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Thailand: Structural Flaws Subvert Election

Stacked Senate, Media Restrictions, Repressive Laws Undermine Right to Vote

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a press conference about the government's achievements at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

(New York) – Thailand’s military government has failed to create conditions for a free and fair national election on March 24, 2019, Human Rights Watch said. The process for forming a new government, in which the junta-appointed Senate will have half the total number of votes for the next government as the elected House of Representatives, severely undermines the right of Thai citizens to choose their leaders.

“Since the 2014 coup, the Thai military has made repeated promises to restore democratic rule, but the generals have set up this election to ensure continued military rule in suits instead of uniforms,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The junta has kept repressive laws, dissolved a main opposition party, taken control of the electoral commission, and handpicked a Senate with the power to thwart the will of the Thai people.”

Serious problems with Thailand’s electoral process include:

  • repressive laws restricting freedom of speech, association, and assembly;
  • media censorship;
  • lack of equal access to the media;
  • outsized role of a junta-appointed Senate in forming a government; and
  • lack of independence and impartiality of the national election commission, leading to the dissolution of a major opposition party.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a party, states that, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment on article 25 that:

  • “Where citizens participate in the conduct of public affairs through freely chosen representatives, it is implicit in article 25 that those representatives do in fact exercise governmental power and that they are accountable through the electoral process for their exercise of that power.”
  • “Freedom of expression, assembly, and association are essential conditions for the effective exercise of the right to vote and must be fully protected.”
  • “An independent electoral authority should be established to supervise the electoral process and to ensure that it is conducted fairly, impartially, and in accordance with established laws which are compatible with the Covenant.”
  • “In order to ensure the full enjoyment of rights protected by article 25, the free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates, and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion.”

“Foreign governments seeking the restoration of democracy in Thailand should publicly state that they will only recognize an election that meets international standards,” Adams said. “Thailand’s elections won’t be considered credible if the media is gagged and critical commentary about military rule is prohibited. The junta should understand that an election that is little more than a preordained victory for military rule will only be treated as a mockery of democracy.”

Concerns About the Electoral Process

Restrictions on Free Expression, Voting Rights

Since the May 2014 coup, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions as criminal disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security. On December 11, 2018, the junta lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to campaign for the parliamentary election. However, the authorities kept in place military orders severely restricting expression and authorizing criminal prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy.

NCPO Announcement 97/2014 bans “criticism of the work of the NCPO” and the dissemination of “information that could harm national security, cause confusion, or incite conflict or divisions in the country.” This announcement also compels all news outlets to distribute information issued by the junta.

NCPO Announcement 103/2014 prohibits the dissemination of news or the distribution of any publication containing information that the authorities consider “intentionally distorted to cause public misunderstanding that affects national security or public order.” In this regard, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has become the junta’s primary censorship tool, with broad and unaccountable powers to suspend the broadcast of television and radio programs or to take a station off the air because of content that the authorities deem distorted, divisive, or a threat to national security.

On March 1, a prominent news anchor, Orawan Choodee, wrote on her Facebook page that she had been suspended from hosting the popular political debate program, “Election War19,” on the state-controlled MCOT Channel 9. Orawan was accused of having political bias for asking 100 students from 16 universities in the studio – all of them first-time voters – whether they agreed with the decision by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha not to debate his political opponents. She also asked their view of the provisional clause in the 2017 Constitution allowing the 250 senators to vote for the prime minister; whether the NCPO’s 20-year National Strategy for Thailand is needed; and whether it does not matter if Thailand is democratic as long as people’s lives are improved. While the MCOT board, which the Prime Minister’s Office directly supervises, denied ordering her suspension, she has not returned to the program.

In the period before the election, international broadcasters covering Thailand have also faced censorship. The main cable television service provider, TrueVisions, cut off broadcasts of major news networks, such as BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, and Australia Network, on February 8 and 9 and March 7 and 8, leaving only a blank screen with the message: “Programming will return shortly.” Neither TrueVisions nor Thai authorities officially informed the networks why they were censored.

The junta treats people who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions about the government, or who show support for the previously deposed prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra, as threats to national security. It arrests and prosecutes them under Thailand’s sedition statute, which carries up to a seven-year prison sentence.

