Asia in 2016: Thailand
A new king, a new constitution, but same Thailand
Thailand, under military rule since 2014, made little progress towards democracy during 2016. In August, a clear majority of voters – more than 60 percent supported a military-backed draft constitution in a national referendum. Turnout was estimated at no more than 55 percent, although authorities did not issue an official figure. An army-appointed committee wrote the draft constitutions, while campaigns against a “yes” vote were banned and many people were detained during the lead-up to the referendum. While supporters said the new constitution would restore stability to Thailand, opponents said it would strengthen military power in the country.
A week after the referendum, a series of bomb blasts shook Thailand’s popular beach destinations, including Hua Hin and Phuket, killing at least four people and injuring about 36 others. No group took responsibility for the explosions, but the BBC reported that government suspicions had fallen on insurgent groups from the Muslim-majority southern part of the country. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the bombs were an attempt to create chaos and confusion.
In mid-October, the country was plunged into grief by the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the age of 88. He was the world’s longest-reigning monarch and had served as head of state for 70 years. The late king, who was widely revered, was regarded as a stabilizing figure above politics, and who kept the country calm during its many coups and periods of political turmoil. His successor, his son Vajiralongkorn, was formally proclaimed king on December 1, with a coronation to be held sometime in 2017 after a yearlong period of mourning.
Activists noted that Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law prohibiting criticism of the royal family was used more frequently in 2016, with authorities investigating about 20 new criminal cases and seeking to extradite suspects from abroad, according to The Guardian. The BBC’s office in Bangkok was investigated in December after it aired a profile of the new king, including his three marriages that have ended in divorce.
Authorities took action in one of the biggest cases of trafficking in endangered species with a June raid of the popular Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi Province. Police and wildlife officials removed 137 tigers from the monastery, where they had been popular tourist attractions. More than 40 dead tiger cubs were found stored in freezers. Al Jazeera reported that monks were suspected of selling tigers and their body parts on the black market in China. The temple was closed after the raid, while the enclosure is being used to take care of the remaining animals under the supervision of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.