amnesty for Thaksin, but no such action was taken. While he remained in exile, he maintained political influence through regular telephone calls, video appearances, and visits to neighboring countries.
During 2011, Yingluck suggested that she would consider reforming the country’s lèse-majesté laws, which had been enforced more aggressively since 2006, and revising the constitution to bring it closer to the 1997 charter. However, in 2012 she appeared to steer a relatively conciliatory course, attempting to accommodate military, palace, and activist priorities. Her public appearances with senior royalist figures have been read as part of this rapprochement. Nevertheless, the competing interests continued to clash in the courts, media, and parliament, and street protests escalated late in the year. In October and November 2012, a new group, Pitak Siam (Protect Siam), began calling for a coup to oust the Yingluck government, though its public events did not generate a groundswell of popular support and were widely described as failures. There were also those among the UDD hardliners who became more consistent in their campaigning on behalf of those killed in April and May 2010. For instance, in December 2012, Abhisit and his former deputy were charged with murder for issuing orders that resulted in the death of a taxi driver during the 2010 crackdown on UDD protesters.
Thailand is an electoral democracy. The July 2011 elections were considered relatively free and fair, yielding a strong victory for the opposition party Peua Thai. The polls replaced a government that had come to power as a result of judicial action and lacked a popular mandate. Although the influential military weighed in against Puea Thai during the run-up to the vote, it was unable to decisively affect the outcome. However, the Asian Network for Free Elections, a leading monitoring organization, reported that several political parties had representatives inside polling stations trying to influence voters’ choices, and that vote buying had increased compared with previous parliamentary polls.
The current constitution was drafted under the supervision of a military-backed government and approved in an August 2007 referendum. It included an amnesty for the 2006 coup leaders, and in a clear response to the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government the coup overthrew, the charter limited prime ministers to two four-year terms and set a lower threshold for launching no-confidence motions. The constitution also reduced the role of elected lawmakers. Whereas the old Senate was fully elected, the Senate created by the new charter consists of 77 elected members and 73 appointed by a committee of judges and members of independent government bodies. Senators, who serve six-year terms, cannot belong to political parties. For the 500-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.
Corruption is widespread at all levels of Thai society. Both the DP and Puea Thai include numerous lawmakers who have faced persistent corruption allegations. Thailand was ranked 88 out of 176 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of expression guarantees that were eliminated by the 2006 coup, though the use of laws to silence critics is growing. The 2007 Computer Crimes Act assigns significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security. In recent years, the government has blocked very large numbers of websites for allegedly insulting the monarchy, and this blocking did not completely stop under the Peua Thai government in 2012. The authorities did ease restrictions on some red-shirt websites and community radio stations, but DP supporters have criticized the government for its unsympathetic approach to media and artists associated with their side of the political divide, including with respect to the April 2012 banning of Shakespeare Must Die, an adaptation of Macbeth widely considered critical of Thaksin.
The government and military control licensing and transmission for Thailand’s six main television stations and all 525 radio frequencies. Community radio stations are generally unlicensed. Print publications are for the most part privately owned and are subject to fewer restrictions than the broadcast media. However, most print outlets continue to take a clearly partisan political position.
Aggressive enforcement of the country’s lèse-majesté laws since the 2006 coup has created widespread anxiety and stifled freedom of expression in the media. Due to the secrecy surrounding most such cases, it is unclear exactly how many went to trial in 2012 but previous estimates suggest that the figure is in the hundreds. The laws strictly prohibit defamation of the monarchy, but the authorities have used them to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians who are critical of the government, exacerbating self-censorship. Defendants can face decades in prison for multiple counts, and it is often only through media and activist pressure that any leniency is shown. Some of those accused in 2012, such as Thammasat University academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul, have actively questioned the legal basis for their prosecutions. Some, including editor Somyot Prueksakakasemsuk, have recently received lengthy prison terms.
The constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. However, while there is no official state religion, 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, continues to undermine citizens’ ability to practice their religions. Buddhist monks report that they are unable to travel freely through southern communities to receive alms, and many Buddhist schoolteachers have been attacked by insurgents. Meanwhile, a significant number of Muslim religious leaders have allegedly been targeted by government security forces.
The 2007 constitution restored freedom of assembly guarantees, though the government may invoke the Internal Security Act (ISA) or declare a state of emergency to curtail major demonstrations. There was no state of emergency in most of the country in 2012, but it remained in place in the restive south. Political parties and organizations campaigned and met freely during the year, engaging in regular pro- or antigovernment demonstrations. The tempo of these protests increased toward year’s end, but demonstrators’ interactions with security forces were less violent than in 2008–10.
Thailand has a vibrant civil society sector, with groups representing farmers, laborers, women, students, environmentalists, and human rights interests. Attacks on civil society leaders have been reported, and even in cases where prosecutions occur, there is a perception of impunity for the ultimate sponsors of the violence.
Thai trade unions are independent, and more than 50 percent of state-enterprise workers belong to unions, but less than 2 percent of the total workforce is unionized. Antiunion discrimination in the private sector is common, and legal protections for union members are weak and poorly enforced. Exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are serious and ongoing problems, as are child and sweatshop labor. In 2012, trafficking of migrants, especially from Burma, into the fishing industry was identified as a particular issue of concern.
The 2007 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. The Thai courts have played a decisive role in determining the outcome of political disputes, for example in the ouster of the PPP government in 2008, generating complaints of judicial activism and political bias.
A combination of martial law and emergency rule remains in effect in the four southernmost provinces. Counterinsurgency operations have involved the indiscriminate detention of thousands of suspected insurgents and sympathizers, and there are long-standing and credible reports of torture and other human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, by security forces. To date there have been no successful criminal prosecutions of security personnel for these transgressions. Separatist fighters and armed criminal groups regularly attack government workers, police, teachers, religious figures, and civilians. More than 5,000 people have been killed and almost 9,000 injured in the conflict in the past decade.
In the north of the country, so-called hill tribes are not fully integrated into Thai society and face restrictions on their freedom of movement. Many continue to struggle without formal citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or receive protection under labor laws. Thailand has not ratified UN conventions on refugees, and the authorities have forcibly repatriated Burmese and Laotian refugees. The place of Burmese refugees in Thailand is especially tenuous at this stage with the prospect of repatriation looming as a significant issue. Reports of the abuse of refugees and migrants workers from Burma also continue to emerge, and have been met by increased labor activism.
While women have the same legal rights as men, they remain subject to economic discrimination in practice, and vulnerable to domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking. Sex tourism has been a key part of the economy in some urban and resort areas. While Yingluck Shinawatra is the country’s first female prime minister, her administration has not made women’s rights a priority.