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Avoiding Political Violence in Thailand
Avoiding Political Violence in Thailand
Commentary / Asia

Avoiding Political Violence in Thailand

Youth-led protests demanding a new constitution and reforms to Thailand’s monarchy led the country to a perilous juncture in 2020. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to push for the cessation of excessive use of force against protesters, strengthen efforts to monitor the human rights situation and offer support should a reconciliation process materialise.

A youth-led protest movement against the political status quo brought Thailand to a perilous juncture in 2020. From a diehard core opposing the 2014 coup and junta rule, the movement expanded after a 2019 general election that permitted the generals to continue governing with a veneer of legitimacy. Protesters demanded the resignation of coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government, the drafting of a new constitution with public input and an end to state harassment of activists. Tens of thousands of Thais participated in protests in Bangkok and around the country in the latter half of the year. In August, protest leaders went further and broached the issue of the monarchy’s political role, breaking a taboo in a country where many consider the king sacred. The stipulation that the monarch should be accountable to elected institutions swiftly moved to the centre of protesters’ demands, exciting fear within the conservative establishment. At stake is what sort of political order should prevail – a question often disputed since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The current model, codified in the 2017 constitution, hobbles elected officials and empowers unelected institutions, especially the judiciary and a 250-member, junta-appointed senate.

At stake is what sort of political order should prevail – a question often disputed since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The establishment elite, embodied in the military, judiciary, palace and select oligarchs, show no sign of accommodating popular demands for a more representative pluralist political system. Protests have so far remained largely peaceful and are in abeyance due to a new wave of COVID-19 infections. But the movement is likely to regain momentum, as it did after the first wave, rekindling a risk of violence. While allowing demonstrations, the government has charged dozens of activists and protesters under various laws that could see them spend years in jail.

The EU and its members states can encourage a peaceful resolution of Thailand’s political conflict by:

  • making an unambiguous public statement that excessive use of force against protesters or dissidents by state security forces or their proxies will delay the signing of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) and scupper any future negotiation for a Thailand-EU Free Trade Agreement, until the Thai government has held perpetrators of such actions accountable;
     
  • stepping up efforts to monitor the human rights situation in Thailand, including offering financial support to local civil society organisations and the UN to expand their monitoring capacity;
     
  • acting as observers during judicial proceedings against activists and protesters charged under Article 112 of Thailand’s penal code – commonly known as the lèse-majesté law – and other harsh legislation;
     
  • offering good offices and technical expertise should a credible reconciliation process come into being.

Thailand on the Brink

The pro-democracy movement in Thailand represents a serious threat to incumbent power holders represented by Thailand’s military, judiciary, palace and oligarchy. A coup in 2014 initiated the longest period of military rule in 40 years. A constitution drafted by junta appointees then tilted the electoral system in favour of military-backed parties, giving the coup makers a durable grip on political power following the March 2019 elections. Less than a year later, the Constitutional Court dissolved the progressive Future Forward Party. The decision disillusioned many young voters who saw in this party hope for change through parliamentary politics. Soon, the youth took to the streets. The protest movement’s articulation of growing demand for reform of the monarchy, in particular, challenges the legitimacy of the political order that privileges unelected authority at the expense of popular sovereignty. Activists’ demands are far-reaching, with gender equality and LGBT+ rights prominent currents in the movement, amounting to a call for social revolution that has elicited frantic reactions from conservatives. The protests have also pushed the country into uncharted waters by publicly criticising the monarchy, a subject that is ordinarily off limits.

With the exception of minor scuffles between protesters and police, the controversial use of water cannons against non-violent demonstrators, and a brief clash between pro-democracy protesters and royalist counter-demonstrators on 17 November, 2020’s protests were remarkably peaceful. But there is a history in Thailand of security personnel using deadly force to quell pro-democracy protests. Such crackdowns have invariably been justified as necessary for defence of the monarchy – in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. In the extraordinary circumstances of an unpopular military-backed government, extreme wealth inequality, a weakening economy, a prolonged pandemic and unprecedented questioning of the monarchy, harsh repression of protesters could engender popular backlash and a cycle of civil conflict. It is also possible that royalists may try to create a pretext for a crackdown or a coup through violent provocations. Meanwhile, the 2014 coup makers have all but blocked conventional avenues for rolling back the political order they have since established, with the appointed senate stymying substantive constitutional amendments. 

