Capital: Bangkok
Population: 67,764,000

Political Rights Score: 5 *
Civil Liberties Score: 4 *
Status: Partly Free


The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva continued to rule without a voter mandate in 2009, having taken power in late 2008 following a court decision to dissolve the ruling People's Power Party (PPP). Abhisit struggled during the year to maintain control over his coalition and deflect corruption charges against his allies. Meanwhile, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra continued to advocate the overthrow of the government from abroad, and a PPP-aligned protest movement mounted antigovernment demonstrations throughout the year. The protests turned violent in April, prompting Abhisit to declare emergency rule in Bangkok for nearly two weeks. Also in 2009, the government dramatically increased its coercive use of lese majeste laws to curb freedom of expression and political speech.

Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to avoid European colonial rule. A 1932 coup transformed the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy, but Thailand endured multiple military coups, constitutional overhauls, and popular uprisings over the next six decades. The army dominated the political scene during this period, with intermittent bouts of unstable civilian government. Under the leadership of General Prem Tinsulanonda in the 1980s, the country underwent a rapid economic expansion and a gradual transition toward democratic rule. The military seized power again in 1991, but Thailand's revered monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej, intervened to appoint a civilian prime minister in 1992. Fresh elections held in September of that year ushered in a 14-year period of elected civilian leadership.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 sparked street protests by middle-class Thais in Bangkok against corruption and economic mismanagement. The parliament voted out the existing government and returned Democrat Party (DP) leader Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister with a clean reputation, to the premiership. Lawmakers also approved a reformist constitution, which created a fully bicameral legislature with a directly elected Senate, strengthened executive authority, and promoted transparency by establishing independent election and anticorruption agencies.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a former deputy prime minister who built his fortune in telecommunications, unseated Chuan in the 2001 elections. Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT, or Thais Love Thais) party mobilized voters in the north, northeast, and rural areas in part by criticizing the government for favoring urban, middle class Thais.

As prime minister, Thaksin won praise for pursuing populist economic policies designed to stimulate aggregate demand. However, critics accused him and his government of undercutting the constitution, and he faced several serious corruption charges and investigations. Human rights groups also condemned Thaksin for media suppression and a violent counternarcotics campaign that resulted in at least 2,500 killings in a three-month period in 2003.

In 2004, separatist violence increased in Thailand's four southernmost provinces, home to most of the country's four million Muslims. Thaksin mounted a hard-line response, and the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani were placed under martial law that year. The government was accused of human rights abuses in its effort to put down the insurgency, with two cases in particular, known as the Krue Se and Tak Bai incidents, resulting in the deaths of 191 people and drawing international condemnation.

The TRT swept the February 2005 parliamentary elections, making Thaksin the first prime minster to serve out a full four-year term, be elected to two consecutive terms, and lead a party to win outright without the need for a coalition partner. However, anti-Thaksin sentiment rose markedly during the year, particularly in Bangkok and the south. In January 2006, the prime minister's family was criticized for the tax-free, $1.9 billion sale of its Shin Corporation to the investment arm of the Singaporean government. Facing a wave of protests led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – a right-wing grouping of royalists, business elites, and military leaders with support in the urban middle class – the prime minister called snap elections in early April. All three opposition parties boycotted the vote, and a fresh round of elections was ultimately scheduled for October.

However, a military coup in September preempted the new vote and ousted Thaksin, who was abroad at the time. The coup leaders' Council for National Security (CNS) abrogated the constitution, dissolved the parliament, and replaced the Constitutional Court with its own tribunal. In May 2007, the tribunal found the TRT guilty of paying off smaller parties in the April 2006 elections and dissolved it, specifically prohibiting Thaksin and 111 other party leaders from participating in politics for the next five years.

Referendum voters in August 2007 approved a new constitution, which contained a number of antidemocratic provisions. The poll results, with 57 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed, showed a significant protest vote in the northeast, Thaksin's regional stronghold.

Former TRT members regrouped under the banner of the People's Power Party (PPP) and won the December 2007 parliamentary elections with 233 of 480 lower house seats. The DP placed second with 165 seats. The PPP quickly assembled a coalition government. Throughout 2008, yellow-shirted PAD supporters led protests accusing the government of serving as a corrupt proxy for Thaksin and demanding its dissolution. At the height of the protests in November, the PAD seized Bangkok's main airports, seriously disrupting travel and economic activity in the country and region. Meanwhile, in October Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for abuse of office.

The PPP-led government – under intense pressure from the PAD, military commanders, and the judiciary – finally fell in December 2008, when the Constitutional Court disbanded the ruling party on the grounds that it had engaged in fraud during the December 2007 elections. DP leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the head of the opposition, subsequently formed a new coalition and won a lower house vote to become prime minister. He secured the support of 235 out of the 437 lower house members who were presentwith the help of opportunistic members of Thaksin's alliance, including the Buam Jai Thai (BJT) party, which he rewarded with key ministerial posts. The government consolidated its power in January 2009 by-elections, capturing 20 of the 29 seats contested. Nevertheless, Abhisit struggled throughout 2009 to maintain control of his coalition partners, cope with opposition protests, and counter corruption charges filed against his allies. He survived a no-confidence motion in March, garnering 246 out of 449 votes.

