As you might have heard, there was an election here last weekend, and it was truly a watershed transition in the political history of this country. A bit of history: Five years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was tossed from the Prime Minister’s office by a military coup. Thaksin had been elected in 2001, and reelected (a first in Thai history) in 2005 riding a populist wave of support from the poor, rural majority of Thailand. He was widely disliked, however, by the established elite of the country– the upper and middle classes, the courts the “Privy Council” that surrounds and advises the monarchy, and the military, who saw to his removal.
After the coup, the military ruled for over a year, until another election in early 2008, which yielded victory for another member of Thaksin’s political party. He served for the better part of a year, before the constitutional court removed him from office on account of hosting a cooking show on TV while serving as Prime Minister. He was replaced by Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted two months before another court ruling sent him packing, and in stepped Abhisit Vejjajiva, a member of the opposition party, who served as Prime Minister until last week.
Given that they had dominated each of the last four national elections, it might not seem like much of a surprise that Thaksin’s followers– the ‘red shirts’, lately represented by the Pheu Thai Party– once again swept to a big victory in Sunday’s election. But there is a lot of ambivalence about Thaksin in this country. He’s an outsized figure: a billionaire businessman who ruled with a very firm hand, he was undoubtably guilty of corruption, and he possesses a public profile of proportions unmatched by any Thai except the King. And Pheu Thai is undoubtably his party, as evidenced by their slogan: “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Does.” Regardless, win they did, with a ticket headed by none other than Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s little sister. She’ll soon be taking the reins as Prime Minister. [It bears noting that the #1 search term driving visitors to this site right now is “yingluck shinawatra hot.” I don’t know who you are, but you’ve come to the wrong place.]
With 18 coups in the past century, Thailand has oscillated between freedom and oppression. But since the coup of 2006, things have gotten worse, even beyond the undemocratic changes in government. This trend is as clear as anywhere in the area of internet censorship. In their recent “Freedom on the Net” report, Freedom House rated Thailand as “Not Free” on account of censorship and violation of internet users rights. Since 2007, over 75,000 URLs have been blocked by court order, and since political unrest last year when the Abhisit government declared a state of emergency, many more websites were blocked without any legal process, including many opposition political sites, social media hubs, and the sites of some human rights groups. Additionally, the government has put pressure on intermediaries to preemptively censor illicit content, and has begun monitoring social media, chilling free speech.
And what is the “illicit” content that all this censorship is targeting? Some of it, to be sure, is pornography, hate speech, online gambling sites, and the like. But the majority of it is blocked under Thailand’s broad and punitive “lèse majesté” law, which calls for up to 15 years in prison for anybody criticizing the king or the monarchy. The law is unevenly enforced, but has landed everyone from a history professor to a drunk Swiss expat in trouble with the law, and has been used to punish not just public writing or speech, but private online commentary and even the content of text messages. What’s more, accusations and prosecutions of lèse majesté are often politically motivated, and have been used to silence speech unrelated to the monarchy.
Will the election change these antidemocratic tendencies in Thai government? It’s too early to tell, but probably not quickly. External factors, including the health of the king (who has ruled for over 60 years, and is rumored to be ailing), will weigh heavily on the potential for reform. In the meanwhile, political reconciliation is the great aspiration of Thailand. In the past five years, politics has been a blood sport, the country deeply divided and occasionally erupting into public demonstrations and violence. With many in the new minority venemously opposed to Thaksin, bridging the divide may be a tall order while his “clone” is in office, but some sort of reconciliation is this country’s only hope to move forward politically.