Even short of a violent crackdown, the government’s efforts to curb the protest movement may hinder reconciliation and reform, thus bringing turmoil. The government has heaped criminal charges upon protest leaders and activists – including sedition cases against at least 53 individuals. Alarmingly, authorities in November also revived the lèse-majesté law that had been dormant for almost three years, bringing cases against at least 54 people, including two minors. Some of them face multiple charges under the law, with each count carrying a potential fifteen-year prison sentence. On 19 January, a former civil servant was convicted on 29 counts of royal defamation and received a sentence of 87 years, halved to 43 years because she pleaded guilty. Harassment of government critics takes various other forms. Beyond the hardships inherent in answering multiple charges for violations of the emergency decree and public order statutes, often in far-flung jurisdictions, there are reports of plainclothes officers visiting activists’ homes, as well as their schools, workplaces and parents’ houses, in obvious attempts to intimidate. These actions are taking place in the context of a series of enforced disappearances and murders of dissidents in exile that have occurred in recent years.

The government and its allies in the military and bureaucracy will not willingly surrender their prerogatives.

The stage is set for further confrontation. The government and its allies in the military and bureaucracy will not willingly surrender their prerogatives, secured with the 2014 coup and codified in the 2017 constitution. Nor is the king likely to relinquish the enhanced political, security and financial perquisites he has gained since acceding to the throne in 2016. Conversely, a new generation of Thais has signalled its unwillingness to submit to a political and social order that demands deference while denying them equality and opportunity. 

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

While the scope for external actors to shape events in Thailand is limited, the EU and its member states should use what leverage they have to discourage actions that could lead to violence or even a general civil conflict that would put reconciliation and political pluralism further out of reach. Foremost, the EU should publicly declare that any recourse to excessive or deadly force against peaceful protesters will trigger a suspension of engagement on signing a long-awaited PCA or a free trade agreement. This step would, in effect, bring the EU’s stance back to where it was right after the 2014 coup, when Brussels decided it would not conclude a PCA with Bangkok or pursue free trade negotiations until Thailand had a democratically elected government. It was only in October 2019 that the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council conclusions indicated a decision to broaden engagement with Thailand, following the general election that May.

The process of working toward a new consensus on political legitimacy is likely to be contentious, but it need not be violent if authorities respect Thai citizens’ rights to peacefully seek change. In this regard, the EU and its member states should expand on their existing efforts to monitor the situation with respect to political and civil rights and liberties, including observing protests and physically witnessing trials of political activists and dissidents. They should issue clear public and private statements to the effect that restrictions on civil rights and human rights abuses will harm relations with the EU and its member states, as well as reverberate during Thailand’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN’s Human Rights Council in October 2021. The EU could also allocate funding to Thai human rights organisations and the UN to increase capacity to monitor developments in the country.

The process of working toward a new consensus on political legitimacy is likely to be contentious, but it need not be violent if authorities respect Thai citizens’ rights to peacefully seek change.

Finally, the EU and its member states could make available good offices and expertise to help foster a credible reconciliation process. Announced in late 2020, the government’s proposed reconciliation committee appeared dead on arrival, with activists and opposition parties rejecting it as a gambit to buy time and thwart substantive change. Such scepticism stems from experience: Thailand’s record with truth and reconciliation panels is not exactly encouraging. There could be utility in third-party sponsorship of a framework in which relevant actors are able to exchange views on the most sensitive and vexing issues confronting Thai society, about which dialogue is, at present, virtually impossible. Brussels and members states could start by engaging with the president of the National Assembly to exchange views on reconciliation and, if requested by the relevant parties, offer support to such a process. The EU has a strong record of supporting mediation, dialogue and national reconciliation, and member states renewed their commitment to such activities in a new concept endorsed in December 2020. Such a role would accord with the EU’s stated commitments to assist Thailand in lifting restrictions on freedom of expression and encouraging democratic pluralism.