Thailand enters its fourth year under military rule Monday with the junta firmly entrenched in power and prospects for the return of democracy bleak despite promised elections at the end of next year, rights activists say.
On May 22, 2014, then-Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-o-cha overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup, saying the military had intervened to end street protests and years of political turmoil.
Coup leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth then vowed to restore order and unity, and rid the nation of those against the Thai monarchy, whose alliance with the military dates back six decades.
The junta-backed parliament or National Legislative Assembly has swiftly passed an array of laws aimed at gagging dissent, in a country that already had strict Lese-Majeste laws forbidding insults to the royal family.
Since the coup three years ago, the junta has detained 597 people, including politicians, activists and journalists, according to iLaw, an advocacy group for online law education.
Among them, 82 were held for violating Lese-Majeste laws, under which offenders can get as many as 15 years in jail for sharing a story on Facebook, while 64 were hauled up for sedition, iLaw figures show.
The junta recently banned people in Thailand from contacting, following or otherwise engaging online with three government critics overseas.
Already armed with highly restrictive web laws, the junta is also moving to introduce a new cyber law that would grant the authorities more powers to access private computer systems.
The 2007 Computer Crimes Act, originally aimed at stamping out Internet scams, is now used against critics or people who speak out against wealthy companies and figures, right groups say.
“The issue of concern is the snuffing out of freedom -- [freedom] of speech, to hold demonstrations, peaceful public gatherings," said Angkhana Neelapaijit, a national human rights commissioner. "Human rights defenders are intimidated or prosecuted,” she told BenarNews.
She said that as the junta has rewritten the country’s constitution and got it approved by the people in a referendum in August and by new King Maha Vajiralongkorn last month, "the government should compromise and let people express their opinions."
The amended constitution paves the way for elections, postponed at least four times by the junta, and enables the military government to appoint a senate that will have a say in appointing the prime minister.
The junta, whose formal name is the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), had indicated that an election can be expected in November next year.
"The regular promises by the NCPO military junta to return democracy next year are undermined by their lack of respect for basic human rights like freedom of speech, association and peaceful public assembly that are critical for democratic participation,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
"Even if the elections for a new government are held at the end of 2018, which is the most likely scenario, one needs to ask what sort of democracy will it really be with a powerful Senate entirely appointed by the military, and mechanisms that make it harder for any one party in the lower house to gain a functioning majority?” Adams told BenarNews.
“The latest constitution is designed by the military and for the military, and will likely perpetuate soldiers' influence in politics well beyond the 2018 election," said Adams.
A state of chaos?
Prayuth has defended the junta's rule, saying the government has been working to lay a strong foundation for the country but that opposition politicians and critics had cast it in a bad light and made it look as though it is failing.
"I am concerned about the country, not about democracy," he was quoted saying by The Bangkok Post recently. "We'll have elections, but do we want to return to a state of chaos?"
Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the NCPO spokesman, said the government was making efforts to lay the groundwork for better governance.
“The government has tried by all means to fix the nation’s problems and steer the country towards good governance, financial discipline, and make it free from corruption,” he told BenarNews.
He accused some media outlets of "negatively" assessing the junta’s achievements.
But the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), which campaigns for press freedom in the region, said the Prayuth administration particularly took aim at online media over criticism of the government.
“Online media are under spotlight -- accused of creating conflict or having key roles in criticizing the government’s work results," said Kulchada Chaipipat, Bangkok-based media freedom campaigner for SEAPA.
“The society has progressed beyond the point that the government has to control the media," Kulchada told BenarNews.
Kulchada said media organizations should be given the responsibility of taking action against media practitioners if they had breached the journalistic code.
Depending on dictators
Among the few who speak out against the junta is Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a 20-year-old student leader.
Netiwit, who chairs the student council in Thailand’s oldest Chulalongkorn University, said the coup has done more damage than good to the country.
"For example, the constitution erodes the foundation of the democracy, the education curriculum is not good enough and human rights have simply vanished,” Netiwit told BenarNews.
“We need to get away from the cycle of coups and the feeling that we need to depend on dictators. We need to improve democracy to prevent any more coups from occurring,” he said.
The Thai military has successfully seized power a dozen times since 1932.
In a fresh crackdown on Friday, police briefly detained eight people who held street protests seeking justice over a military crackdown in 2010.
Among them was Payao Akhard, the mother of a nurse who was killed as she tried to help a dying protester during demonstrations against then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration. She was among about 90 who were killed during the military crackdown.
Murder and other charges against Abhisit for ordering the military crackdown in 2010 had been dismissed.