A policeman fires his weapon as police face off with pro-democracy protesters during a demonstration near the residence of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok on Feb. 28. (Photo: AFP)
Thailand, once a leading light of democratization in Southeast Asia, has been classified as a “not free” country by Freedom House in its latest World Report ranking nations on their degrees of political freedoms and civil liberties.
Since last year’s report Thailand has been downgraded from “partly free” to “not free” in a reflection of local authorities’ continued clampdown on people with anti-establishment views, including young protesters who have been calling for reforms during recurrent mass rallies.
The decline in Thailand’s status has been “due to the dissolution of a popular opposition party that had performed well in the 2019 elections, and the military-dominated government’s crackdown on youth-led protests calling for democratic reforms,” Freedom House explained.
Early last year, the Future Forward Party, a progressive political movement that enjoyed broad electoral support, was dissolved by a court on a legal technicality. The party’s leaders, including its charismatic founder, were banned from politics for 10 years.
“In 2020, the combination of democratic deterioration and frustrations over the role of the monarchy provoked the country’s largest anti-government demonstrations in a decade,” Freedom House said.
“In response to these youth-led protests, the regime resorted to familiar authoritarian tactics, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation, lese majeste charges and harassment of activists.
“Freedom of the press is constrained, due process is not guaranteed, and there is impunity for crimes committed against activists.”
On a scale of 0 to 100 on the freedom index, Thailand scored a mere 30, which puts it squarely in the bottom third of countries alongside Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Thailand’s “not free” status is particularly noteworthy as the country was once held up as an example of rapid modernization and political democratization.
“In the 1990s, Thailand earned a reputation as an emerging Southeast Asian democracy that respected freedom of expression. That is no longer the case,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In the past two decades, two military coups, in 2006 and 2014, have served to roll back key democratic reforms in a country effectively ruled by a triumvirate of the monarchy, a powerful oligarchy and the military.
In addition to not being free when it comes to civil liberties, Thailand is also one of the world’s most economically unequal nations with the top 1 percent owning two-thirds of the country’s wealth, according to investment bank Credit Suisse.
The military-dominated government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief, has been beset by allegations of endemic graft and large-scale mismanagement.
“Thailand’s anti-corruption legislation is inadequately enforced, and bribes and gifts are common practice in business, law enforcement and the legal system,” Freedom House said.
Nearly seven years of military rule have resulted in growing rates of poverty after years of successful poverty eradication, according to the World Bank.
“The increase in poverty in 2018 was widespread, occurring in all regions and 61 out of 77 provinces,” the World Bank said in a report last year.
“Real farm and business incomes declined in rural and urban households, respectively. Wage income also declined in urban households.”
Over the past year, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, rates of poverty have increased further still, with millions of Thais plunged into abject destitution.
A lack of freedoms and growing economic inequality have triggered large-scale dissatisfaction with the government, which has responded to mass protests with force.
Numerous pro-democracy activists, including minors, have been charged with serious crimes, including sedition and royal defamation, after youth-led protests in which participants called for political reforms.