General Prayut Chan-o-cha in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
General Prayut Chan-o-cha in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand
Kannikar Petchkaew

BANGKOK — Three years ago, on May 22, 2014, members of parliament gathered to find a solution to Thailand's political crisis. But the politicians were swiftly captured by the army, and sent to military camps.

The country's democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup, and the coup's leader, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, declared that military rule was necessary to put a lid on escalating political turmoil before it boiled over.

He said it would be brief, just enough to ensure stability and order. "We will return to you your happiness," the general said, and citizens would be able to carry on with their lives as normal.

It has been three years now. Thailand is still ruled by the military junta.

Pipop Udomittipong, a pro-democracy social critic and activist, says his life has not returned to normal.

Some Thais initially welcomed the coup, believing corrupt politicians had caused chaos and had to be removed from government.

Udomittipong says he is constantly on edge, self-censoring everything he writes, aware that it could very easily land him in jail. As a pro-democracy activist, he has been closely monitored. He says he is on a watch list and is visited by police, military and security officers.

But that is not his biggest concern.

Elections have been repeatedly postponed since the military assumed power, and he fears democracy may never be restored.

Political uncertainty has greatly impacted the country's economy. The Bank of Thailand reported that foreign direct investment fell by more than 90% in the first half of 2016 — reaching the lowest level in over a decade, at $347 million.

Some Thais initially welcomed the coup, believing corrupt politicians had caused chaos and had to be removed from government.

Veera Somkwamkid, a long-time anti-corruption activist, shared that belief. But now he says the junta leaders face similar allegations. "The people see many accusations of corruption leveled against those close to Prime Minister General Prayut, and they remain unresolved," he said.

prayuth_thailand_military_general

Thailand's Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha — Photo: Government of Thailand

After three years, Somkwamkid has not seen any shift toward cleaner government.

Instead, his activities as a whistleblower and anti-corruption advocate have been barred. And — like hundreds of others — he is sometimes detained. His house is under surveillance and army officers stand guard in his neighborhood.

Hundreds of critics like Somkwamkid have been imprisoned, and many are issued compulsory summonses to attend so-called "attitude readjustment" sessions at military camps.

Critics live in fear: Speaking up against the government can lead to charges of sedition, says Noppol Atchamart, of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. "The law should be used to protect the state's security, not against individuals," he argues.

New laws have given the ruling Junta wide-reaching powers. Thailand's new Computer-Related Crime Act restricts free speech, permits surveillance and censorship and retaliation against activists.

A general election is promised for next year, but many feel it is unlikely to happen.

And the country now also has some of the strictest lese majesty legislation in the world, threatening 15 years imprisonment for anyone who insults the royal family.

"Before the coup, there were just six or seven people imprisoned under the lese majesty law," Atchamart says. "Now there are more than 100, as far as I know, and there could be more. The law is being used broadly and for any kind of offense.

When they took power, junta leaders pledged to bring back democracy in three phases: national reconciliation, comprehensive legal reforms, and reinvigoration of democratic institutions.

But so far there has been little evidence of this.

Junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha has denied charges leveled by international human rights groups and internal critics.

A general election is promised for next year, but many feel it is unlikely to happen and see little hope of change in the near future.

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