Dealing with Dictators
The Authoritarian Moment in Thailand

Thailand’s junta, led by former General Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced earlier this week that it is making good on its promise to end martial law after its ouster of Yingluck Shinawatra last May. But it has replaced martial law with “dictator law,” a system of absolute power based on a clause in the country’s interim constitution called Article 44. The AP reports:

Thailand’s king on Wednesday formally approved a request from the junta that martial law be lifted. Within minutes of the announcement being aired on national television, another announcement was broadcast informing the country that in place of martial law, the junta was invoking Article 44, a special security measure in the military-imposed interim constitution. It gives Prayuth the power to override any branch of government in the name of national security, and absolves him of any legal responsibility for his actions.

Thai media have referred to it as “the dictator law.” Under similar legislation in the 1960s, a Thai dictator carried out summary executions.

After the announcement, he reassured his people the law would be wielded “constructively”: “Don’t worry, if you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no need to be afraid.”

The move was met with consternation from the U.S. State Department, and the UN also quickly chimed in to voice its displeasure.

The current run of events serves to highlight an important point that many of our young people rushing off to middle management jobs at various NGOs often fail to appreciate: the altogether admirable efforts of our human rights groups to foster democratic norms amount to little when they are not backed by American power and influence. Prayuth hasn’t been moved by the exhortations of human rights watchers, in no small part because he he knows China quietly has his back.

This doesn’t mean the U.S. needs to step in and force the issue. To the contrary, we have cautioned against rash moves in Thailand’s case and have suggested that our officials can do more to moderate the junta’s authoritarian tendencies, behind the scenes and, well, diplomatically. It would be better, however, if human rights advocates both inside and outside the government held back empty rhetoric.

We may fail to keep Thailand’s junta outside of China’s orbit, and stern warnings issued behind closed doors certainly make for a less-satisfying spectacle than clarion calls for human and political rights. But Thailand is a strategically important country, so it’s a worthwhile effort.

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