Thailand, the land of military coups, and political repression, and governed under a military dictatorship, has been crowned the most improved democracy in a recent poll. Who’d have thought?
According to the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Thailand has made significant strides in democratic health, jumping from 72nd to 55th place in just one year. And how did they do it, you might ask? Why, it’s all thanks to a healthier political opposition, of course.
Rivals to the ruling party won some local elections and launched a petition against the prime minister, alleging he had outstayed his welcome. Oh, and let’s not forget that Thailand was one of the earliest Asian countries to relax Covid-19 rules in 2022.
The Atlantic called Thailand the world’s last military dictatorship. It said that Thailand has been through so many military coups that they almost have a business-as-usual feel to them. The reality of army rule in the country is that it is, in a political sense, thoroughly unremarkable, reliant on a familiar mix of repression and political control, with one key difference: It has the blessings of a powerful protector.
When the Thai military seized power on May 22, 2014, not a single drop of blood was spilt. Tanks rolled through the streets while the army took over television channels to announce the coup. That was it coup-making in Thailand is completed in a speech.
The EIU evaluates countries based on five categories of democratic health and assigns a ranking on a ten-point scale that ranges from a full democracy to autocracy. In the Asia and Australasia region, there are currently seven regimes that are categorised as authoritarian, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, and North Korea, which are among the lowest-ranked among the 167 countries and territories in the index. The region also houses five full democracies, seven hybrid regimes that maintain certain freedoms but are plagued by leaders who flout democratic norms, and nine flawed democracies, including Thailand.
While some Asian countries have seen a rise in their rankings, caution should be exercised in interpreting such progress. For example, Cambodia’s score improved significantly last year, but Hun Sen, the country’s ageing strongman, remains in power and continues to suppress political opposition.Similarly, in Thailand, although there have been some positive developments, such as the upcoming May elections, there are still concerns about the army’s appointment of the senate, which can influence the selection of the prime minister and hold veto power over elected lawmakers. Additionally, the government’s use of lese-majeste laws to silence dissent and criticism of the monarchy has resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of individuals.
So, congratulations to Thailand on being the most improved democracy in the region. Just don’t expect anyone to take it too seriously. Those spying green roots of freedom in Asia should stay sceptical, as always.