Thailand’s junta chief on Tuesday lifted a four-year ban on political activities ahead of the nation’s first election since a 2014 coup, but critics called for leaders of the military government to step aside to allow fair polls in February.
In a Royal Gazette posting effective Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha determined that now was the time to lift political restrictions because a royal decree on the general election was approaching. He also leads the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the official name of the junta.
“It is apparent that there will be an election in the near future, which is a crucial transition for the country’s future, therefore, people should take part in choosing political parties to govern the country freely. And it is appropriate to allow parties to campaign and present policies to the people,” an excerpt from Prayuth’s announcement in the Royal Gazette stated.
Prayuth, a former army general who led a coup that toppled a civilian government in May 2014, installed himself as prime minister and head of the NCPO. As a result of decrees enforced soon after the coup, the junta barred more than five people from gathering in public, muffled dissenters’ voices and prohibited parties from conducting political activities.
In Tuesday’s gazette announcement, Prayuth partially or fully revoked nine orders including the one banning political gatherings of more than five people. The action is not retroactive.
The posting also called for the releasing of bank accounts of some politicians who saw their assets frozen for alleged law violations.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn is expected to endorse the royal decree next month, setting the election date for February, according to a government spokesman and politicians running for office.
On Friday, the Thai election commission announced that nationwide polls would be held on Feb. 24, 2019. The announcement followed a meeting between Prayuth and leaders of about 100 political parties the same day.
Earlier this year, police charged seven pro-democracy activists with sedition and defying a ban on public gatherings for leading a demonstration in January that drew about 100 people in downtown Bangkok. They had allegedly violated the junta order prohibiting public political gatherings of five or more people.
Opposition leader reacts
Sombat Boonngamanong, the leader of a small party who faced a sedition charge and had his finances frozen, reacted negatively to Prayuth’s announcement.
“The lifting, the fanfare of the day, doesn’t mark the return to democracy but it means the junta is ready to jump into the election. It is also a player,” Sombat told BenarNews in a phone interview.
Previously, political observers said Prayuth was seeking to retain his grip on power through at least one proxy, the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP), which announced that it would nominate him for prime minister. The PPP is accused of poaching MPs from other parties, including Pheu Thai Party, the military’s arch rival that has been led by the Shinawatra family.
‘A hindrance to freedom’
Prayuth assumed power after overthrowing the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, which was elected in 2011. Her brother, Thaksin, was ousted from the prime minister’s office in 2006 through a similar military coup. Both are living abroad in exile.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, said the junta should revoke Section 44 of the constitution, or leaders should step down from power in the run-up to the election.
Section 44 replaced martial law and gave Prayuth and his government sweeping powers to censor the media, make arrests without court warrants and take civilians to military court. It also gave him power to impose orders to cover anything he wanted including the ban on political gatherings.
“If they want to run in the election, the NCPO should announce that its members won’t exercise Section 44 or just stop their roles in politics for the sake of fair and free election,” Titipol told BenarNews. “To have the NCPO in power is a hindrance to freedom.”