Freedom in the World 2015 - Thailand

Status Change Explanation: 

Thailand’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 6, its civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the May military coup, whose leaders abolished the 2007 constitution and imposed severe restrictions on speech and assembly.


Thailand’s political environment deteriorated in early 2014 due to continued public demonstrations and sometimes violent disruptions organized primarily by the pressure group People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former head of the opposition Democrat Party (DP). Counterprotests were mounted by the so-called “red shirts,” supporters of the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. At least 28 people were killed and 827 injured in the street actions. As part of its protest campaign, the PDRC’s supporters occupied government ministries and major intersections in Bangkok, and cut off power to the homes of some members of parliament from the governing Puea Thai Party (PTP). After a series of small bombings in late January, the government imposed a state of emergency in the capital, which remained in place until March.

As street protests continued unabated, on May 20 the army declared martial law and detained senior figures from the opposition and the government; it announced a coup d’état on May 22. The resulting National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, suspended the 2007 constitution, forcibly dispersed all rallies, and imposed severe restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, and the press.

In June the NCPO announced a vague and open-ended “road map” to resolve Thailand’s political crisis, which focused on national reconciliation, reforms, and eventual elections. In July the NCPO unveiled an interim constitution, drafted without public consultation and approved by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, providing unchecked powers and no human rights safeguards. An appointed, unicameral National Legislative Assembly (NLA) sat for the first time in August and elected Prayuth prime minister; he also continued to head the NCPO but formally stepped down from the military.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 8 / 40 (−14) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 1 / 12 (−7)

Under the 2007 constitution—drafted after the 2006 military coup that ousted Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra—Thailand was governed through a bicameral parliamentary system. Parliamentary elections were held on February 2, 2014, in an effort to break persistent deadlock between the PTP and the opposition (the DP and the PDRC). While voting was relatively peaceful in most constituencies, the process was disrupted in 69 of 375 constituencies, primarily in Bangkok and the south. Antigovernment protesters blockaded polling stations and prevented the delivery of ballot boxes. Moreover, antigovernment protesters blocked the candidate registration process in 28 constituencies. The DP challenged the validity of the elections on these grounds, but the Constitutional Court denied its petition, and in early March, voting was held in the first five of the disrupted provinces, with the remaining elections expected to take place in April. The court then changed course, ruling on March 21 that the entire election was invalid because voting was not held across the nation on a single day. In April, Yingluck, DP leaders, and the Election Commission agreed to hold new, national elections in July.

On May 7, responding to an opposition lawsuit, the Constitutional Court found Yingluck and nine cabinet members guilty of abuse of power for 2011 personnel changes that allowed Thaksin’s former brother-in-law to become national police chief. The court ordered Yingluck to step down as caretaker prime minister. The new prime minister proposed elections for August.

The military coup in May canceled all electoral plans. As convened by the NCPO in August, the 200-seat NLA consisted of 105 active or retired military officers, 10 police officers, and a number of academics, technocrats, and businesspeople. Those who had been active in a political party in the past three years were not eligible for appointment to the body, which in effect favored anti-PTP forces.

In October, the membership of the advisory, 250-seat National Reform Council (NRC) was announced. The NRC was intended to provide the leadership with recommendations for reform of all aspects of governance and the political process. A Constitutional Drafting Committee was selected in November, tasked with producing a draft charter by early 2015. Its 36 members were nominated by the NCPO, the NLA, and the cabinet. It soon began consultations with major political parties and movements, but no precise timetable for a return to elections was in place by year’s end, and the military-dominated interim institutions were expected to govern for at least a year.

Concerns about the status of the monarchy remained intertwined with the political crisis. The country’s long-standing rift pitted the Shinawatra family and its largely rural voter base, predominantly in the north and northeast, against an establishment consisting of hardline royalists, the military, the senior bureaucracy, and mainly urban voters in regions closer to the capital. Many observers suggested that the military intervened in 2014 not just because the 2006 coup had failed to sufficiently curb the political strength and popularity of the Shinawatra camp, but also because the generals—in light of the king’s deteriorating health—sought to manage the country during an eventual succession. The succession issue and the possible political leanings of the crown prince came to the fore again in November and December, when his wife was stripped of her royal titles at the prince’s request and the couple divorced. Several of her family members were arrested on charges including bribery and lèse-majesté as part of a larger shake-up of the national police, which many considered to be loyal to Thaksin.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 4 / 16 (−5)

Since Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party came to power in 2001, there have been two main political factions in Thailand’s system: the DP, which is today associated with traditional elites, and the TRT and its successors (the People’s Power Party and the PTP). The latter have won every election since 2001. While the actions of the NCPO have favored the interests of the DP’s core supporters, leaders of both the DP and the PTP have been kept on the sidelines of the political process since the 2014 coup.

