Thailand appears to be returning to a modicum of political normalcy now that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the ruling junta, has lifted its ban on political activity. The NCPO partially repealed nine of its prior restrictions imposed following the 2014 military coup. It has effectively lifted the ban on political gatherings of five or more people and is allowing parties to organise meetings and other activities of a political nature.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government had deservedly come under blistering attack from politicians who were gagged for the past four and a half years because of the junta clampdown. Much of the criticism came from politicians linked to self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in the 2006 coup and then widely blamed for inadvertently triggering the 2014 coup with his efforts to maintain control over the government.
It no longer matters whether or not the politicians who have been complaining about forcible restrictions are affiliated with Thaksin – their grievances have merit and must be heard. They are also speaking about national issues that the generals have failed in all this time to address, most notably the widening gap between the rich and poor. The junta has done nothing to gain legitimacy to rule and has left international confidence in Thailand to wither.
Of more immediate concern, the NCPO must live up to its pledge to let democratic politics resume and run its course. In the weeks before the election scheduled for February, it should issue no further orders that could benefit pro-junta parties at the polls. It is bad enough that the generals have already prepared an uneven playing field. They must now step back and let the people speak – and prepare to bear the consequences.
Thailand’s standing in the world’s eyes has taken a beating after two coups in less than a decade. Seeking to put a human cost on the current situation, the pro-Thaksin camp notes the decline in tourism. Just as important is the crisis of legitimacy. Thais want a government of elected representatives who can be openly criticised, not of military men who turn to intimidation and detention to silence dissent.
The partial removal of restrictions on political activities is welcome, but it is hardly enough. We must now witness elections that are free, fair and transparent. There is no inherent guarantee in the lifting of restrictions that the voting will be any of that. In the past four years we have seen the junta repeatedly renege on promises to return the electoral mandate back to the people. And with soldiers in control, there was nothing we could do about it. At least now we have a formal date for the polls and it is just two months away. For what it’s worth, we appear to be heading in the right direction at last.
The junta could be doing more to help the situation. The political parties are still unsure, for example, whether they can now begin campaigning in earnest for votes or whether they still need to wait for a royal decree to be issued. The notion bandied about that the NCPO might be setting a trap for any party that jumps the gun is not far-fetched. The junta is not known for fairness.