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.


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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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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