Thai elections: a chance for change in Myanmar?
Matthew C Thorn
Thailand and Myanmar’s military juntas are in close cooperation since seizing power via their respective coup d’états. Beyond distorting democratic processes, it also has dire consequences for minorities, particularly for the stateless Rohingya people.
Thailand is heading for a crucial general election on May 14 after four years under military-backed Prayuth Chan-ocha. He became Prime Minister by mounting a coup d’état in 2014, the 13th of its kind since Thailand’s absolute monarch was overthrown in 1932. This year’s elections will test the country’s fragile democracy and its relations with regional neighbours, especially Myanmar, where a military coup in February 2021 sparked violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters and a humanitarian crisis for the Rohingya minority.
Will Prayuth lose?
Prime Minister Prayuth is a former army chief whose United Thai National Party (UTN) has been struggling to maintain popularity and legitimacy—though last year’s liberal cannabis laws proved popular with young and old—amid a sluggish economy, a COVID-19 outbreak and a wave of pro-democracy protests that rocked the country in 2020 and 2021. The chances of UTN losing the upcoming Thai elections are high. Prayuth is facing a strong challenge from opposition party Pheu Thai which is backed by the influential Shinawatra family. Parties associated with the Shinawatras have won all six elections since 2001, before repeatedly being removed from government. This year, Pheu Thai is being led into the elections by Paetongtarn Shinawatra: the daughter and niece of two former prime ministers including billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinwatra who was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid conviction for abuse of power.
A recent survey by Suan Dusit Poll (in line with similar surveys) found Pheu Thai has 46% support among voters, while Prayuth’s party has only 9%. However, due to peculiarities of the Thai parliamentary system, Prayuth still has an edge in the prime ministerial race: he can rely on the support of the military-appointed upper house of the National Assembly, and also on coalition lower-house votes. A survey of 200 Thai CEOs by the Krungthep Turakij newspaper has shown Prayuth as the preferred prime minister in the business community, with 14% support to Paetongtarn’s 12%.
Domestic and regional implications
Regardless of its outcome, this year’s election is unlikely to challenge the military’s influence within Thai politics, nor greatly impact its marred regional relations one way or another. Since Thailand’s reformed constitution—written under military supervision—was signed into law in 2017, the 250 members of the Senate (upper house) are all military appointees who in turn have voting rights for selecting the prime minister equal to those of each of the 500 House of Representatives (lower house) members who are elected by the people. In practice, this means that a military-backed prime ministerial candidate needs support from only 125 out of the National Assembly’s 500 democratically elected representatives to clearly keep Thailand’s most powerful position under the junta’s control.
This is but one example of the military’s significant advantages in forming the government and influencing Thailand’s political agenda. Opposition parties have tried to amend the constitution and limit the Senate’s powers, but their efforts have been rejected by the parliament. Beyond electoral privileges, the Thai military further controls several state-owned enterprises, benefits from lucrative contracts and concessions, and has a steady budget of around 1.4% of Thailand’s GDP, the second largest economy in Southeast-Asia.
Many partner states from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been alienated by the military junta’s disproportionate control, expressing concern over its lack of respect for democratic principles and human rights. The Thai military has also undermined ASEAN’s efforts to resolve crises in Myanmar by refusing to recognise its shadow government formed by ousted lawmakers and activists—the National Unity Government (NUG)—as a legitimate party, as well as by blocking humanitarian aid to Myanmar refugees and by providing tacit support to the Myanmar junta. So long as the Thai military retains such control over political affairs, no aspect of this election will foreseeably improve the Thai government’s image domestically, nor its role in ASEAN.
Rohingyas and displaced people
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group living primarily in Myanmar's Rakhine state who have been denied citizenship, forced to live in squalid conditions in camps, and have been subjected to brutal violence and ethnic cleansing campaigns. Today, Thailand is a destination for Rohingya refugees and other minorities fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The Thai government has nevertheless not always provided these highly vulnerable people with adequate protection or support. In recent years, Thai authorities have detained and deported Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, where they face further persecution and violence.
End of the junta-brotherhood?
So far, Thailand has refrained from criticising the Myanmar coup and its violent crackdown on protesters in which over 1,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands more displaced. The Thai election offers an opportunity for leadership change and a more humane posture towards Myanmar’s desperate underclasses, for example by allowing displaced Rohingya in Thailand access to UNHCR procedures for determining their legal status. Many Thai opposition parties and civil society groups have expressed solidarity with the Myanmar people and their democratic struggle. They have called for Thailand to stop supporting the Myanmar junta and to recognise the NUG as the legitimate representative of Myanmar, further urging Thailand to secure humanitarian assistance and protection for asylum seekers.
2023’s elections provide hope for the strengthening of Thai pro-democracy movements challenging the military-backed regime as well as demanding reforms of the monarchy and constitution. The Thai and Myanmar people share common aspirations for democracy and human rights: manifesting resistance against their military dictatorships. While it could be a turning point for both countries, so far the election looks more likely to facilitate continuation of the military-backed regime, complicit in the repression of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
Matthew C Thorn is a trainee lawyer, graduate of Monash University with a LLB (Hons.), B.A. majoring in International Relations, and a Diploma of Languages. He is based in Copenhagen, beginning practice in international corporate/ commercial law, and has a broad interest in Public Policy.