EDITORIAL: Thailand needs election monitors

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Breaking with accepted tradition, the foreign minister says foreign experts are unwelcome on polling day. He’s wron.

Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai pretends that Thailand has nothing to hide and, since he sees no overt problems with our political system, he regards the idea of having foreign observers monitor the upcoming general election as “inauspicious”. We have to wonder where Don has been for the past 14 years. Thailand remains gripped in a clamp of social and political crises with the end nowhere in sight. Don, however, apparently equates the absence of street violence and colour-coded politics with peace and stability.

The military junta did indeed get Thais to stop bashing each other over the head, but it has failed in four and a half years to move us even a step closer to reconciliation, much less resolve the political dilemma.

Don told reporters last week that the elections need no foreign witnesses helping to assure fairness because Thailand is a dignified country. We have “no problems” that might warrant their presence, he said. Yet there is nothing dignified in forestalling democracy and seizing power by the gun. Nor is dignity restored by deigning to acknowledge, as the foreign minister did, that this government’s mandate rests on a coup d’etat – a blow against the state, to translate the French, the overthrow of a sitting government.

It was a democratically elected government that was overthrown in 2014 and another that fell to the generals in 2006. The Yingluck Shinawatra administration was problematic, divisive, incompetent and corrupt, but it could have been ousted by the same legal mechanism that put it in place – a general election. Modern Thai history, though, demonstrates repeatedly that the military believes it has a moral obligation to “rescue” the citizenry in times of ideological turmoil and is the sole agency that can do so. The generals with their tanks and guns do not admire democracy and have no patience for elections. 

Don’s spin on the 2014 coup was that, unlike military seizures in other countries, the Thai junta – the National Council for Peace and Order – has not curbed rights and freedoms to the point where the majority of citizens were affected. There is truth in that statement, but it hardly negates the need for the international community to keep a close watch on the coming election. Our elections in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011 were observed by the Asian Network for Free Elections and no one found it undignified or “inauspicious”.

Independent election monitors are needed because there are indications the junta is tilting the playing field in its favour and because lower-income Thais are prone to selling their votes for money, as happened most notoriously in 2001. Party bagmen making the nocturnal rounds of upcountry villages triggered a phenomenon subsequently called “the night of the howling dogs”. There have been many more such nights since.
While as yet there have been no reports of howling dogs this year, the inescapable facts are that the junta-led government rules without popular mandate, basically willed a pro-military constitution through a referendum, and has imposed grievous restrictions on political discourse. It thus makes perfectly dignified, auspicious sense that the return of power to the people, as the general ostensibly promise it will be, is observed by outsiders in the hope that the transition is as transparent as possible.


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