Under NCPO order no. 57, issued in June, political parties continued to be regulated under a 2007 law, but new political parties cannot be formed, and existing parties are prohibited from meeting or conducting political activities. The prohibition includes any political party deliberations on the constitutional drafting process. While the Constitutional Drafting Committee arranged individual meetings with leaders of some parties, the parties could not meet in advance to formulate a common position. State funding for political parties was also suspended under the June order.

In the months preceding the 2014 coup, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) pursued a series of cases against senior PTP members. Even after the coup, in November, the NACC recommended that 38 former lawmakers be impeached for abuse of authority, although they were no longer in office. At year’s end the cases were pending before the NLA, which had voted in September to grant itself impeachment powers. Formal impeachment would include a ban from politics for five years.

In August, a criminal court dismissed murder and abuse of power charges against former DP prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep, who had been his deputy, citing a jurisdictional technicality. The court nevertheless acknowledged that their decision to authorize the use of live ammunition against red-shirt protesters in 2010 contributed to the deaths of at least 90 people.

Thailand has had approximately 19 military coups since 1932, and the military and other unelected institutions continue to play a major role in political affairs.


C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12 (−2)

Although an elected government was in place during the months before the May 2014 coup, in practice Yingluck was prevented from making and implementing meaningful policy decisions. This was primarily a result of multiple court cases against her and her administration, and the paralyzing and sometimes deadly protests in Bangkok. The courts appeared to side with the protesters, with a Bangkok court ruling in February that the government could not search or disperse their encampments, and that the demonstrators had the right to block roads. The military then cited the government’s failure to deal with the protests as part of its justification for imposing martial law in May. After the coup, the military dominated the unelected government. Government agencies continued to function, but reported directly to members of the NCPO.

Corruption is widespread at all levels of Thai society. Both the DP and PTP include numerous former lawmakers who have faced persistent corruption allegations. While the interim constitution adopted in July maintains the NACC under the authority of the NCPO, the former has been accused of partisanship and of favoring establishment factions. In May, the NACC charged Yingluck with negligence and other offenses related to the allegedly corrupt implementation of a rice subsidy scheme that reportedly incurred $16 billion in losses to the state; it recommended that impeachment proceedings begin against her. The case was pending at the NLA at year’s end.

The NCPO-led government itself faced two corruption scandals: one involving the procurement of overpriced audiovisual equipment in government offices, and the other regarding the personal wealth of cabinet members, who had to make asset declarations under the interim constitution. Critics questioned how 25 of the 33 cabinet members had become dollar millionaires when many had long served as public servants with modest salaries.


Civil Liberties: 25 / 60 (−7)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 6 / 16 (−4)

The government and military control licensing and transmission for Thailand’s six main television stations and all 525 radio frequencies. Community radio stations are generally unlicensed. Print publications are for the most part privately owned and are subject to fewer restrictions than the broadcast media, but most take a clearly partisan political position. Under martial law in 2014, the NCPO ordered the cessation of broadcasts by all radio stations, including community radio, and 14 satellite and digital television stations; some stations were later allowed to resume programming but forbidden to include any political topics. Two NCPO orders bar the media from disseminating information that could cause disorder or that is critical of the coup regime. In November, the Thai Public Broadcasting Service removed program host Nattaya Wawweerakup as a result of pressure from the NCPO, after a show featured villagers and activists criticizing the coup.

Defamation is a criminal offense, and charges are often used by politicians to silence opponents, critics, and activists. In May, the army launched a defamation suit against two human rights activists with the Cross Cultural Foundation after they issued an open letter calling for an investigation into an alleged case of torture. Also in May, two journalists—one Australian—from the news site Phuketwan faced initial criminal hearings for carrying coverage in 2013 of alleged links between the Thai navy and the trafficking of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The case remained pending at year’s end. In October, a Bangkok court, citing a technicality, dismissed one of at least three defamation cases against British activist Andy Hall that had been initiated by Thailand’s Natural Fruit Company for a report and related media appearances alleging labor violations.