The authorities have charged many prominent politicians from opposition parties with serious criminal offenses for criticizing military rule. The Future Forward Party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in one example, was charged with violating the Computer-Related Crime Act in August 2018 for his commentary on Facebook Live criticizing the junta’s use of the Palang Pracharat Party to hold onto power.

The government has repeatedly charged Pichai Naripthaphan, Watana Muangsook, and other key members of the Pheu Thai Party with sedition and computer crimes for making critical comments about Thailand’s political and economic problems under military rule. In December, the junta filed computer crime complaints against the leader of the Seri Ruam Thai Party, Police Gen. Seripisut Temiyawet, for his media interviews criticizing the military’s attempts to stay in power after the election.

While opposition parties have faced numerous restrictions regarding their use of media for campaigning, Prayuth – as the NCPO chairman and incumbent prime minister – has unlimited access to state media to solicit support. He is given airtime on television and radio – including mandatory broadcasting of his weekly Friday speech – that is not available to other political leaders.

Although voting is compulsory in Thailand, Buddhist clergy and criminal detainees – even if not yet convicted – are denied the right to vote. This violates Thailand’s obligations under international human rights law providing for universal suffrage.

Lack of an Independent and Impartial Electoral Commission

An independent and impartial election body is crucial for ensuring public confidence that Thailand’s election will be free and fair, Human Rights Watch said. However, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has shown serious bias against candidates and parties opposing the military government.

After the Thai Raksa Chart Party nominated Princess Ubolratana, the king’s sister, in February as its candidate for prime minister, the ECT formally disqualified her and accused the party of violating the election law by committing an act hostile to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. The ECT forwarded the case to the Constitutional Court, which on March 7 cited “customary law” as the basis for its decision to order the Thai Raksa Chart Party’s dissolution.

The court also banned the party’s 14 executives from running in elections, setting up political parties, or becoming political party executives for 10 years. Under a technicality in the election rules, the court’s ruling will also disqualify all Thai Raksa Chart candidates from running in the election.

On March 13, the ECT began an inquiry into a plan by former Thai Raksa Chart candidates to urge their supporters to vote for the allied Future Forward Party or cast “no” votes, even though the election law does not prohibit such actions. The ECT also threatened the Future Forward Party with an investigation because former Thai Raksa Chart members campaigned on its behalf though that is not prohibited under Thai law. The ECT has also investigated the Future Forward Party and its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in response to numerous complaints brought by junta supporters.

The ECT has handled complaints filed against the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party at a much slower pace. These include complaints alleging financial sponsorship by state officials and agencies of the Palang Pracharat Party’s fund-raising dinner on December 19, which raised 650 million Thai baht (US$20.3 million).

The ECT has failed to promote independent and impartial election monitoring, Human Rights Watch said. Although the ECT has repeatedly stated that it has no objection to foreign organizations seeking access to observe the election, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has opposed the participation of foreign observers on the grounds that the election is an internal affair and that their involvement was not needed and would indicate that Thailand is a problematic country.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) is the only group that has received ECT accreditation for election monitoring. The European Union and other foreign governments will depend on staff from their diplomatic missions in Thailand. Prominent domestic groups, such as the People’s Network for Elections (P-Net), have complained that the ECT was slow to provide formal guidelines for observing the elections to monitoring groups and political party agents.

Junta-Appointed Senate

The junta-drafted 2017 constitution entails a weakened role for the elected House of Representatives. As a result, the party or parties winning the election are not likely to be able to form a government. Instead, it is expected that the government will be formed by a majority vote of the elected 500-member House of Representatives combined with the appointed 250-member Senate.

The ruling NCPO, led by Prayuth, who is the candidate for prime minister for the Palang Pracharat Party, will appoint the entire Senate. The only exceptions are six seats reserved for the armed forces commanders, the supreme commander, the defense permanent secretary, and the national police chief – all of whom are junta members. This means that the military-backed party will only need to gather one-third of elected House members to form a majority and install its candidate as prime minister. Opposition parties could win up to two-thirds of House of Representative seats and still not be able to block that person from becoming prime minister and from appointing other members of the cabinet.

On March 13, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon indicated that such an outcome was likely, telling the media that he thought it would not be difficult for the junta to form the new government because the appointed senate would be “controllable.”

The junta-appointed senators will also play an important role that could make the electoral portfolio and campaign pledges of political parties meaningless because the constitution requires them to ensure that Thailand’s future governments and parliaments will follow the NCPO’s National Strategy plan for the next 20 years.

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