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Opinion: The end of Thai democracy

The military intervention in Thailand has brought the country further away from solving the political crisis. Without a mindset change, democracy can't work with the nation's ruling elite, writes DW's Rodion Ebbighausen.

Thailand's recent political development has followed a pattern similar to that of a classic tragedy. For months, the Southeast Asian nation has been entangled in a power struggle between two rival camps which are unwilling to compromise. As a result, one crisis has followed the next.

It started with mass demonstrations, then parliament was dissolved, which was followed by failed elections and then the caretaker PM and nine cabinet ministers were ousted by the country's Constitutional Court. But each attempt to put an end to the political unrest only plunged the divided nation deeper into crisis.

On Tuesday, May 20, the Thai army declared martial law. Military authorities now have the power to censor the media. Ten commercial TV channels have already been shut down. Soldiers have also been given full powers to search any place without a court order, impose curfews, ban rallies, arrest people without a warrant or detain them for up to seven days without pressing charges.

Army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has insisted the surprise intervention has only been designed to restore order after seven months of protests, and that it is not a military coup. For now, the caretaker government led by supporters of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra remains in office. But regardless of the motives behind the intervention and the questions of whether it was a coup or not, one thing has become clear: Thailand's democratic model has once again failed.

In a country which has seen 18 actual or attempted military takeovers since 1932, its democratic constitution has been either amended or rewritten several times. Thailand, which is still dominated by feudal structures, lacks a democratic culture. Influential segments of the political elite fail to accept elections as a means of expressing public opinion. Institutions such as the judiciary are not independent as they often find themselves entangled in the power struggle.

The freedom of the press is restricted and the country's rigid lèse majesté law bans people from expressing their true opinions on matters related to the monarchy. The law is also often used to silence unpleasant political rivals. Thai politics is often about eliminating political enemies, instead of just defeating them in a fair political process. As a result, none of the rival political factions wants to give in.

All in all, in a country where the principles of fair elections and majority rule are rejected, the opposition is not taken seriously, the Constitution is constantly rewritten and the freedom of expression is under threat, there is little room to establish a strong democracy. The latest events can be described as tragic as no one, above all, the army itself, really wants to have a military-led government. Military leaders are well aware that they are neither able to administer a modern state, nor to solve its political problems.

Thailand needs a political new beginning where people no longer view political rivals as enemies. But it won't be possible to achieve this with the country's current elites. Thailand's best chances lie with the next generation of politicians provided they haven't completely lost all hope in democracy.