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The Retreat Of Democracy In Thailand


Well, you can add Thailand to the list of countries where democracy is in retreat. The Thai military seized power three years ago after months of political turmoil, promising a swift return to democratic rule. But as Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok, the military seems to be settling in, as does the country's new monarch, who replaced his popular father late last year.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm standing near one of the royal palaces here, where until just a few months ago, there was a small plaque about the size of a dinner plate embedded in the pavement here marking the 1932 revolution that brought an end to Thailand's absolute monarchy and helped usher in democratic rule. That plaque remained here for more than 80 years. And then one day in April, it disappeared. The police said they have no idea who took it. They say all the CCTV cameras in the area were broken at the time, nor will they say how a new plaque was put here in its stead, one that promotes love and loyalty to the state and to the king. The message to many Thais was clear.

EKACHAI HONGKANGWAN: They hate this. They want to destroy this. They want to erase this from history.

SULLIVAN: And Thai activist Ekachai Hongkangwan doesn't want it erased. He's no fan of the military or the monarchy and came up with a plan to dig up the new plaque and replace it with an exact replica of the original - but he didn't get far.

HONGKANGWAN: When I went to walk across the road, the police arrest me and take me to the passenger van and send me to the military camp.

SULLIVAN: Arrested but released that same evening. Others haven't been as fortunate. In the three years since it seized power, the military has detained hundreds of people for violating its draconian edicts against freedom of assembly or expression and has gone after critics of the monarchy with a vengeance.


SULLIVAN: Human rights lawyer Surapong Kongjanteuk says more than a hundred people have been charged by the military for criticizing the monarchy, many for posts on social media. One man faces 150 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Surapong says the military is widening the interpretation of what constitutes lese majeste to protect not just the monarchy but itself. And it's not just online.

JIRAT RATTHAWONGJIRAKUL: The first day when they came, they came and they looked at every image.

SULLIVAN: That's Jirat Ratthawongjirakul. He runs the Ver art gallery in Bangkok. In June, he says, the military came and told him to remove three pictures from an exhibit by a young artist whose work was shaded in ambiguity about the military and the monarchy.

RATTHAWONGJIRAKUL: They told me the situation in this country is not stable, so we don't want someone to make problem to this country anymore. And before they left, they said, if you are not understand us, we will come back again and it will be harder for you.

SULLIVAN: After they left, he called his artist and warned him to lay low. Meanwhile, the military continues its offensive against its critics. This month, a prominent Thai journalist, Pravit Rojanaphruk, was charged with sedition for criticizing the military. He's already been a guest of the junta twice before, detained for what the military calls attitude adjustment. Paul Chambers is an expert of the Thai military and a lecturer at Naresuan University.

PAUL CHAMBERS: We'd have to go back to the 1970s to see this sort of repression. So in other words, Thailand is making a U-turn to the past here.

SULLIVAN: Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says even some who may have supported the coup at first are now feeling used.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: They had ample space, time and opportunity to do what they pledged to do, which was to reform Thailand and for a better democratic system and to get rid of corruption, to reform the bureaucracy. But they haven't done that. What we are seeing is more of the same.

SULLIVAN: Even worse, he says...

PONGSUDHIRAK: This time, the military didn't just come in, take over, write a new constitution and then transition and then leave. This time, they decided to stay for the long haul.

SULLIVAN: With a new constitution that guarantees the military's continued influence over elected governments in the future. The junta has tentatively scheduled a general election for next year. Repeated attempts to reach a military spokesman for comment went unanswered. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.