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Thailand: Military Interference Undermines Upcoming Elections

A Weak Election Commission Endorses Unfair Election Tactics

(New York) - Failure by Thailand’s Electoral Commission to act on evidence of military interference in the upcoming Thai elections undermines prospects for Sunday’s elections to be free and fair, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since General Sonthi Boonyaratglin overthrew the Thaksin administration in a bloodless coup on September 19, 2006, the military junta – now called the Council for National Security (CNS) – promised that the December 23 national elections would mark Thailand’s democratic transition.

In May 2007, a Constitutional Tribunal dissolved Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, and all 111 party executives (including Thaksin) were banned from politics for five years after being found guilty of electoral fraud.

“The courts dissolved the Thai Rak Thai Party for manipulating the electoral process, but now the junta is doing the same thing,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Military leaders are maneuvering to influence voting results and to prevent Thaksin’s allies from returning to government.”

Banned politicians cannot actively assist candidates or political parties in the upcoming elections. However, the People Power Party, which is widely seen as the Thai Rak Thai Party’s reincarnation, is expected to garner wide support in the upcoming elections.

Allegations of a military plot against the People Power Party emerged when party leader Samak Sundaravej revealed copies of a CNS memo dated September 14 and other documents approved by General Sonthi. The CNS memo is now available on the internet. According to the memo, the CNS devised a contingency plan and ordered various operations to harass, block, and discredit the People Power Party and its supporters. The plan also included the mobilization of army-run television channels, radio stations, intelligence, and security agencies to present reports and circulate rumors discrediting the People Power Party and Thaksin.

“By endorsing a plan to discredit and harass political candidates, the junta has violated its legal obligation to remain neutral in the elections,” said Pearson.

On November 29, a fact-finding subcommittee reporting to the Election Commission found that the junta had acted with bias ahead of the upcoming election. The next day, the CNS urgently requested that the Election Commission halt the investigation.

On December 12, the five election commissioners ruled 4-1 that although the CNS failed to be neutral, it did so under the grounds of safeguarding national security and therefore its actions had constitutional immunity. Without seeing any written evidence, the majority of commissioners accepted the CNS’s explanation that since the plan in the memo was not implemented, no political party or individual was affected.

Contrary to the Election Commission ruling, People Power Party candidates have claimed harassment and intimidation by the military. For example, on December 18, three armed soldiers from the Internal Security Operation Command were found monitoring Sangtuan Pongmanee, a People Power Party candidate in Lamphun province. In Chiang Rai and Sisaket provinces, the People Power Party reported that surveillance by soldiers has put pressure on its candidates and activists.

Martial law is still in effect in 31 provinces, mostly Thaksin’s political strongholds in the north and northeast of the country. Under martial law, the military can ban political gatherings, censor the media, and detain people without charge.

“Imposing martial law prevents political parties from competing on a level playing field,” said Pearson. “Although Thaksin and his allies showed contempt for human rights and democracy, it is up to the Thai voters, not the military, to decide who should govern the country.”

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