By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
BANGKOK (Worthy News) – Voters in Thailand prepared to go to the polls on Sunday in an election that could set the Asian nation on a path toward ending eight years of military rule, but uncertainty remains for Christian refugees.
The vote will pit younger pro-democracy opposition parties against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who seized power in a coup in 2014.
Most opinion polls show Paetongtarn Shinawatra, whose father, Thaksin, was ousted in a separate coup in 2006, as the current front-runner for prime minister.
If she became prime minister in this generation-defining vote, it would see the return of Thailand’s most famous political dynasty. Her father, Thaksin Shinawatra, lives in exile but could potentially return if his daughter gets the top job.
However, independent election observers have expressed concerns about possible vote rigging.
Watchdogs claimed the 2019 election, the first after a 2014 coup, was “heavily tilted” toward the ruling government led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Critics warn that it could again find ways of manipulating the results in its favor.
The military has been criticized for giving itself the power to appoint the 250 members of the Senate. Parliament will select the prime minister in a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Analysts say that senators, which include Prayuth’s brother and close aides, are due to provide overwhelming support for the military, as they did in 2019.
That’s why the opposition needs to sweep the elections for a larger 500-member House of Representatives to have a chance to form a government.
It was unclear whether a new government would be more willing to open up for Christian refugees, including thousands from Myanmar, as well as Pakistan and China.
Worthy News established that many had been detained and threatened with deportation under the current military rulers.
Footage obtained by Worthy News in December, for instance, showed police outside and a crackdown on Christian migrants in the Bangkok area. At least 10 Pakistani Christian families were taken into custody on one weekend alone, Christians said at the time.
Pakistani Christians say they fled their Islamic country after receiving death threats for their faith in Christ. Thai authorities have also detained dozens of Chinese Christians in recent weeks.
The country has also come under pressure over how it treats Christian groups fleeing neighboring conflict-torn Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Thailand has denied forcing back thousands of mainly Christian refugees fleeing deadly airstrikes in neighboring Myanmar despite video footage suggesting many boarding boats under Thai soldiers’ watch.
The United Nations refugee agency said last year that Thailand currently hosts about 5,000 “urban refugees and asylum seekers,” though rights groups say the number is much higher.
Thailand, a mainly Buddhist nation, has not ratified the United Nations refugee convention.
In 2016 the government reportedly pledged to establish a program granting “protected person status” to foreigners with a legitimate fear of persecution back home. However, numerous Christians told Worthy News little had changed.
Many live in poverty, with children reportedly being forced to beg for food in Buddhist temples.
Besides dealing with a refugee crisis, a new Thai government will face pressure to improve the economy further. The COVID-19 pandemic meant a sudden stop in Thailand’s crucial tourism industry and a significant contraction in economic activity.
Thailand’s Gross Domestic Product fell by 6.1 percent in 2020, the most significant contraction since the Asian financial crisis, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Additionally, the outcome of Sunday’s elections could open discussions on the monarchy’s future, several sources said.
Political parties are debating whether a strict law that criminalizes criticism of the king and monarchy with prison sentences of up to 15 years should be amended or expanded.
If the military-backed parties lose, the future could look less secure for the monarchy, according to experts.
“The army has always been seen as the guardians of the institution, and without it, at the helm of government, the country’s conservatives could be nervous,” said Sui-Lee Wee, Southeast Asia bureau chief of The New York Times newspaper.
“If an opposition party wins, it would hopefully mean that Thailand could revive its once vibrant democracy. But if history serves as any guide, the military is unlikely to relinquish power easily.”
Thai voters expressed hope that the country can at least emerge out of a cycle of coups and short-lived civilian governments, with or without a king.
If you are interested in articles produced by Worthy News, please check out our FREE sydication service available to churches or online Christian ministries. To find out more, visit Worthy Plugins.