Three years ago, Thailand’s democratically elected government was ousted in a bloodless coup.
Despite promises that military rule would be brief, and return to democracy fast, three years on, Thais are still living under a repressive military Junta.
Hundreds are now detained, as freedom of speech and dissent are cracked down on.
Our reporter in Thailand, Kannikar Petchkaew asked Thais what three years of military rule has looked like for them, and how they see for their country’s future.
Three years ago, on 22 May 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.
Coup leader, General Prayuth Chantra-Ocha declared that military rule was necessary to put a lid on escalating political turmoil before it boiled over.
But he said it would be brief, just enough to ensure stability and order. “We will return to you your happiness,” he said. And citizens would be able to carry on with their lives as normal.
It’s been three years now. Thailand is still ruled by the military junta.
Pipop Udomittipong is a pro-democracy social critic and activist. For him, life never returned to normal.
He 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, his activities have been closely monitored. He is on a watch list, and is visited by police, military and security officers.
But that isn’t his biggest concern.
Elections have been repeatedly postponed since the military assumed government, and he fears democracy may never be restored.
Political uncertainty has massively 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 US$347 million.
Some Thais initially welcomed the coup, believing that corrupt politicians had caused chaos, and should be removed from government.
Veera Somkwamkid is a long-time corruption fighter who 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 Prayuth, and they remain unresolved,” he said.
After three years, Veera hasn’t seen any of the shifts towards cleaner government that he hoped for.
Instead, his activities as a whistleblower and anti-corruption advocate have been barred. And – like hundreds of others - he is detained from time to time. His house is under surveillance, and army officers stand guard in his neighborhood.
Hundreds of critics like Veera have been imprisoned, and many issued compulsory summonses to attend so-called “attitude readjustment” sessions at military camps.
Critics live in fear.
Anyone who expresses criticism of the government could be charged with sedition, says Noppol Atchamart, from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
“This law should be used to protect the state’s security, not used against individuals,” he argues.
A sweep of new laws has 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.
And the country now also has some of the strictest lese-majeste legislation in the world, threatening 15 years imprisonment for anyone who insults the royal family.
“Before the coup, there were just 6 or 7 people imprisoned under the lese majeste law,” Atchamart said. “Now there are more than 100, as far as I know, there could be more. The law is being used broadly, and for any kind of offence.
When they stole power, junta leaders pledged to bring back democracy in three phases: First, national reconciliation, then comprehensive legal reforms, and finally, reinvigoration of democratic institutions.
But so far there has been little evidence of this.
And in the meantime, Junta leader Prayuth flatly denies charges leveled by international human rights groups and internal critics.
“You said I limit freedom of the press. Did I do that? Answer me!” He demanded.
“Did I violate human rights? Detaining and summoning people? Where did we summon them? Were they in their places or in the military barracks? In jail or anywhere else? Are they still detained? No! They go under court rule and some were bailed out, where are they? I am asking you. There’s no torture or abuse,” he insisted.
A general election is promised for next year, but many feel it is unlikely to eventuate, and see little hope of change in the near future.