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Opinion

West must act firmly to stem rise of 'China model' in Thailand

Election result is a continuation of authoritarianism, not a return to democracy

Thailand's Election Commission released the official results of the country's March 24 national elections, with a new military party set to lead an elected coalition government.

The previous national polls, held five years ago between two military coups, were marred by violence and invalidated.

But predictable claims by journalists, politicians, and diplomats of a "return to democracy" are two decades too late.

Thailand's authoritarian course was set at the turn of the century and shows no credible signs of shifting.

Thailand's most democratic period was the 1990s, but the constitution it produced increased the power of the premiership, which the twice-elected businessman Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra energetically abused. For nearly six years beginning in 2001, he packed or sidelined newly created courts and commissions, co-opted or intimidated the media, suppressed dissent, and neutered the political opposition. His human rights record, with Cold War-inspired counterinsurgency tactics and a murderous "war on drugs," was alarming.

More importantly, Thaksin's tenure served as a template for his six successors. Two were installed by the military, two by the polls, and two by parliament. Half were Thaksin proxies, half his sworn opponents. But all followed his lead in rolling back the rule of law, treating transparency and accountability with contempt, and responding to long-suppressed voices with more rights violations or violence.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, for example, who promoted his Democrat Party administration as a corrective to Thaksin, expelled Rohingya and Hmong refugees and responded to pro-Thaksin street protests with "live-fire zones." Yet neither side's supporters were peaceful or progressive, viewing elections as either a threat to their inheritance or a means toward a tyranny of the majority.

The most recent and possible future prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, accelerated Thailand's democratic retreat by leading a military coup five years ago, and then institutionalized it: a new constitution legitimizing his coup and preserving summary executive power, a 20-year National Strategy to which all subsequent governments must adhere, and electoral rules all but ensuring that future premiers will be selected by the military.

Thailand's elections do not signal a reversal to 2014 -- much less to 2001 -- but a consolidation of illiberal "strides" taken by recent governments of all stripes, and a clear path to further restrictions. Across its political spectrum and from leadership to grassroots, Thailand has adopted the "China Model": authoritarian governance supported by neoliberal economic policies.

Thaksin's pedigree, experience, style, and priorities reflected those of a rising China, where rapid economic growth inspired emulation of its command-based centralized leadership. Such was his success in implementing popular policies, that subsequent prime ministers increasingly saw the country's interests and ideology -- as well as their own -- as linked to China's.

What began with a Sino-Thai free trade agreement in 2003 led to a succession of unprecedented joint military drills, a sharp rise in high-level visits, a raft of Mandarin language programs and Confucius Institutes, and a series of strategic agreements setting future targets in trade, investment, and military cooperation.

Since 2014, Thailand has engaged China to a greater extent than any other nation, symbolized by Prayuth's controversial purchase of three Chinese submarines. Earlier this year, his government was unmoved by Western privacy and security concerns relating to China's Huawei Technologies in the global rollout of fifth-generation networks, awarding it the concession for getting 5G underway in Thailand.

Beijing has been equally aggressive in exporting its model and expanding links in Thailand, treating its influence and interests as mutually reinforcing; two sides of the same coin. Thailand's embrace of the China Model has facilitated economic, military, political, diplomatic, cultural, and regional initiatives -- the results of which have further convinced Thais that "authoritarian capitalism" is preferable to a pluralistic and inefficient democracy.

China has also clearly recognized Thailand's two coups since 2006, both in terms of appreciating a forceful response to the disorder that preceded them, and of readily engaging with the illegitimate governments that resulted. Powerful proof of the China Model's appropriation in Thailand, the coups have uniquely contributed to the advance of Chinese interests.

China's Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, highlights the 21st century's Sino-Thai dynamic. Excluded from a first BRI forum in 2017 due to slow progress on a related high-speed rail project, Prayuth secured his invite to last month's follow-up summit by simply overriding legal restrictions causing the delays, citing his constitutional power of decree. Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly gave credit to the prime minister and pledged further cooperation. The China Model delivers.

It is true that democracy is defined partly by how leaders come to power, making claims of "democratic coups" in Thailand as false as they are disingenuous. But in even larger part, democracy is determined by how those in power govern, by what they do between elections. For 18 years, Thailand has not only experienced authoritarian governance, but has done so under the very same people and parties that received the most votes in its recent elections.

Moreover, the Thai people -- the electorate -- have only protested insofar as their preferred politicians have been forced, bought, or voted out of power. Indeed, objections to the Election Commission's decisions notwithstanding, a majority of seats were won by either Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party or the army's Palang Pracharath.

A senior U.S. official recently called Thailand's elections "a healthy commitment to the democratic process," echoing comments by other democracies worldwide. This speaks to the fact that increased recognition of Thai leadership is necessary to slow the advance of Chinese interests in the country in the short term. But absent their own critical and clear-eyed "commitment to the democratic process" in Thailand, the U.S. and other democracies will only fall further behind China in the long term. And that is because democracy itself will fade even further from the minds and memories of Thais. First-time voters have no experience of it at all.

Public statements aside, it is past time the U.S. and other democracies push back against the China Model in Thailand, with a similar approach that sees their ideology and interests as mutually reinforcing priorities. Seeing Thailand's elections for what they are -- and are not -- would be a worthy first step.

Benjamin Zawacki is an independent analyst and author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China."

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