Understanding Thailand's upcoming election through political cartoons

Thai election

Source: Stephff – Prachatai, used with permission

Ahead of Thailand's May 14 election, early voting has already started in an election whose rules were set by the 2017 Constitution drafted by a military-backed government. Human rights groups and watchdogs are concerned that this month's election may not reflect the people's will because of new Constitutional provisions that guaranteed Senate seats for pro-junta leaders.

The cartoon above depicts a scene where voters cast their ballots while the military prepares to intervene again if the results are not to their liking. It reflects the 12 successful coups of the military over the past century. The last coup was in 2014, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who remains the country’s head of state and is seeking reelection as prime minister.

Prayut won in 2019 after all the 250 senators he appointed chose him as prime minister. It is unlikely that he will get the same number of votes this year since his deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwon, is also a candidate. A pre-election survey two weeks ago showed that the parties of Prayut and Prawit are trailing behind opposition candidates in terms of public support.

A key issue during the election campaign is the proposal to either amend or repeal the Royal Defamation Law (Lèse-majesté, or Section 112 of the Criminal Code). Opposition forces have insisted that reforming the law and how it is enforced is necessary to improve the country's human rights situation. The Prayut government has strictly enforced the law to detain critics and activists — especially after the rise of a youth-led democracy movement in 2020.

Bangkok-based artist Stephane Peray, more popularly known online as Stephff, noted the challenges that the new government has to deal with. In an email interview with Global Voices, he said:

A lot of young voters have (been) radicalized due to the increased use of the lese-majeste by the authorities. So theorically we can expect some changes and reforms. But in practice, the Move Forward and the Pheu Thai — which will be the projected coalition to rule — cannot afford to alienate the military, the elite and the conservative administration otherwise we risk another coup.

Move Forward and the Pheu Thai are the current opposition parties.

Stephff also shared the difficulties experienced by cartoonists like him after the government became more aggressive in implementing the royal defamation law:

Editorial cartoonists who publish in Thai media have to be careful. We can criticize the military, we can criticize the lese majeste law but we simply cannot criticize the Monarchy, it's just a big ‘NO !’ As a result, we have to self-censor ourselves and it's never a great feeling to do so for an artist or a political cartoonist. But I would say at the end it's not a big deal, we can find a way to say things we want to say.

Stephff has consistently illustrated the campaign for the restoration of civilian rule and democracy in Thailand.

His cartoon titled “Crossing of the Democratic Desert” shows Bangkok's iconic “democracy monument” crossing a desert to reach an “oasis” (elections) while overcoming several obstacles, such as the junta-dominated senate, military influence in several branches of government, the crackdown on the opposition, and the use of the royal defamation law to silence criticism. The cartoon also pays homage to the protestors and activists — marked by the three-finger salute, which became popular during the 2020 protests — who have been killed or jailed for their pro-democracy ideologies.

Another cartoon by Stephff depicts the military as a titan blocking the path of a wizard, which represents democracy. The image is based on an iconic scene from the Hollywood film “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” where the wizard Gandalf takes on a Balrog demon — the embodiment of evil.

Meanwhile, a cartoon by Arun Watcharasawat compares the state of the nation with a crumbling house which alludes to the leadership of Prayut and Prawit.

Another cartoon caricatured the transformation of Prayut from a coup leader into the head of a military-backed government and his bid to be re-elected as prime minister

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