The red-shirted United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which had mounted large protests during the period of military rule following Thaksin's ouster, resumed its activities to oppose the PPP's dissolution and carried out antigovernment protests throughout 2009. The demonstrations intensified ahead of the Songkran holiday, which marked the Thai new year, in April. The UDD gathered over 100,000 protesters in Bangkok and stormed the venue of the East Asia Summit in Pattaya, forcing international delegations to be evacuated by air. At the height of the protests, Thaksin, speaking from Dubai, called for a people's revolution. Prominent UDD leader Jakrapob Penkair, who was in hiding to escape arrest, advocated a campaign of violence to depose the government. On the eve of Songkran, April 12, Abhisit imposed emergency rule in Bangkok and ordered the army to disperse the crowds. At least two people were killed and over 100 injured in the ensuing street battles. UDD leaders called on their supporters to disperse peacefully, averting further violence.

Abhisit's government moved swiftly to crack down on the opposition by revoking Thaksin's remaining passport, issuing arrest warrants for protest leaders, and temporarily shutting down radio stations involved in mobilizing support for the UDD. The government also invoked the Internal Security Act to curtail UDD protests and arrested red-shirt leaders on lese majeste grounds. Separately, on April 17 one of the PAD's leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, was seriously injured when gunmen opened fire on his motorcade with automatic weapons.

Emergency rule in Bangkok was lifted on April 24, and Abhisit led a genuine reconciliation effort beginning in May. However, a multiparty reconciliation panel was unable to agree on draft changes to the 2007 constitution and the question of amnesty for the 111 party officials banned from politics as part of the dissolution of the TRT. Abhisit also faced potential opposition from the New Politics Party, formed by the PAD in late June and led by labor activist Somsak Kosaisuk. Separately, the red shirts infuriated their opponents over the summer by garnering over 3.5 million signatures to petition the king for a pardon for Thaksin. In October, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who had served as prime minister from 1996 to 1997, became chairman of the PPP's successor party, the Phuea Thai Party (PTP, or For Thais Party).

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Thailand is not an electoral democracy. The most recent parliamentary elections in December 2007 proceeded without major disruptions and returned Thailand to civilian rule, but they were not free and fair. The military retained significant influence, and martial law remained in effect in 25 provinces at the time of the elections. The CNS maintained tight control over the electoral process and deliberately maneuvered to influence the outcome against the PPP. Moreover, the PPP-led government that emerged from the voting was toppled in December 2008 in what many observers regarded as a judicial coup. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power after the PPP's ouster, did not seek a popular mandate in 2009, although by-elections were held without incident in January and June. The ruling coalition performed well in the January voting, but in the two by-elections held in June in the northeast, the opposition PTP defeated the BJT, which had defected from the PPP-led alliance to join Abhisit's government.

The current constitution was drafted under the supervision of the military-backed government and approved in an August 2007 referendum. It called for an amnesty for the 2006 coup leaders, and in a clear response to the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government the coup overthrew, the charter contains a number of measures designed to restrict the power of the executive. It limited prime ministers to two four-year terms and set a lower threshold for launching no-confidence motions. The constitution also reduced the role of elected lawmakers. Whereas the old Senate was fully elected, the Senate created by the new charter consists of 76 elected members and 74 appointed by a committee of judges and members of independent government bodies. Senators, who serve six-year terms, cannot belong to political parties. For the 480-seat lower chamber, the House of Representatives, the new constitution altered the system of proportional representation to curtail the voting power of the northern and northeastern provinces, where support for Thaksin remains strong. Members serve four-year terms, and the prime minister is elected from among them. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the head of state, and while he has little responsibility in day-to-day politics, he retains tremendous moral and symbolic influence, particularly in times of national or constitutional crisis.

The CNS-appointed interim legislature passed the Internal Security Act (ISA) shortly before elections in 2007. The law created an Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) – headed by the prime minister and the army chief – that retains the authority to override civilian administration and restrict basic civil liberties to suppress disorder, even without a formal state of emergency. The ISA also provides legal immunity to those who commit human rights abuses under its auspices.

Corruption is widespread at all levels of Thai society. It ranked among Thais' top frustrations with the Thaksin government and was cited as part of the military's justification for the 2006 coup. Despite Abhisit's clean image, his party and coalition cohorts faced numerous corruption charges in 2009. Related controversies included irregularities in the government's Community Self-Sufficiency Project, a costly bus-leasing scheme managed by the BJT-controlled Transport Ministry, and BJT leader Newin Chidchob's acquittal in a contentious rubber-sapling procurement project. In July, 13 DP members of parliament were disqualified for breaching shareholder rules. In late December, the minister of public health resigned after he was implicated in a graft scandal.Thailand was ranked 84 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The 2007 constitution restored freedom of expression guarantees that were eliminated by the 2006 coup. The 2007 Publishing Registration Act, while less draconian than its predecessor, increased journalists' vulnerability by eliminating provisions that automatically included newspaper editors and publishers in defamation suits brought against their writers. Harsh defamation provisions remain in the penal code, and suits are often used to silence government critics. A Computer Crimes Act that took effect in 2007 assigns significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security. Under this law, the individual records of internet users must be kept by internet service providers for 90 days and may be inspected by the authorities without a warrant.