The 2007 Computer Crimes Act assigns significant prison terms for the publication of false information deemed to endanger the public or national security, and permits the government to review the individual data of web users for the preceding 90 days. Since the May coup, a number of cases against journalists and other perceived NCPO opponents have included alleged offenses under the Computer Crimes Act. For example, in June, anticoup activist Sombat Boonngamanong was arrested for alleged computer crimes and refusing an NCPO summons; in August, former education minister Chaturon Chaisang appeared in a military court to face similar charges. The cases were pending at year’s end.

The government in 2014 continued to monitor internet activity and block websites for allegedly insulting the monarchy, and these practices increased under the NCPO administration. The coup leaders requested “cooperation” from social-media networks and operators to prevent the dissemination of messages provoking resistance to the NCPO, and threatened legal action for noncompliance. A reported 219 websites were blocked in May alone.

Aggressive enforcement of Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws since the 2006 coup has created widespread anxiety and stifled freedom of expression online, in print and broadcast media, and at public events. The charges have been used to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians; they are also used by individuals against fellow citizens. Defendants can face decades in prison for multiple counts, and journalists or others who discuss details of the cases risk prosecution. The accused usually spend the length of their trial in detention without bail. Due to the secrecy surrounding most lèse-majesté cases, it is unclear how many went to trial in 2014, though the annual figure is believed to be in the hundreds. Those receiving lengthy prison sentences during 2014 included a musician who made comments on Facebook, a man who was accused by someone with whom he had a business dispute, a taxi driver whose comments were recorded by a passenger, and a scholar accused of insulting a king who died in 1605. Since the May coup, new lèse-majesté cases have been brought before military courts with no right to formal appeal. In November, the military courts tried their first such case, sentencing a web radio host to five years in prison. Several people reportedly left the country to avoid trial.

The 2007 constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. While there is no official state religion, the constitution requires the monarch to be a Buddhist, and speech considered insulting to Buddhism is prohibited by law. A long-running civil conflict in the south, which pits ethnic Malay Muslims against ethnic Thai Buddhists, continues to undermine citizens’ ability to practice their religions. Nevertheless, religious freedom in the majority of the country is generally respected, religious organizations operate freely, and there is no systemic or institutional discrimination based on religion.

Academic freedom was generally respected before the coup, though scholars and students were subject to the strict lèse-majesté laws. After taking power, the NCPO banned political discussion in universities, including political seminars; prohibited criticism of the junta in Thai schools; ordered increased instruction on patriotic themes, as well as revised textbooks; and required universities to monitor and discourage any anticoup activism by students. A number of academics were detained or summoned by the NCPO, and many fled the country. In August, Thammasat University was urged to cancel a discussion on the interim constitution, though the seminar did take place. Three professors and four students at the same university were temporarily detained in September for organizing a subsequent seminar on the decline of dictatorships in foreign countries, and police broke up the event.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 4 / 12 (−2)

Under both the January–March 2014 state of emergency and the martial law regime declared in May, any gathering of more than five people could be banned. In practice, demonstrations continued unabated until the military takeover. While multiple small and a few larger protests against the coup were held initially, they soon dissipated after the military significantly increased its presence on the streets of major cities and began making arrests. In July, protester Weerayuth Kongkanathan became the first person to be sentenced for participating in anticoup protests, receiving a suspended one-month jail sentence and a fine after pleading guilty. The NCPO has also cracked down on subtler forms of protest, detaining individuals for acts that had become symbolic such as eating or distributing sandwiches in public, wearing black on the king’s birthday, reading George Orwell’s 1984 in public, or flashing a three-fingered salute inspired by a popular science-fiction film. According to a September Amnesty International report, at least 89 people had been arrested for participating in demonstrations or political gatherings since the coup.

In October, in a rare exemption from the ban on public gatherings, the government allowed a public funeral for prominent red-shirt leader and former PTP lawmaker Apiwan Wiriyachai, who left Thailand after being summoned by the junta in May and accused of lèse-majesté for a speech in 2011.

Thailand has a vibrant civil society sector, with groups representing farmers, laborers, women, students, environmentalists, and human rights interests. However, attacks on civil society leaders have been reported, and even in cases where perpetrators are prosecuted, there is a perception of impunity for the ultimate sponsors of the violence. A variety of civil society activities were restricted following the coup. For example in September, authorities ordered the cancellation of a panel discussion on human rights in Thailand by lawyers and activists. In November, the NCPO prohibited a planned public forum on land reform, ostensibly due to concerns that it could produce proposals that diverged from those of the NRC. The organizers attempted to hold a press conference to explain the cancellation, but were prevented by the authorities, and five were temporarily detained for protesting and distributing open letters to journalists.

