Thailand lifts ban on political activity as election approaches

But full-scale campaigning still off limits until official announcement of Feb 24 polls

Thailand's last election in 2014 was annulled after anti-government protesters sabotaged polling in order to prevent the Pheu Thai Party-headed government from returning to power. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Thailand has lifted its ban on political activity after four years of military rule as the kingdom gears up for a general election on Feb 24.

In a statement on the Royal Gazette website yesterday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as chairman of the ruling junta, lifted broad restrictions on activities such as political assembly and fund raising which were imposed shortly after the 2014 coup.

Separately, Thailand's Election Commission (EC) confirmed that the general election will be held on Feb 24, as mentioned earlier by Cabinet members. But full-scale election campaigning is still pro-hibited until an official announcement of the polls is made next month, said the commission.

"Political parties can do things like gathering their members, raising funds and meeting up with members and supporters," Mr Jarungvith Phumma, secretary-general of the commission, told The Straits Times. "But to conduct election campaigns, they will need to wait for the EC notice that will give detailed campaign regulations."

Other details, such as whether parties can launch campaigns on social media, will be discussed at the EC's meeting with political parties next Wednesday, he said.

Thailand's SET Index rallied briefly after the lunch break - when the announcement was made - but ended the day down 0.99 per cent.

Still, Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, who is taking part in the coming election as the leader of Palang Pracharath Party, told The Straits Times: "It reduces uncertainty and gives people some confidence that we are moving forward."

Thailand's last election in 2014 was annulled after anti-government protesters sabotaged polling in order to prevent the Pheu Thai Party-headed government from returning to power.

Pheu Thai was eventually ousted by a coup led by then army chief Prayut.

Since then, the Constitution has been rewritten in a way that would make it more difficult for Pheu Thai to return, and raise the chances of ushering in a coalition government.

Critics of the junta allege that Mr Prayut is attempting to stage a comeback through proxy parties benefiting from a skewed electoral system.

Other new laws have also altered the civil and political landscape.

A Public Assembly Act that went into effect in 2015 lays down strict rules for public gatherings and brandishes jail terms of up to 10 years for causing a disturbance.

Any person who wishes to hold a public rally is required to seek permission from the authorities at least 24 hours beforehand.

Supporters of this law argue it is needed to staunch the political turbulence that plagued Thailand in the past decade, when crowds backing self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra occupied central Bangkok streets, an act later repeated by their royalist rivals supporting the establishment.

Political activist Chonthicha Jangrew, who has been agitating for political freedoms as part of the Democracy Restoration Group, remains cautious about what the lifting of the political ban means.

"It is just a first step," she told The Straits Times. "It should be easier for us to conduct our activities. But the military and police can still use other laws like the Public Assembly Act."

The law was wielded just this week. The mother of a medic, who a court had ruled was killed by soldiers during street protests in 2010, was charged by police on Monday over a public gathering held to demand justice for her daughter.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2018, with the headline Thailand lifts ban on political activity as election approaches. Subscribe