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Thailand’s Generals Promise Reform Amid Skepticism

FILE - Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plenary session at Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Nov. 12, 2014.
FILE - Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plenary session at Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Nov. 12, 2014.

The two top generals of the junta running Thailand on Wednesday defended the May 22 coup that ousted the civilian government but told international audiences in Bangkok they are committed to a return to democracy.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking to the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand (JFCCT), promised significant change for the better in 2015 but cautioned that reform and the road map for democracy will still take time.

"I have confirmed we will have an election and everything will be much better," he told the audience. "Any suggestions are welcome."

Reassuring investors

The retired general urged members of the foreign chambers not to be overly concerned about the continuation of martial law. "We will not let protests happen again," in order to build investors’ confidence, he promised.

Thailand for years has been wracked by bitter political divisions that have turned violent. When the military seized power in May, it pledged to end this turbulent cycle through permanent political reforms.

But it remains unclear whether that will result in a democratic government, despite assurances from top officials.

The military-led government's second-in-command, General Tanasak Patimapragon said on Wednesday, “Thailand remains fully committed to democracy and democratic values but the true democracy that we want must be more than just elections.”

He spoke to a group composed primarily of diplomats attending a seminar titled “On the Path to Reform.”

Specifically, he said, the reform road map the military-led government is implementing will ensure a democracy based on “good governance, accountability, rule of law and human rights.”

But critics of the junta argue that significant sectors of civil society are not being included in the reform process. At Wednesday’s closed seminars on the reforms, none of the coup’s outspoken opponents appeared on the roster.

The role of offering constructive criticism instead was left to invited foreign academics.

Only the opening and closing statements were open to the media and the public was not invited.

Blunt words from invited speakers

In the keynote speech, the secretary-general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union offered blunt suggestions that if spoken by a Thai citizen in public could prompt detention under current Thai law.

“Reform will only be positive if it takes place in a climate in which all people can speak their minds and be heard without fear of reprisal,” said the IPU chief, Martin Chungong, a native of Cameroon.

For Thailand to return to democracy, there must be an impartial implementation of respect for human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, he added.

Thailand has fared poorly in that arena under the junta, according to the international nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch.

“Respect for fundamental freedoms and democracy in Thailand under military rule has fallen into an apparently bottomless pit,” the HRW noted in a statement last month.

The group cited bans on political activity, systematic prosecution of criticism, media censorship and military courts holding trials for dissidents.

Thailand has had 19 constitutions (five of them deemed temporary charters, including a current one) since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

“There is no institutional-constitutional nirvana that will fix everything,” cautioned political science associate professor Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, who also attended Wednesday’s seminar.

Hicken said the perception that some groups in Thailand were under-represented “poses some challenges for the legitimacy of the reform process and what comes afterwards.”

One of Hicken’s fellow panelists, also speaking to VOA before his presentation, contended the struggle for political reform in Thailand dated back to the 1970s, with success achieved in 1997 when the public endorsed a constitution that was “one of the most liberal this region has seen.”

But “we’ve sort of been going downhill ever since then,” contended Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Regional Director for the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Vatikiotis, who worked as a journalist in Asia for 28 years, said he was skeptical about Thailand’s chances of success for reforming the constitution, “not just because of the military government, but because of the weakness of civil society, the inability of political actors to essentially sink their differences and forge a common platform with a vision for a stable, open, transparently-managed democratic environment.”

Handpicked legislature

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth seized power in the bloodless coup when he was army chief, then abrogated the kingdom’s constitution and dissolved the civilian legislative apparatus. He later handpicked a National Legislative Assembly, which unanimously selected him unopposed to lead the government.

Prayuth and other top junta leaders have given conflicting timelines on when a general election can be held.

The recent years of bitter political discord occurred at a time of declining health of Thailand’s king, who did not step in and settle the feuding, as he had occasionally done in the past.

King Bhumibol, currently the world’s longest reigning monarch, celebrates his 87th birthday Friday. He underwent removal of his gallbladder in early October, the latest known ailment for a monarch whose health is subject to great public concern.

Anxiety about his succession has been growing due to his frail condition and worries about whether Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 62, can achieve the same level of reverence accorded the current king.

Harsh lese majeste laws severely constrict public and media discussion about the royal family, even for repeating what others have said and truth of the matter is no protection from prosecution.

But eyebrows were raised when the crown prince, in a letter dated last Friday, asked that the royally issued surname given to the family of his wife, Princess Srirasmi, be rescinded.

Three of her relatives, who used the Akrapongpreecha name, were recently arrested amid a crackdown involving senior members of the police force. Charges filed against some of those arrested include insulting the monarchy.

King Bhumibol, Queen Sirikit, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, Princess Srirasmi, Princess Sirindhorn (a popular daughter of the king and queen), as well as other members of the royal family are to grant a rare joint public audience Friday on the occasion of the monarch’s birthday, according to the Bureau of the Royal Household.