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Thailand Sets a Poor Example to Burma

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The announcement by Burma's notoriously brutal military junta to hold elections this November left many observers scratching their heads: Why even bother going through the motions? No one is fooled by this sham, least of all the supporters of political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest order is conspicuously set to conclude just days after the proposed election date. The junta has no intention of holding a real election, notes columnist Jonathan Manthorpe, "so they have constructed a charade aimed at pleasing the gullible without putting their power at risk."

However, judging by the Obama administration's silent tolerance of Thailand's violent military-backed regime, you can't blame the Burmese generals for thinking that these are the new rules of the game. The "gullible" in Washington are duly earning their title.

Only a decade ago, Thailand was the sole democracy in the region, surpassing every one of its closest neighbors on measures of civil and political rights, religious tolerance, and respect for minority rights. In the intervening time, while most countries in the region have made some incremental progress on economic openness, political freedoms, and adherence to the rule of law, Thailand has spent the better part of the last several years moving in the opposite direction.

Long a staunch US ally and once a reliable partner in the region, under the nose of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thailand has morphed into a threat to regional peace and serial human rights abuser. In many respects, Thailand is now more comparable to Burma than it is to a successful emerging democracy like Indonesia.

Since coming to power in December 2008, after a court decision that overturned the result of an election held a year earlier, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party-led government -- in concert with its main backers among the country's top generals, royal advisers, and exclusionary elite -- has launched an all-out assault on the basic democratic rights of poorer majority.

There is quite an established record of brutality overlooked by Washington. In late 2008, just weeks after Abhisit became Prime Minister, the international media uncovered a story of gruesome human rights abuses committed by the Thai authorities against Rohingya refugees. After days of mistreatment, the Thai military towed the refugees out to the high seas, leaving them to die of hunger and thirst on barges with no engines or navigational equipment. It was estimated that as many as five hundred of them had died as a result of the Royal Thai Army's actions. Instead of investigating the affair, the Prime Minister rushed to dismiss the well-documented allegations.

In terms of freedom of expression, Thailand is moving closer to the Burmese model every day. The government has censored virtually every source of alternative information, including the opposition's TV station, dozens of community radios, and as many as 50,000 websites that were blocked or shut down by the authorities. There's also been an increase in the abuse of repressive legislation such as Thailand's draconian lèse majesté laws and the Computer Crimes Act. The year 2009 saw a record number of prosecutions for crimes of conscience ― the courts are reported to have accepted charges of lèse majesté for 164 cases ― as well as the conviction of activists such as Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul ("Da Torpedo"), who was sentenced on August 28 to eighteen years in prison for three charges of lèse majesté (one per offending comment) stemming from a speech she gave in July 2008.

International NGOs are beginning to take notice of the repression of free speech, from the Committee to Protect Journalists to Reporters Without Borders. Owing to the ongoing campaign of persecution and harassment of political opponents, in January 2010 Human Rights Watch lamented the "serious backsliding" observed in Thailand's human rights record over the course of Abhisit's tenure in office. By all accounts, the hounding of political opponents is only intensifying. Juti Krai-rirk, the new Minister of Information and Communication Technology, has recently promised the continuation of the crackdown, on the grounds that "the government has given too much freedom for its citizens."

Of an altogether more serious nature is the campaign of violence, extra-judicial executions, and illegal detentions that the Abhisit administration has unleashed against its opponents, chiefly among them the "Red Shirts" of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) -- an organization that sprung up in opposition against the 2006 coup. The government's campaign against the opposition has resulted in the death of almost a hundred unarmed protesters and the injury of approximately two thousand people.

The first major episode of repression took place in April 2009, when the Abhisit administration carried out a violent dispersal of Red Shirt demonstrations in Bangkok. The Red Shirts organized still more massive demonstrations beginning on March 14, 2010. Following a botched crackdown of April 10, which left twenty-seven people dead, the Red Shirts were finally dispersed on May 19, after a weeklong crackdown that saw the military fire thousands of live rounds on unarmed protesters, innocent bystanders, emergency medical workers, and journalists. Despite repeated accusations of "terrorism" leveled at the UDD, no security forces died during the operations in May, while none of the fifty-five additional people gunned down by the authorities proved to have been carrying weapons. As Reporters Without Borders (RSF) put it, the Thai government gave the army a "license to kill" the demonstrators, which the security forces used to "run roughshod over international law and Thai legislation protecting civilians."

The military is once again in control of the country. Unlike in the aftermath of the 2006 coup, it governs under the cover of law -- more specifically, thanks to the abuse of repressive legislation allowing the new junta to place itself beyond any form of accountability. The current government's abuse of emergency powers in fact marks the wholesale subversion of the rule of law absent the formal declaration of a coup. The government's pretense of legality notwithstanding, one should make no mistake about it: the imposition and subsequent indefinite extension of the Emergency Decree marks the staging of a silent (if unacceptably violent) coup on the part of the Abhisit administration and its military backers.

Earlier in the year, the highly reputable international organization Freedom House reported that Thailand could not be classified as an "electoral democracy" (much less a "liberal democracy") owing to the constant interference of the military in the political process as well as the Abhisit's insistence on governing the country in the absence of an electoral mandate. Freedom House ranked Thailand as "partly free," assigning scores on Political Rights and Civil Liberties identical to Venezuela's (and worse than troubled countries in South and Southeast Asia such as Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). While Freedom House's rating underscores the marked deterioration of Thailand's democracy (Thailand was considered a "Free" country as late as 2005), the 2010 figures do not reflect the giant leap into authoritarianism Thailand has made over the last six months, which have brought Thailand more in line with countries like Russia and Iran.

It is a sad irony that at the same time the Burmese junta agreed to hold an election (albeit one that is likely to be deeply flawed) the Thai junta would consider murdering a hundred people and violating its international obligations to be preferable to holding an election of its own. Moreover, whereas the prospect of regional volatility raised by the actions of the PAD and Democrat Party has greatly alarmed Thailand's major trading partners, the country's authoritarian reversal is guaranteed to damage the international community's attempt to promote democracy in the region.

Thus far, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have failed to utter a single word about the destruction of democracy in Thailand, while the US House of Representatives passed a bland resolution praising the government's fraudulent "reconciliation" plan. Having failed to do anything to stop Thailand's transformation into a rogue regime, it is time that the US government reassess its stance and use its leverage to persuade the authorities in Bangkok to end emergency rule, end the systematic repression of opposition voices, and eventually hold elections. While history has shown repeatedly just how important Southeast Asia is to the United States' national interest, letting the Thai regime get away with murder further threatens to compromise regional peace and stability. What is more, a little pressure might go a long way towards promoting democratic values in a country where democracy is now in a state of complete disrepair.

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer retained by the former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra to advocate on behalf of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)