“The junta are playing a game,” Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a 21-year-old student activist told CNN. “If the election is a trick on the people, Thais will march and not accept it.”
While public outrage has not reached levels seen before the coup in 2014, violent street protests between rival political factions have been common in recent years. Mass violent confrontations in 2010 paralyzed the capital Bangkok and an ensuing military crackdown killed 90 people and injured more than 2,000.
The military will be keen to quash a repeat of such unrest, and Army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, who was put in charge of the country’s army in September, warned pro-democracy protesters last Wednesday, “don’t step over the line,” the Bangkok Post reported.
Elections will be the first official poll the country has seen in eight years and are widely considered to be a vote between a form of democracy and legitimized authoritarian rule.
Leaders of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta that has ruled Thailand since the 2014 coup, have become accustomed to power. A military-drafted 2017 constitution aims to prevent the opposition Pheu Thai party from returning to office — and ensure the army will continue to have a say in the country’s future, no matter who wins the election.
The rule of Prayut Chan-o-cha, the military coup leader turned prime minister, has been marked with increased repression, activists say.
Shortly after taking over, Prayut banned all political campaigning including political gatherings of more than five people, hundreds of activists have been arrested and charged under draconian laws such as sedition or the lese majeste — which prohibits criticism of the royal family — and the sphere for robust public discourse has all but disappeared thanks a Computer Crimes Act that restrict online expression and increases surveillance and censorship.
“General Prayut has wielded unchecked power with total impunity,” Sunai Phasuk, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch said in a June statement. “Ongoing repression means that voters, political parties and the media in Thailand will have their arms twisted and their mouths gagged in the lead-up to the election.”
Prayut is widely expected to contest in the poll with the newly formed Phalang Pracharat Party. “He desperately wants to be the premiership, this is about his personal ambition,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, told CNN.