Though the Thai government does not necessarily hide its autocratic tendencies, it is far from willing to let go of the democratic label.
On October 15th 2020, after three months of student-led protests calling for monarchy reform and his resignation, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha issued an emergency decree (which was later revoked), prohibiting gatherings of five or more people, on the account of COVID-19 and peace and order keeping. In a press conference on the following day, he firmly announced that the emergency decree was the result of a unanimous decision by the cabinet, repeatedly referred to the student-protesters as violators of the law, and casually mentioned Thailand as a democracy. Conveniently left out was the fact that members of the Thai cabinet must be nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the King.
Due to pressure from NGOs, international agreements, and domestic institutions, most governments are no longer willing to be openly autocratic. Instead, they wish to create a “veneer of legitimacy.” According to law professor Ozan O. Varol, “authoritarians learned to play by the same rules that exist in democratic governments,” resulting in a concept Varol called stealth authoritarianism.
But how does a nation with a rich history of coup d’états, the hallmark of traditional authoritarianisms, adopt stealth authoritarianism?
Strategy 1: Pretend to be responsive
Political scientist Robert A. Dahl believes a government’s responsiveness to its citizens to be a defining characteristic of a democracy . Though the Thai government does not want to hand real power over to its citizens, it does want to create an illusion that they do hold some power and sway. When citizens feel heard, they might be more trusting and less doubtful of the government. It is likely that citizens, at the least, will wait and see what might happen, allowing the authoritarian to curb dissatisfaction and maintain power a while longer. As a result, the Thai government has been switching back and forth between employing transparent authoritarian practices and resorting to more covert methods.
When Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha first came to power through a coup d’état in May 2014, he announced that he would hold elections as soon as “peace and order” were restored. But it was only until five years after in March 2019 when a significant number of Thai citizens grew deeply discontent and impatient with his government that he agreed to finally hold an election. News of the election gave many Thais a false sense of victory and the hope of electing a more democratic set of government. However, the government soon returned to using gerrymandering and electoral fraud in order to ensure a win for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his Palang Pracharath Party.
Then on October 15th 2020, as the student-led anti-government protests were gaining unprecedented momentum, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of five or more people and the publication of any information that might harm national security in an attempt to silence the dissidents. Despite the decree, the protesters continued to gather peacefully on the streets to call for change. In response, the government ordered police forces to use tear gas and high-pressure water cannons to disperse the protesters on October 16th. The Thai government and police forces received heavy backlash for their use of violence and soon revoked the emergency decree on October 22nd. By doing so, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha claimed that the government was taking a step back and asked the protesters to follow suit. He also promised that he would try to address the protesters’ demands and resolve the issues in parliament.
Strategy 2: Use laws selectively
Laws can confirm the validity of an action under the constitution. To be able to attack its opponents without abandoning its democratic credentials, the Thai government under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha often weaponizes the law, an instrument of democracy, into an authoritarian tool through selective usage.
In February 2020, the Future Forward Party (FFP), a major opposition party, was dissolved under politically motivated and dubious constitutional court rulings, which deemed a loan from FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to the FFP as an illegal donation, despite pushback from some members of the judiciary. Juangroongruangkit and other party executives have been banned from Thai politics for 10 years.
In another attempt to crackdown on the opposition, the Thai government obtained a court order to ban Voice TV, a media outlet that has openly reported the violence used by the government against the protesters during the peaceful street protests, on all platforms and requested a similar order for The Reporters, The Standard and Prachatai. On the contrary, Nation TV, a pro-government media service with ties to the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s Palang Pracharath Party has openly spouted hate speech against the dissidents, spread false information, and fabricated evidence with no legal consequences.
The method of stealth authoritarianism puts Thai citizens in a very difficult position. First, stealth authoritarianism allows the Thai government to abuse seemingly democratic methods in order to retain power while generating a false sense of validity and legality. This false sense of validity and legality stunts international attention. Without continuous or substantial international recognition, Thai citizens are left on their own to try to create change in a country where the government, the military, the monarchy and the elites are all on the same side.
References: Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1971), 1–2.