Ten Ways To Rig A Democracy: Thailand Edition

During a speech in 1937, Winston Churchill warned that "Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount." In the intervening years, we've seen ample evidence that he was right. Any leader who forcibly seizes political power knows that giving it up can be dangerous.


Keep that in mind this weekend when you read that voters in Thailand have elected a new parliament. Sunday's vote will be the first national election in that country since its military grabbed power in 2014, but the generals have taken steps to ensure their seat atop this Southeast Asian tiger remains secure.

Here's ten ways to create a fake democracy, Thailand edition:

  1. In 2016, the military proposed a new constitution that grants the generals sweeping new powers based on broadly worded laws designed to crush dissent. A public referendum on the document was held, but the army made it illegal for anyone to campaign publicly against it. The constitution was enacted with support from only about one-third of eligible voters.
  2. The new constitution makes illegal any act "which undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of state affairs."
  3. These laws have been enforced: Citizens who simply share or "like" online material that courts say violates these new standards have already been sent to prison and/or re-education camps.
  4. Political candidates accused of violating these laws have been removed from this weekend's election ballot.
  5. Thailand's courts are packed with judges approved by the military.
  6. An Election Commission, appointed by the military, will determine whether the election was fair.
  7. The new constitution allows for direct election of MPs for the lower house of parliament, but it has changed the voting system's proportionality rules to ensure fewer seats go to the political faction associated with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which has won every national election since 2001.
  8. All 250 members of the upper house will be chosen by the military. This will give the generals the dominant influence within the elected government, because the upper and lower houses will together elect the new prime minister in May or June.
  9. The new constitution permits a person who has not won election to parliament to serve as prime minister. A person like, for example, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has ruled Thailand since the 2014 coup.
  10. It also allows the military to impose a 20-year policy plan that all future governments must honor.

In 1932, Thailand became Southeast Asia's first democracy. For now, representative government in that country exists only on paper.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.