The sky on May 22nd, 2014 looked grayer than usual. From my rooftop I could see billowing smoke from protestor camps throughout Bangkok as gunshots rang from military helicopters and tanks. From this day, I witnessed my country’s democratic institutions collapse through General Prayuth’s steady use of stealth authoritarianism.
On the date above, military General Prayuth Chan-Ocha (hereafter Prayuth) staged a coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Before the coup, Yingluck’s party remained in power since 2001 due to its populist messages which resonated with rural and poorer voters. This brought the party in direct conflict with the minority which comprised of the middle class and Bangkok elites who held sway in powerful institutions ranging from the military to the judiciary. According to the WashingtonPost, this minority has used “dubious court decisions and coups to oust elected leaders.” This has led to numerous violent protests between Red Shirts (who support the majority) and Yellow Shirts (who support the minority). However, between 2013 and 2014, protests peaked leading to over 800 casualties, burning buildings, and tanks in the capital.
The military leadership took control under the guise of restoring “love and peace” in a bid to bring together a country that was on the verge of collapse. However, Prayuth’s military government soon transformed into a militaristic-authoritarian regime that brought about delayed elections, repressive military rule, and the regression of free speech and civil liberties. Even though the takeover was broadcasted as a “temporary measure,” the military rulers, who were formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) insisted on holding onto power. The army, according to the Trans-Regional Journal of South-East Asia, claimed to need five years of power in order to “steer the country out of crisis.”
By 2019, the military junta, finally announced nationwide elections for a new government. As election results rolled onto televisions on March 24, Prayuth, unsurprisingly, still held onto power. The democratic backsliding that occurs during and after the election relates to Levitsky’s idea of competitive authoritarianism. A competitive authoritarian regime is democratic in appearance but authoritarian in nature.1 This competitive authoritarian cloak on democratic institutions results in the destruction of what Schumpeter calls procedural democracy through an idea of stealth authoritarianism. This is because Prayuth disguises institutions as democratic, however they are heavily skewed in favor of the military leadership. Authoritarianism generally comprises breaches in freedom, fairness, inclusiveness, and meaningfulness of elections.
To prove this, we must first look at Schumpeter’s idea of democracy which looks less at democracy as an outcome and more of a process.2 Therefore, this procedural definition looks at the rights citizens have such as their ability to formulate preferences, government responsiveness, a right to vote, fair elections, and freedom of expression.3 In Thailand’s case, Prayuth uses stealth authoritarianism which Ozan Varol defines as legal procedures that autocrats use to undermine democracy. In this case, the legal tools utilized by Prayuth dismantle Thailand’s procedural democracy.4
Two of these tools are the implementation of electoral laws to disenfranchise the opposition and the use of judicial review to consolidate power in order to avoid accountability.5 This can directly be seen during Prayuth’s election where strategic manipulation occurred at tilting the electoral playing field. According to Khaosod, there was widespread gerrymandering and corruption within the Thai government as all senators were handpicked by the military junta. This resulted in the reworking of districts that have historically been controlled by opposition parties. Furthermore, as all senators (the upper house) of government were aligned with Prayuth, legislation that may be seen as controversial among opposition will be more likely to pass.
Another tool used is the use of libel lawsuits in combination with judicial review.6 Numerous cases of speech suppression like in September, 2019, occurred when a political commentator, Yodmalai, was fired from a radio program for criticizing military rule. In another, Voice TV (A Thai network) was punished because of anti-military promotion. Enforced disappearances also occurred leading to Thai exiles in Laos that have been reportedly abducted and murdered in recent years. Further cases include the continuation and enforcement of the Public Assembly Act which restricts protests against the regime. Over 130 pro-democracy activists in Thailand have faced illegal assembly charges throughout 2019. For example, in July, Bangkok’s Dusit District Court, which is filled with Prayuth appointees, convicted Phayao Akkahad for protesting against the military leadership.
Most disturbingly is the case of Thanthorn, the leader of Future Forward, a political party popular with the youth and those who are disillusioned with Prayuth’s regime. In November 2019, the Constitutional Court attempted to ban the opposition leader from parliament entirely after finding him guilty of violating election law, criticizing the junta, and aiding anti-military protests back in 2015. Many scholars and critics believe this to be an affront to political freedom. According to Charles Santiago, chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, “All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform”.
Lastly, the tool of surveillance laws7 against opponents have been enacted such as the DEPA act which aims at combating cyber threats against the ‘country’s digital infrastructure’ allowing authorities to seize incriminating devices. Observers such as the Human Rights Watch have worried that this may be used to attack Prayuth’s opponents.
After looking at Prayuth’s means of dismantling democracy, it is important to understand why Prayuth uses stealth authoritarianism, Linz believes that breakdown results from a government’s incapacity to solve problems – especially in economic crises.8 Even before Prayuth, Thailand faced an anemic economic slump which Prayuth aimed to fix since 2014. Rival parties have attacked Prayuth for the economy’s underperformance during his five-year rule, leading many to criticize that his new tenure as prime minister will also fail to boost the economy. Thailand’s broadening divide between the rich and the poor has led to varying rival economic plans that threaten the fledgling coalition that Prayuth has gained.
It is clear that Prayuth’s continued degradation of Thailand’s democratic institutions will ensure a quasi-military dictatorship for the foreseeable future as long as his opposition remains disenfranchised.
1 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
2 Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven-Yale University Press.
3 Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. Pages 1-34
4 Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100.
5 Varol, Ozan
6 Varol, Ozan
7 Varol, Ozan
8 Linz, Juan J., Stepan, Alfred. (1978). The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes Johns Hopkins University Press