Thai trade unions are independent, and more than 50 percent of state-enterprise workers belong to unions, though less than 2 percent of the total workforce is unionized. Antiunion discrimination in the private sector is common, and legal protections for union members are weak and poorly enforced. After the coup, strikes or other demonstrations in support of labor and trade union rights were forbidden under general restrictions on public gatherings.


F. Rule of Law: 5 / 16 (−1)

The Thai courts have long played a decisive role in determining the outcome of political disputes, generating complaints of judicial activism and political bias, and this continued in the postcoup period. Under the interim constitution and orders issued by the NCPO, the courts were placed under its authority, and the junta extended the jurisdiction of military tribunals to cover civilian offenses involving lèse-majesté, national security, sedition, or the violation of any NCPO order. Cases tried in military courts have no right to appeal, and they are mostly adjudicated behind closed doors.

In efforts to quell anticoup sentiment and end the Bangkok protests, hundreds of people were detained, often in undisclosed locations, immediately following the coup. Some received summons via telephone or in person, while others saw their names broadcast on national television during programming interruptions. Amnesty International reported in September that at least 665 individuals had been arbitrarily detained or ordered to report to the NCPO on vague grounds. Of these, 395 were affiliated with the PTP or the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and 141 were activists, academics, or journalists. Most of those detained were held for up to seven days without charge as allowed under martial law, and some were isolated in military facilities. People who refused summons were subject to criminal punishment, and authorities put pressure on the families and associates of those they were seeking. Amnesty International also reported that some detainees were tortured with beatings, death threats, and mock executions, and forced to sign forms declaring that they had not been mistreated.

A combination of martial law and emergency rule has been in effect for roughly a decade in the four southernmost provinces, where Malay Muslims form a majority and a separatist insurgency has been ongoing—with varying intensity and multiple rebel groups—since the 1940s. In 2013 the government signed an agreement to begin the first formal peace negotiations with a southern militant group, the dominant National Revolutionary Front (BRN), but negotiations broke down and were suspended. Civilians are regularly targeted in shootings, bombings, and arson attacks, and insurgents have often focused on schools and teachers as symbols of the Thai state. The NCPO agreed to allow Malaysia to continue assisting with the BRN negotiation initiative, but it also pursued military solutions, announcing in November that it would arm civilian volunteers with 2,700 rifles to help combat the insurgents. Counterinsurgency operations have involved the indiscriminate detention of thousands of suspected militants and sympathizers, and there are long-standing and credible reports of torture and other human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, by both security forces and insurgents. To date no successful criminal prosecutions of security personnel for such transgressions have taken place.

In Thailand’s north, so-called hill tribes are not fully integrated into society. Many continue to struggle without formal citizenship, which renders them ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or receive protection under labor laws. A 2008 amendment to the Nationality Act was supposed to facilitate citizenship registration, but in practice a lack of documentation made this difficult.

Thailand is known for its tolerance of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, though same-sex couples do not have the same rights as opposite-sex couples, and social tolerance is higher for tourists and expatriates than for nationals.

Thailand has not ratified UN conventions on refugees, and the authorities have forcibly repatriated some refugees from Myanmar and Laos.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 10 / 16

Except in areas affected by civil conflict, citizens have freedom of travel and choice of residence. Citizens also enjoy freedom of employment and higher education. The rights to property and to establish businesses are protected by law, though in practice business activity is affected by some bureaucratic delays, and at times by the influence of security forces and organized crime in certain areas.

While women have the same legal rights as men, they remain subject to economic discrimination in practice, and are vulnerable to domestic abuse, rape, and sex trafficking. Sex tourism has been a key part of the economy in some urban and resort areas. Spousal rape is a criminal offense.

Exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos are serious and ongoing problems, as are child and sweatshop labor. Labor shortages in the fishing industry have led to the trafficking of migrants, especially from Myanmar. An Environmental Justice Foundation report blamed restrictive labor laws, expensive immigration processes, and government indifference for the expansion of migrant smuggling networks. Thai military and immigration officers were accused in 2013 of trafficking Rohingya refugees from western Myanmar and delivering them from detention centers to smugglers. Many undocumented migrants become trafficking victims during the smuggling process. In its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology

2015 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)