International community sceptical of Thai government's reform claims

International community sceptical of Thai government's reform claims

Falsehoods won't help Thailand salvage an international reputation badly tarnished by undemocratic rule and rights violations.

In fact, the propaganda and denials being pumped out by the Foreign Ministry and its envoys abroad are making the Kingdom look worse.

Thai envoys have borne the brunt of strong international criticism of the May 22 coup and junta rule.

The diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials are in a tricky position. Not at liberty to offer their own interpretation of political developments in Thailand, they must instead follow the official line of their military government.

However, foreign countries have other, often more reliable, sources of information, including their own embassies here, the news media and international and local rights groups.

Developments in Bangkok reach ears in Washington, New York, London, Beijing and Tokyo in minutes, if not seconds. Few facts can be concealed from view in our relatively open society.

But the main fact of international concern is the military's seizure of power from a democratically elected government.

The long-held international consensus is that elections are the only legitimate way to change a government.

Thus, as long as the Thai government remains non-elected and military-backed, countries will call Thailand an authoritarian state.

Likewise, as long as martial law remains in force, we can expect foreign criticism of basic rights violations here.

And, as long as the constitution currently being drafted contains undemocratic elements, foreigners will question the Thai government's commitment to democratic reform.

The proposal for a non-elected Senate is just one example. If it stands, ordinary voters would lose their say in the composition of this powerful checks-and-balances watchdog for the executive branch.

Without an elected Senate, how can we call to account those who have the important job of scrutinising government legislation? An elected Senate worked quite well under the 1997 Constitution, so why change the system?

And how can Thai diplomats defend the change as "democratic reform"?

Unfortunately they will have little choice in the matter. Several Thai diplomats have already told their counterparts, host countries and international media that Thailand has no political prisoners.

As long as people remain imprisoned in this country because of their political beliefs or actions, the government cannot expect to be believed when it claims there are none.

According to Amnesty International, 665 individuals were arrested or detained for resisting the junta's orders in the three months after the coup. Among them, nearly 100 faced criminal prosecution, while more than 50 faced a military court.

Even worse, dozens of individuals have been charged or investigated for alleged lese majeste, under a draconian law imposed to silence criticism of the monarchy.

Of course, many democratic countries also have laws to protect their heads of state, but the Thai version faces widespread international criticism that the establishment here uses it as a political tool to silence opposition.

Suspects are rarely granted bail and many are treated as if they were murderers, though it is often unclear how their offending words or expressions could have damaged the monarchy.

The world knows what is going on in Thailand. Denials and obfuscation will not help us regain our place on the international stage. For that to happen, we need genuine democratic reform.

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