BANGKOK (AP) — Shortly after seizing power in a coup that followed months of debilitating street protests, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha vowed to end Thailand’s decade of political upheaval once and for all. In his words, “to bring everything out in the open and fix it.”
A year later, the military can boast that it has restored stability and kept this Southeast Asian nation calm. But the bitter societal fissures that helped trigger the putsch are still simmering below the surface, unresolved.
“Our differences have just been pushed under the rug by a junta that prohibits freedom of expression,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Nothing has been done to address the root causes of Thailand’s deep divide.”
What is happening now is the imposition of peace by force, Sunai said. “There’s no guarantee that whenever the junta lets go of their iron grip, the country will not to fall back into conflict,” he added.
On Friday, the anniversary of the takeover, police quashed a small, peaceful demonstration in Bangkok, triggering scuffles as those who took part were dragged away. At least 37 students were detained before being released Saturday after 11 hours of questioning. Seven others who staged a similar protest in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen were also freed.
Speaking to reporters the same day, Prayuth acknowledged that seizing power “was wrong.” But he nevertheless defended the overthrow of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, saying “we cannot fix the past, but we can build for the future.”
The problem, critics argue, is that the junta may be sowing the seeds of more conflict by building that future on its own terms — with reform committees, a rubber-stamp legislature and no input from the party it toppled, Pheu Thai, whose supporters likely still represent a majority of the electorate.
The latest point of contention, a constitutional draft released in April, has been criticized even by groups who supported the putsch. If approved, the charter would significantly weaken the power of political parties, shifting it to unelected agencies like a proposed “National Moral Assembly” that would be empowered to investigate politicians for offenses as minor as “impolite” speech — ultimately initiating the path to their removal.
The charter’s drafters say such reforms are designed to check abuse by corrupt politicians, a problem acknowledged by all sides. But Pheu Thai officials say the real aim is to prevent their party from governing effectively if it wins again.
“Nobody knows how these agencies would be made accountable themselves,” said Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former premier who was among those who called for Yingluck to resign as prime minister before the coup. Speaking of the junta, he added: “They should be more concerned with making elected governments more accountable, rather than making them weaker.”
Last week, the military government announced it would subject the draft charter to a referendum. But “if you vote yes, you end up with a Frankenstein constitution that undercuts liberal democracy,” said Sunai of Human Rights Watch. “If you vote no, they’ll have to go back to the drawing board, and Prayuth will just stay in power longer.”
The junta has spoken of holding nationwide elections in late 2016, but no date has been set and some believe it could govern for years.
“The big picture for now is, we’re still in a lockdown … there’s still a huge question mark over the future,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
The junta has not been helped by Thailand’s sputtering economy, which has largely remained flat since the coup, with exports and investment down. Thitinan said generals “were not meant to govern Thailand, (and) some have lost their way. They’re not used to accountability, or being in the public eye, being asked questions.”
And they do not tolerate dissent. According to iLaw, a nonprofit group that monitors legal cases, at least 751 people have been summoned by the junta for what the military calls “attitude adjustments.” Before Friday, at least 428 had been arrested, 166 for expressing opinions perceived as critical; many were supporters of the ousted government, as well as students, writers and academics. Some have fled into exile.
The junta argues that it is working to create the foundation for a stable democracy, and that while it does, liberties and freedom of speech that could sow division must be curtailed. “We need an environment that is conducive to dialogue, where people can speak to one another,” said Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a junta spokesman.
“We’re not saying that they would not have any freedom at all in future, we’re not saying that this country will be in this environment forever,” he said. “We’re trying to create … understanding.”
Yingluck’s former education minister, Chaturon Chaisang, who is facing 14 years in prison for not reporting to a junta summons after the coup and then criticizing the takeover, disagreed.
There has been no “attempt to address the reconciliation process at all,” he said. “There has never been any discussion (with us) from people in charge on what the roots of the problem are.”
The coup was the culmination of a political schism laid bare after another putsch in 2006 that deposed billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother. The struggle, in broad terms, pits a majority rural poor in the north and northeast who benefited from the Shinawatra’s populist policies against an urban-based elite in Bangkok and the south that is worried over its steady loss of power at the polls.
The conflict has spurred crippling protests. In 2010, one mass demonstration ended with scores dead and parts of central Bangkok in flames. In 2014, a rival group of protesters seized ministries and all but shut down Yingluck’s government amid a wave of increasing violence that killed dozens of people and wounded more than 800 before the army intervened.
Shinawatra supporters say the junta and its allies are now following through on one of their main goals: to dismantle the Shinawatra’s political machine and ensure that the parties it has led can never dominate politics again.
In March, Thailand’s anti-corruption body recommended that 250 former lawmakers, most of them Pheu Thai members, be barred from seeking office on charges of misuse of power. This month, the Supreme Court began hearings against Yingluck for alleged dereliction of duty in overseeing a government rice subsidy scheme that lost billions of dollars.
Yingluck, who is free after posting bail that was set at nearly $1 million, faces 10 years in prison if found guilty. Her supporters argue that the case is politically motivated — evidence, they say, of a biased justice system.
By contrast, criminal charges have been dropped against former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the protests that paved the way for last year’s coup. Suthep’s supporters had brazenly seized government ministries, attacked the prime minister’s office with homemade rockets and disrupted an election Yingluck called in a failed bid to defuse the crisis. No one has been tried for those offenses.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone and video journalist Papitchaya Boonngok contributed to this report.