In an election that continues to be complicated by increasing twists and turns, the Future Forward leader Thanathorn Jueangroongrueangkit has been threatened with prosecution and a possible five-year jail term, which would disqualify him from standing in the election. The grave crime that he committed, it appears, is criticizing the junta and the disputed claim that he “used false information” in June last year.
What should we make of this? It is unlikely to be a coincidence that this case has been rushed with Future Forward’s surge in popularity. Thanathorn has recently become a social media sensation and his party increasingly well-received by younger voters. This case becomes doubly dangerous for the junta because of Thanathorn’s proposals that would severely threaten the military’s ability to wield influence in Thai politics: amending the constitution, slashing the defense budget, reducing the number of generals, ending conscription and changing the army’s politicized nature.
Regardless of your views on Thanathorn and Future Forward, this issue should be deeply troubling to all who believe in the constitutionally-enshrined mandate that elections proceed “in an honest and just manner”. Robert Dahl, a renowned political theorist, once noted seven procedural minimums that must be followed for a modern political democracy to exist, one of which is that “citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined”.
Threatening a party leader with jail time for disagreeing with the military government is a clear violation of this procedural minimum. As Jonathan Head of the BBC observed, “Using a repressive law to prosecute the leader of a political party during an election campaign – for criticizing the junta he seeks to replace – is the height of absurdity.”
The military government may be too afraid to fight a free and fair election. But “if liberty means nothing at all”, as George Orwell once wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. It is in this spirit that I now write.
The first truth that the military government may not want to hear is that it is woefully unpopular. A poll by the Financial Times found that only 9% of urban voters plan to vote for Palang Pracharath, the military government’s party political vehicle. Among voters younger than 35, that support falls to just 5%.
If the government continues along this route and tries to win the election by disqualifying opponents and squeezing into power through the appointed senate, its unpopularity would prove to be its own undoing. It is inconceivable that protests would not flare if Palang Pracharath formed a government without a majority in the House of Representatives.
The second truth is that this is not the only route that the government can take. The prime minister often talks about engaging in politics ‘constructively’. He should heed his own words and do the same by ceasing undemocratic tactics and asking Palang Pracharath to only campaign positively around his vision for the country.
Prayut has a record that he can run on. It is not perfect, but it is not without substance. He has fought human trafficking, increased infrastructure spending, boosted economic growth, passed taxes on plastic use and sugar and overseen conservation initiatives. His government has a signature Pracharath populist scheme and a vision to build a ‘Thailand 4.0’. Why does Palang Pracharath not focus on winning the debate of ideas and show the country their policies are superior?
The third truth is that the army’s overt opposition to some political parties is backfiring. Army commander Apirat Kongsompong ordered that the song ‘Nuk Pan Din’, which loosely translates to ‘Scum of the Land’, be played at all army bases. This is a divisive, hateful song that brings back memories of the October 6th massacre at Thammasat University.
It is understandable that the army would bristle at Future Forward and Pheu Thai’s policy proposals; Future Forward’s policies, in particular, would radically transform the army in ways that will not attain the consent of the armed forces themselves. However, there are two massive problems with Apirat’s order.
If we are to build a sustainable democracy, we need to learn to accept the legitimacy of political opponents within the democratic order. Why, then, are we tacitly referring to some politicians as a “burden on the land”?
And why is it still acceptable for the military to engage so loudly in politics? Defense policies should be decided by the defense minister in a civilian government. In the United States, generals acting in an insubordinate manner to the president are fired (think Truman and MacArthur). If the will of the people on March 24th is that the army must be reformed, the army commander must heed it. To loudly oppose certain policies before voting has commenced is plainly a violation of the principle of civilian control of the military.
If the government and the military strongly believes that the military should have a role in politics, that defense spending should not be cut, or that conscription remains necessary in modern Thailand, it should fall to parties backing these policies to make the case. If Palang Pracharath truly believes that the people will support the army’s status quo, then it should campaign based on these principles.
This election needs to be fought freely and fairly in a constructive manner. The military government, if it wishes to remain in power, should try winning the election in a way that does not violate the spirit of democracy.