BANGKOK — As Thailand edges closer to a long-elusive election – now scheduled for Feb. 24 – the junta faces a rising chorus of criticism for allegedly rigging the poll.
A pro-junta party voraciously poaching MPs. Government tours showering taxpayer money on potential voters. A gerrymandered electoral district map that baffles observers. A mystifying need to remove party logos from ballots. Uneven rules disadvantaging the opposition.
And that’s just in recent weeks.
All these signs prompted a prominent academic to warn the regime could be dragging Thailand into a future resembling its inglorious past.
Thirayuth Boonmee, who as a student activist helped spark an uprising that overthrew military rule four decades ago, raised concern Monday that junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha risks manipulating the upcoming poll to the point it loses all credibility.
“I’d like to plead with Gen. Prayuth … to prevent all sides from using legal manipulation or any other means to the point that there are accusations of a dirty election,” Thirayuth said on the occasion of an annual news conference where he offers his analysis on current affairs.
“Just like what the military dictators did in 1957,” he added in comments to an audience well aware that what followed was much worse.
That Monday remark has since seized the imaginations of politicians and editorial writers. Naewna, a reliably pro-establishment outlet, urged the government to heed Thirayuth’s “well-intended” words in a Tuesday column.
Weighing in online, the leader of what has been the most powerful political party went so far as to suggest the election junta-organized poll might turn out even worse.
“Will the 2019 election be written on a new page of Thai history as the most unfair?,” said Phumtham Vechayachai of the Pheu Thai Party, after discussing the 1957 poll in his post.
So what made it so notorious? Let’s take a look back at the plots, ruses and naked ploys by which another military government attempted to steal the vote in what went down as Thailand’s dirtiest election.
“In terms of trickery, there are similarities,” historian Thamrongsak Petchlertanan said in an interview. “There was cheating even before the election in order to perpetuate the junta regime in power.”
Old Soldiers, Same Tricks
When Thais went to the polls in 1957, they had been living under the military rule of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram for 10 years – a decade punctuated by political purges, internal coups and bloody rebellions.
There was no putting off the election – under the constitution, it was mandated because the parliament had completed its four-year term. A previous election a few years earlier had been boycotted by the opposition, including the Democrat Party, to protest a follow-up coup by Plaek to further consolidate his power.
But the Democrats and their allies changed tactics when the field marshal announced the 1957 election. They would contest it. The public was awash with excitement at the news. It would be the first time Plaek and his clique faced adversaries on the ballot.
“The question for the junta was: How do you organize an election and win it as a governing party, too?” Thamrongsak said, a question that rings with relevance then as now.
The answer was launching a pro-junta party called the Serimanangkasila – a reference to the Manangkasila Mansion on Lanluang Road, which served as a residence for the prime minister’s guests from overseas.
Founded two years prior to the election, the party was led by the triumvirate of power at the time: Plaek, Field Marshal Phin Choonhavan and army chief Sarit Thanarat.
The similarities to today pile up.
On the way to Election Day, the party poached MPs from other factions, either by buying them out or outright intimidation. Contemporary accounts allege that thugs hired by then-police chief Phao Sriyanond intimidated rural villagers to only vote for Serimanangkasila, and some Democrat candidates had human feces thrown at their homes.
Some ministers serving under Plaek also formed small parties allied with the Serimanangkasila to help stack up votes, Thamrongsak the historian said.
Vote Early, Vote Often
When polls opened Feb. 26, 1957, the shitshow that followed was one for the books. Fraud emerged in so many forms that observers assigned nicknames to each variety.
First there were the paratroopers: groups of soldiers “dropped in” to vote at various polling booths throughout the capital.
Others were less subtle. Security forces were spotted queuing up and voting at the same booths almost immediately after they already cast their ballots, earning them the nickname wian tian for a Buddhist ritual observed by marching around a temple thrice on religious days.
And when polls closed, there was the discovery of fire cards: mysterious ballots that appeared out of nowhere in the ballot boxes. Of course, they all were marked Serimanangkasila.
According to media reports at the time, one polling station where the pro-junta party trailed behind the Democrats had a blackout just as officials were counting votes. After power was restored, Serimanangkasila soon took the lead; activists observing the count accused officials of adding hundreds of bogus ballots.
Chaos soon erupted. Newspapers denounced the results. Students at two elite universities, Chulalongkorn and Thammasat, put aside their rivalry to march side by side in the streets of Bangkok to protest the outcome – marking the first time students engaged in political activism on a large scale.
The government responded by declaring a State of Emergency, enraging the students even further. By the night of March 2, protesters broke through police barriers and threatened to storm Plaek’s seat of power at the Government House. Tensions were only defused when Field Marshal Sarit met with the students in person and proposed to mediate a solution.
“I’ll see you all again when the nation needs me,” Sarit told the cheering students after they agreed to disperse.
He made good on his promise six months later when, citing discontent and corruption, Sarit seized power from Plaek. He went on to suppress dissent on a scale dwarfing that of the tyrant he deposed. Some of the students who applauded his intervention over election fraud were jailed on suspicion of being communists.
Despite the many reported attempts to steal the election, Thamrongsak disagrees with historians who characterize the 1957 poll as the “dirtiest,” since it was never established if similar mischief occurred outside the capital.
He urged people today to exercise judgment when reading those accounts because much of the sensational coverage was fanned by Sarnseri, a tabloid newspaper owned by Sarit.
In fact, Thamrongsak even suspects that the field marshal, regarded by many progressive activists at the time as a reliable ally, might have encouraged the dirty tricks to discredit Plaek and play them to his advantage.
“Many media agencies chose to side with Sarit because they wanted to destroy Field Marshal Plaek,” the historian said. “They ended up as a tool in Sarit’s hands to destroy democracy.”
For its part, the current junta insists voting in February will be fair and free. On Tuesday, the regime lifted its nearly five-year-old ban on political gatherings, ostensibly to pave way for the poll.
But some remain unconvinced. On Wednesday, pro-democracy activists and politicians rallied at the Election Commission to demand it functions independently.
“The government must not dominate or interfere with the Election Commission,” Pheu Thai spokeswoman Laddawan Wongsriwong told reporters.
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