Thailand Approaches Iran’s Model of Repression
Suppose someone — a pollster, a teacher, or a friend — approaches you, asking whether, in your opinion, any of these two Asian countries qualifies as a good candidate for a strong alliance and solid economic partnership with the United States.
One country, let’s call it Iran, is a theocracy. It is ruled by clerics, pulling the strings from behind a fraudulent democratic facade. Certainly, the Iranian people elect their own legislators and their own president, but candidates are screened for ideological purity, while elections are rigged to ensure that only the candidates the clerics and the Revolutionary Guard endorse ever make it into office. After the government stole the latest presidential election, citizens came out in full force to demand that their voices be heard. The army repressed them brutally, killing dozens of people and imprisoning hundreds. The government controls all media and routinely censors the internet to prevent its citizens from sharing information the clerics do not want them to see. On September 29, blogger Hossein Derakhshan was sentenced to nineteen years in prison for “blasphemy” and for supposedly “collaborating with foreign powers” to undermine the Ayatollahs’ rule.
The other country, let’s call it Thailand, is what some call a “hybrid authoritarian” regime – one that looks increasingly like a military dictatorship. Generals, aristocrats, and business elites run the show, notwithstanding the country’s fading appearance of a democracy. As in Iran, the Thai people can elect their own representatives, who in turn select a Prime Minister. But the country’s highly politicized judiciary can be counted on to dissolve political parties if they challenge the authority of the generals and the aristocrats. In any event, the generals can use their tanks and their guns to overthrow an elected Prime Minister if all else fails. In the wake of a coup and the dissolution of two ruling parties elected by the people, citizens rose up against the generals and the aristocrats. At least ninety of them were killed by the army this year, while hundreds remain arbitrarily detained. As the disturbances were taking place, the government suspended constitutional liberties by declaring a state of emergency — a measure that has since been roundly criticized as an excuse to repress legitimate dissent.
In Thailand as in Iran, the government controls much of the media and has blocked over a hundred thousand websites to prevent the dissemination of information it does not like. Hundreds of people are being prosecuted for criticizing the monarchy in speeches and on line. A year ago, dissident Darunee Charnchoensilpakul (“Da Torpedo”) was sentenced to 18 years in prison over a single speech that criticized the ailing King. Shortly thereafter, two people were arrested for merely translating an article published by Bloomberg news on the subject of the King’s health. Meanwhile, the manager of Thailand’s premiere independent, progressive website, Chiranuch Premchaiporn (“Jiew”), faces 50 years in prison at the end of an ongoing judicial proceeding, where stands accused of ten counts of violating the Computer Crimes Act. Her so-called “crime” was failing to remove user comments critical of the monarchy. Just last week, she was arrested once again, upon returning to the country from an international conference on internet freedom, over an identical offense.
Should either of these countries be the beneficiary of a close military alliance, a warm diplomatic relationship, and strong economic ties with the United States government? In an ideal world, perhaps not. In a decidedly less than ideal world, however, while President Barack Obama would not be caught dead shaking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hand, he has no problem posing with Thailand’s Prime Minister for playful, merry photo-ops. For good measure, the U.S. sells most of the weaponry that Thailand’s regime uses to repress its citizens. Ever quick to condemn any human rights violation committed by the Iranian state, the American government has not said a word about the massacres, the arbitrary detentions, the cover-ups, the political prisoners, or the censorship in Thailand.
Sure enough, one could counter by saying that, unlike Thailand, Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and poses a threat to regional peace. One could also say that things in Thailand have not been quite as bad for quite as long as they have in Iran. It is also true, however, that Thailand has a Foreign Minister who famously threatened to use the blood of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to wash his feet, to say nothing of the support that the governing party has offered to an ultra-nationalist group — the so-called “People’s Alliance for Democracy” — that has repeatedly stirred up trouble with Cambodia. Besides, things in Thailand have been this bad before; indeed, they have been this bad every time the Thai people have decided they wanted a “real” democracy.
More to the point, perhaps, murdering demonstrators and covering up the ensuing investigations is deplorable whether or not a country has a nuclear program. Putting people in jail for twenty years for what they think, say, or write — whether the instance of thought crime goes by the name of “blasphemy” or ” lèse majesté ” — is appalling whether or not a country is run by Islamic clerics. And denying people democracy for the benefit of a small, entitled elite is contemptible whether or not those who refuse to relinquish their ill-gotten power are sympathetic to American interests.
In both Thailand and Iran, the United States government has a history of supporting military coups and propping up authoritarian regimes responsible for the most shocking abuses of their own people’s rights. If only because the Iranian government has turned on American interests after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the United States has long since changed its stance on democracy in Iran. It has transformed Iran into an international pariah and has supported Iranian dissidents seeking to free their country from the yoke of the Ayatollahs. What will it take for the American government to do the right thing in Thailand?