The United States faces no shortage of foreign policy challenges at the moment – from civil wars in Syria and Iraq, to preparing troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine. But we cannot let another high-stakes international crisis get lost in the mix: the recent military coup in Thailand that threatens the future of democracy in one of Southeast Asia’s most pivotal countries.
Though initial Western reactions to last May’s military takeover were appropriate – the United States, the European Union, and Australia all imposed a variety of modest diplomatic, economic, or military sanctions – recent alarming developments suggest the Thai military and its backers are no longer intent on eventually restoring democracy.
It is important to recall that when coup-leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in May, amid the social unrest following the overthrow of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration, he quickly promised a series of reforms that he said would restore peace, stability, and democracy.
While Prayuth has not yet detailed any of these vague “reforms,” recent comments and actions by him and his supporters suggest that the future of free and fair elections – the linchpin of democracy – is now in grave danger.
In a recent address, Prayuth said that, among other changes, the electoral process in Thailand should be re-examined in order to restore stability in the wake of the ongoing turmoil. He went on to call for an end to what he labeled a “parliamentary dictatorship.”
Similarly, Suthep Thaugsuban, the former leader of Thailand’s main opposition party and a supporter of the coup, has decried the “tyranny of the parliamentary majority” and reportedly called for creating unelected councils that would implement political reforms.
Even more concerning, Prayuth has already named himself to Thailand’s Board of Investment, and allies of the junta have been installed to lead key state-run companies.
These disturbing comments and actions by the junta and its supporters fly in the face of true democratic reform and illustrate the desire of political elites in Thailand to reclaim their diminished power by limiting the influence of popular elections.
If they succeed, they will effectively reverse what has been a slow-but-steady success story in democratization: Thanks to policies enacted over the past ten years, millions of poor and rural Thais who were long ignored by political elites in Bangkok are now playing an active role in the political process, ushering in reforms that have empowered them economically and socially.
Traditional Thai urban elites and power brokers are understandably concerned that an overly populist democratic path will threaten not only their privileged positions, but the overall stability and success of a nation long known as an attractive haven for foreign investors and tourists. But their response to their increasing inability to win at the ballot box – appearing prepared to use any means possible to restore their influence, including subverting the democratic process – will only hasten the very outcome they fear most.
The fact is, the genie of Thai electoral democracy cannot be put back in the bottle. Not that anyone should want it to be: all Thais would benefit from robust democratic institutions and procedures that protect the rights and interests of everyone – from the urban industrialist to the rural rice farmer.
Though current circumstances in Bangkok may appear bleak, there is also a potential silver lining: a real opportunity for Prayuth and his supporters to forge a fair, lasting, and stable path to permanent democracy. Not only would this further inspire hope in the millions of Thais who are new to the political process, it may also finally end the military’s disruptive interventions into Thai politics (there have been thirteen military coups since the founding of modern Thailand in 1932).
But for that to happen, Prayuth will need to be nudged. Fortunately, the West has just the tools to do so: targeted economic sanctions against the country’s critical automotive and rice industries. Although the junta claims it will offset any new Western sanctions by forging new economic partnerships with China, Thailand’s continued success as an economic powerhouse lies with greater global economic integration, not less. Prayuth knows this. Thai industrial elites in Bangkok know this. And we know this.
Applying such economic and diplomatic pressure does not mean the West intends to dictate the terms of Thai democracy – that is of course up to the people of Thailand. But such pressure can help ensure a robust, yet balanced, restoration of electoral democracy. The Thai people deserve as much. So does the cause of global freedom.
Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and international security at Columbia University. He formerly worked as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the U.S. Senate.