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Soldiers line up for voting in general election at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday, March 24, 2019. Nearly five years after a coup, Thailand was voting Sunday in a long-delayed election that sets a military-backed party against the populist political force the generals overthrew.  © 2019 AP Photo
Since Thailand’s military seized power on May 22, 2014, the country has faced unending repression of fundamental rights and freedoms. Five years after the coup, Thailand is nowhere near the “return to democratic, civilian rule” the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has repeatedly promised.

The March 24 general election was structurally rigged, enabling the military to extend its hold on power. While maintaining a host of repressive laws, the junta dissolved a main opposition party, took control of the national election commission, levied bogus criminal charges against opposition politicians and dissidents, and packed the Senate with generals and cronies who will have the power to determine the next prime minister, regardless of the election results.

The junta has routinely enforced censorship and blocked public discussion on the state of human rights and democracy in Thailand. Hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and insulting the monarchy for peacefully expressing their views.

Even those who fled Thailand to escape political persecution are not safe. There are serious concerns about exiled Thais in neighboring countries. In Laos, at least two Thai exiles have been forcibly disappeared and another three abducted and murdered. In May 2019, three activists were allegedly repatriated from Vietnam to Thailand and have since gone missing. Last week, a Thai asylum seeker was forcibly sent back by Malaysia to be prosecuted by Thai authorities on charges related to her involvement with the dissident Organization for Thai Federation.

Over the past five years, the military has pressured thousands of activists to cease making political comments against the junta and the monarchy. Authorities continue to secretly detain people for up to seven days without charge and interrogate them without access to lawyers or safeguards against mistreatment.

These abusive powers will remain in effect after a new government takes power, and officials will stay immune from all forms of accountability for human rights violations.

The United States, the European Union, and many other countries have repeatedly said that bilateral relations with Thailand can only be normalized when democracy and human rights are fully restored. This means more than just an orderly election day. It means a political environment in which all are freely able to express their views without fear.

The international community should not rush to improve diplomatic and business ties without serious discussions on human rights and the military’s prolonged grip on power. It should press Thailand to end persecution of dissidents, lift restrictions on fundamental freedoms, and undertake genuine rights-respecting reforms. Anything else simply falls short.

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