BANGKOK — The protracted political crisis that has rocked Thailand for the past decade is the result of “too much democracy,” says Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the retired army chief who seized power from an elected government in a military coup last May.
“Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy, unlike other countries where the government has more power to restrict freedoms,” Gen. Prayuth, who is now chairman of the ruling junta and Prime Minister, told investors and businessmen at a conference in Bangkok today.
“Even the media can’t criticize [those leaders], like they do here. I insist that today, we are 99 percent democratic, because I didn’t overthrow democracy at all.”
Gen. Prayuth continued, “I can’t even stop people from opposing me at this moment. If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad. It would be over, I wouldn’t have to wake up at night like this. Today there are some people who love me, but there are also many people who hate me. But please know that I am not doing this for myself. I am here to work for the country.”
Gen. Prayuth has often cast himself as a selfless leader who, in his own words, “took over the administration of the country” in order to reconcile Thailand after nearly a decade of turbulent politics.
Ten months after the coup, democracy remains suspended under Gen. Prayuth’s watch as military-appointed councils hammer out reform proposals and a new constitution. The current draft of the new charter is considered the least democratic constitution in Thailand’s recent history, with clauses that call for an unelected Senate and wide-ranging bureaucratic oversight of elected officials.
Gen. Prayuth was chosen to be Prime Minister by a rubber-stamp parliament of military officers and allies last year.
He also retained his post as the chairman of the ruling junta, making him the first leader to amass such concentrated and far-reaching power over Thailand’s national administration since 1971, when Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn installed himself as Prime Minister, chairman of Revolutionary Council, and commander of the armed forces.
Gen. Prayuth has also shown no intention of repealing martial law, which was imposed two days before the coup and grants the military sweeping powers to infringe on civil rights.
“Today I am here to move the country forward. I have to erase disputes, and I don’t know when the disputes will end,” Gen. Prayuth said today. “I don’t see anyone troubled by martial law. Without martial law, it would be much worse. So what are we going to do? If we cannot agree on things, well, let’s just do nothing.”
Since last May, soliders have invoked martial law to detain individuals without charges, conduct searches without warrants, ban political demonstrations, intimidate the media, and try civilians in martial courts, where military officers serve as judges and no appeal is permitted.
In January, the US-based Freedom House downgraded Thailand from “Partly Free” to “Not Free,” joining the ranks of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The organization attributed Thailand’s plunge in civil liberties to “the May military coup, whose leaders abolished the 2007 constitution and imposed severe restrictions on speech and assembly.”
“Please, don’t compare the situation at this moment with previous times, because I came here amid the conflict,” Gen. Prayuth said today. “Thailand has never been this divided. Please, let us unite once again.”
According to Gen. Prayuth’s “roadmap to democracy,” a national election will be held in 2016, given that the new constitution has been finalized and the political climate is deemeed stable.
Gen. Prayuth’s assessment of Thailand’s democratic situation also improved somewhat from last week. On 17 March, he told reporters at the Government that he believes Thailand is currently “90 percent democratic.”