Editorial: Grow Up Thai Junta, and Learn About Democracy

Thai junta chairman and PM Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Instead of throwing a juvenile temper tantrum, the Thai military should comply with the United States government's calls for lifting martial law and returning to democratic rule immediately.

In a speech given to a crowd at Chulalongkorn University this week, Daniel Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, aptly observed that Thailand’s military government has imposed "significant restraints on freedom" since it seized power in a coup d’etat on 22 May 2014.

Russel, the highest-level US official to visit Thailand since the coup, went on to advocate for the repeal of martial law and all restrictions on civil liberties in Thailand.

"Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important steps as part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country," Russel said. 

Russel's reasoned, diplomatic, and politely-delivered remark has caused an uproar among Thai junta leaders and their supporters, who have angrily accused the US diplomat of acting "inappropriately, " "violating diplomatic protocols" and "interfering in Thai politics." 

However, it is Thai officials who have acted inappropriately by publicly lambasting Russel one after another, and repeatedlymisrepresenting his speech (which largely focused on uncontroversial aspects of the two countries' historic alliance). Pro-coup Thais have also turned rabid with their anti-American sentiment, spamming the US Embassy’s Facebook page, announcing the return of the “Ugly American” in newspaper op-eds, and even supporting ISIS threats of beheading US President Barack Obama on social media. 

The junta and its supporters insist that the US government does not understand Thailand’s political situation. However, the US is hardly alone in its assessment of the deteriorating human rights climate in Thailand that has followed the 22 May coup.

This week, the independent watchdog Freedom House downgradedThailand from a "Partly Free" to "Not Free" country in its annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties around the globe. On the same day, Human Rights Watch report described the Thai junta as sending Thailand’s human rights situation "into free fall."

It is true that the US government's rhetoric of promoting democracy and liberty around world is often fraught with hypocrisy; for instance, the excess of military power over Thailand can be traced to US’s financial aid during the Cold War.

However, the Thai military cannot have it both ways. Junta chairman and PM Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha cannot proclaim his "democratic heart" and commitment to restoring democracy in Thailand, while also denouncing Russel's call for the restoration of civil liberties, a founding principle of any democratic society. 

The reaction to Russel’s sound counsel is disturbing in that it illustrates just how little the Thai junta – who is responsible for shaping Thailand’s next constitution and political system – understands the basic building blocks of democracy.

The Thai government should heed the US’s friendly advice, and it should also learn how to distinguish a mountain from a molehill. The embarrassing racket that has followed Russel’s remarks suggests that, at the very least, the junta would do well to develop some thicker skin.