There was a surge in 2009 in the use of the country's lese majeste laws to stifle freedom of expression. The laws prohibit the defamation of the monarchy, but the authorities increasingly used them to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians who were critical of the government. Some of the accused faced decadesin prison for multiple counts, while others fled the country. The Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) are the prime enforcers of lese majeste laws. In August 2009, the MICT created a police taskforce to monitor online content and identify users who post objectionable material.

Thailand's broadcast media are also subject to restrictions; the six main television stations and all 525 radio frequencies are controlled by the government and military. In April and May 2009, radio stations supporting the UDD were pressured to shut down.Authorities forced a journalist to resign in September after he aired an interview of Thaksin on a radio show. Print publications are for the most part privately owned and have been subject to fewer restrictions than the broadcast media. The country's endless street protests inhibited the ability of journalists to carry out their work during 2009.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. There is no official state religion, but the constitution requires the monarch to be a Buddhist, and speech considered insulting to Buddhism is prohibited by law. The conflict in the south – which pits ethnic Malay Muslims against ethnic Thai Buddhists – continues to undermine citizens' ability to practice their religion. Buddhist monks reported that they were unable to travel freely through southern communities to receive alms, while Muslim academics and imams faced government scrutiny.

The 2007 constitution restored freedom of assembly guarantees, and major political protests were ongoing for much of 2009. UDD protests forced the postponement of the East Asia Summit in April, and the government invoked the ISA to discourage a repeat scenario for the rescheduled summit in October. In March and April, the protests devolved into violent street battles, with several people killed and hundreds injured. Human Rights Watch praised Thai law enforcement personnel and military forces for often showing great restraint in the face of provocation, but noted that they used live ammunition to disperse protesters in some cases.

Thailand has a vibrant nongovernmental organization (NGO) community, with groups representing farmers, laborers, women, students, and human rights interests. However, according to the U.S. State Department's 2009 human rights report, NGOs that dealt with sensitive political issues or obstructed government-backed development projects faced harassment. Human rights groups focused on the volatile southern provinces reportedly met with intimidation by both sides in the conflict.

Thai trade unions are independent, and more than 50 percent of state-enterprise workers belong to unions, but less than 2 percent of the total workforce is unionized. Antiunion discrimination in the private sector is common, and legal protections for union members are weak and poorly enforced. There are some restrictions on private-sector strikes, and strikes by state-enterprise workers are prohibited, though such workers sometimes engage in walkouts in practice. Exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos are serious and ongoing problems, as are child and sweatshop labor.

The 2007 constitution restored judicial independence and reestablished an independent Constitutional Court. A separate military court adjudicates criminal and civil cases involving members of the military, as well as cases brought under martial law. Sharia (Islamic law) courts hear certain types of cases pertaining to Muslims. In 2008 the Thai courts played an important role in resolving political disputes, generating complaints of judicial activism and political bias. Key rulings that year resulted in the removal of two prime ministers, the speaker of the lower house, and the foreign minister, as well as the dissolution of the ruling party and a transfer of power to the opposition.

Pretrial detention – often lasting up to 84 days in criminal cases – is a serious problem, and trials frequently take years to complete. Prison conditions are grim, with inmates and detainees facing shackling and abuse by police and military personnel. State officials are rarely prosecuted for such acts.

A combination of martial law, emergency decree, and the ISA is in effect in the four southernmost provinces. Military sweeps since June 2007 have involved the indiscriminate detention of thousands of suspected insurgents and sympathizers, and there are credible reports of torture and other human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, by security forces. To date there have been no successful criminal prosecutions of security personnel for these transgressions. Separatist fighters and other armed groups regularly attack government workers, religious figures, and civilians. In June 2009, 10 people were killed while praying at a mosque in Narathiwat province, spurring severalreprisal killings aimed at Buddhist Thais. As of the end of 2009, more than 3,500 people had been killed in the conflict since 2004, making the insurgency one of the world's deadliest.

Thailand's hill tribes are not fully integrated into society and face restrictions on their freedom of movement. Many reportedly lack citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or receive protection under labor laws. Thailand has not ratified UN conventions on refugees, and the authorities continue to forcibly repatriate Burmese and Laotian refugees. In January 2009 the government drew international condemnation for towing boatloads of incoming Burmese Rohingya refugees back out to sea, which reportedly led to a number of deaths. Also during the year, several thousand Hmong refugees were forcibly repatriated to Laos.

While women have the same legal rights as men, they remain subject to economic discrimination in practice; underrepresented in local and national government bodies, with about 13 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament; and vulnerable to domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking. Some 200,000 to 300,000 Thai women and children work as prostitutes, according to NGO estimates, and sex tourism remains a problem.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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