When it comes to democracy, the DR Congo is Thailand’s role model
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When it comes to democracy, the DR Congo is Thailand’s role model

WHILST the public may be clamouring for an election date to be set, Thailand’s ruling junta seems unimpressed. Invoking the need to pass a new slate of election laws, junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha is employing a strategy that few would have ever expected to see in what was once a shining beacon of democracy in the region: glissement.

A staple of sub-Saharan politics, perfected by autocratic leaders like Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, glissement neatly captures the erosion of democratic norms in Thailand and its growing resemblance to an African banana republic. Taken from the French ‘sliding’, glissement means to keep coasting along indefinitely. To kick it into the long grass. To ensure that, even if you can’t beat’em, they won’t have the chance to beat you because the contest isn’t going to take place.

Shortly after the 2014 military coup in Thailand, the Thai public was assured the country would return to democracy the following year. However, after almost four years and countless election postponements, Prayuth is now among the longest serving leaders in Thailand’s history. Critical reactions from the international community, human rights groups and Thailand’s embattled opposition have all been met with a new excuse not to hold elections each year.

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The latest announcement came last month, when the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) decided to change Section 2 of the MP election bill. The move requires the election be further postponed, making it unlikely there will be a vote before February 2019.

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Demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against President Joseph Kabila, organised by the Catholic church in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 21, 2018. Source: Reuters/Kenny Katombe

Thai democracy, DRC-style

The comparison to the DRC’s glissement is anything but glib. Delays in hosting elections in Thailand have rightfully raised suspicions behind the motive of the current military government, especially after Prayuth asserted he was no longer a soldier but was now a politician. The ongoing delay give the junta time to form a political party, not to mention the opportunity to woo MPs from other parties.

In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila has engineered a similar series of events. His presidential mandate technically ended in December 2016, but elections have yet to be held due to alleged problems with voter registration. One opposition leader commented that the electoral commission’s announced timeline “is not an electoral calendar but an election-killing agenda”.  Before the end of Kabila’s second and final term, officials suggested elections would be held in November 2016. Instead, hopes for a smooth democratic transition were quashed that September when the national electoral authority (CENI) announced the election would not be held until the end of 2017. Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen.

Kabila claims that CENI is an independent body. However, the picture that comes to light is a president desperately trying to cling to power by postponing elections until he can find a way to remove term limits that prevent him from standing for re-election. The CENI’s most recent update has been to say an election will not take place before December 2018. Their reasons have included an unknown number of voters, a lack of money, the need to organise polls once voter registration is completed, and difficulties in enrolling voters and mobilising finances. Sound familiar?

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Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila addresses a news conference at the State House in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 26, 2018. Source: Reuters/Kenny Katombe

The Shinawatra-Katumbi connection

Kabila and Prayuth share a favourite political manoeuvre: going after popular political opponents using politically-motivated legal means. Thailand’s Shinawatra clan has been long attacked by the justice system, and are living in self-imposed exile abroad on what are widely seen as political charges. Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was spotted in London, after failing to attend a show trial where she was charged with failing to stop ‘false and corrupt government-to-government sales of rice from the rice programme’. Her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has taken shelter in Dubai.

Similarly, the DRC’s main opposition figure has also been forced to seek refuge on foreign soil. Moise Katumbi, the man tipped as most likely to replace Kabila, has sought asylum in Belgium after first being accused of hiring foreign mercenaries and then being convicted in absentia of selling a house that isn’t his. From Brussels, Katumbi has been calling on the Congolese people to resist Kabila’s state capture and has applied for UN protection to return to his country.

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Ousted former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, September 29, 2015. Source: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Picture

Reining in the religious establishment

Another striking similarity is that in both countries, the religious establishment forms a key part of the story. The Catholic Church of Congo has repeatedly criticised Kabila’s machinations, gaining the support of opposition figures like Katumbi. It has urged Kabila to relinquish power and even organised protests when he failed to stick to the agreement to step down. Of course, there has been an inevitable backlash against the Church, with seminaries and churches razed, priests beaten and ‘terror’ sown among Carmelite sisters.

In Thailand, the story is slightly different but also troubling. Buddhism is one of the main pillars of power in Thai society, and the junta has tried a number of ways to make sure it obtains its support. In 2016, the junta rejected the candidate supported by the Council to take up the role of Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism, instead granting the King the power to pick the monk himself. The following year, the junta sought to ‘regulate Buddhism’ by passing a law that would have given more political oversight over the Sangha Supreme Council, Buddhism’s governing body in Thailand.

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A Buddhist monk buys flowers at a market in Bangkok, Thailand, February 13, 2018. Source: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

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The 2017 constitution states that the state need only direct its assistance to the Theravada school of Buddhism. The stipulation that the government guard Buddhism against all forms of desecration speaks to an increasing intolerance of pluralism, an about-turn on previous constitutions which actively promoted religious harmony. The result is a religious order sufficiently integrated with the regime to no longer pose too much of a problem.

This is a worry for several reasons.  For example, Thailand’s Muslim ‘deep south’ – Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla – has a long history of insurrection. The junta’s predilection for pushing religious hegemony, as well as its heavy-handed approach to democratic freedoms could stoke tensions again, much like the DRC’s fractured Kasai region. Thailand may not be at risk of rivalling the Rohingya crisis, but the state’s religious militancy will do nothing to calm tensions.

For better or worse, the decisions Thailand’s unelected leaders make now will continue to define the country’s politics for years to come. Glissement, after all, is a tactic that can be applied far beyond Africa.