In Thailand, wearing a crop top to a pro-democracy protest can land you in jail for years. It is an implausible scenario that is all too real for my client, Sainam, a teenage activist, who took part in a Bangkok rally in October 2020, sporting a black half-shirt and a protest message scrawled on his torso. Authorities charged him with insulting King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who famously dons scantily cropped tops in public. For his activism, Sainam faces up to 15 years in prison. He is not alone.

Though criticizing the Thai monarchy has long been taboo, mounting frustration over the monarchy’s growing political power (particularly after the 2014 coup by the military, which has long been close to the royal family) and questionable constitutional reforms have prompted youth activists to speak out. They do so, however, at great personal risk. Nearly 300 youth activists now face imprisonment for demanding democratic rights, the youngest among them only 12 years old, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a group I co-founded in response to the coup.

These youth are among nearly 2,000 human rights defenders targeted since 2020 by restrictive laws designed to silence dissent. Among these regulations is the lèse-majesté law, used to punish  any action deemed to “defame, insult, or threaten” the monarchy. Lèse-majesté has been the law since Thailand’s first criminal code in 1908, but over the past decade, the military government has been using it in earnest to persecute pro-democracy activists. Since November 2020, more than 200 people have been charged under this law, including a woman who shared clips about the monarchy on social media and is now serving a 43.5-year sentence (reduced from 87 years after she pleaded guilty).

Clearly, these draconian measures are meant to suppress demands for democratic change. Without international support to bolster the Thai democracy movement, the situation will only worsen.

As world leaders gather for the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy this week, it is imperative they turn their attention to Thailand, which pointedly was not invited to the summit. The timing is serendipitous. Thailand’s next general election is slated for May 14th. It is arguably the most important election in Asia this year, as it could set the tone for democratic rights in the region. It also represents a chance to curb the junta’s influence and shift power to the Thai people — where it belongs.

If world leaders are serious about upholding democratic values, they must make it clear in the strongest terms that another coup or any military-and-royal intervention in the election process is unacceptable. They also must demand an end to the persecution of pro-democracy activists, and insist on the repeal of repressive laws like lèse-majesté. The world must not sit by while the chances of restoring democracy are again under threat in Thailand.

In Thailand, the military has played an outsized role in politics since the nation became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In this new system of governance, the King reigns, but does not rule, as ruling is done by the government. Importantly, the King’s official acts are considered constitutionally and legally void absent his minister’s countersignature. However, in practice, there have been diversions from this standard. For instance, the King requested in 2016 that the military junta make changes to a draft constitution after voters had already approved it in a referendum. The government obliged.

Over the decades, Thailand has experienced more than a dozen coups. Rather than protect democracy, the monarchy tends to side with those who staged the latest overthrow. Indeed, the alliance between the monarchy and the Thai military is holding back democracy. Military leaders have become expert in writing constitutions in their favor, rigging elections, ousting elected governments, and setting bad examples for regional peers (they coddle and protect the brutal Burmese dictatorship, for example). Yet the international community still welcomes and supports them.

Thailand’s last general election in 2019 was neither free nor fair, but rather a theatrical spectacle thinly disguised as democracy. The Thai military held the election under strict laws that censored the media and limited the rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Two separate opposition political parties were dissolved, both before and after the election. After the election, the junta-appointed Senate voted with military-party members of Parliament to reinstall Thai Royal Army Commander in Chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister, the position he held after leading the 2014 military coup. He also serves as defense minister.

These farcical elections stoked frustrations that had already been growing over the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic, the economic downturn, and the disbanding of Future Forward, a new political party popular with youth. Student-led protests erupted in Bangkok in the summer of 2020, then spread nationwide. Demonstrators demanded the resignation of the prime minister, an end to the harassment of activists, a new constitution, and limits on the monarchy’s power.

For Thailand’s pro-democracy movement, the upcoming general election offers a fresh opportunity to begin to right the wrongs. Opposition parties are well-positioned to win sufficient parliamentary seats to nullify the military government’s control. A landslide win by the opposition would also secure enough votes to elect the next prime minister. However, the fear is palpable that the military could undermine the election process, or worse yet, commit another coup after the election, as it has in the past (we’re seeing signs of trouble already with the government selecting May 14 as the election date; that date falls during the exam period for university students, most of whom support democratic parties).

Ignoring this intensifying authoritarian threat not only imperils the civil rights of millions of people, but also stands to bolster China’s influence in the region. World leaders must publicly call for – and act to ensure – the election is free, fair, and inclusive by pressuring the government to:

  • Lift restrictions on public participation, political campaigns, and election monitoring and reporting of results by civil society groups and news outlets.
  • Drop all charges and prosecutions of pro-democracy activists.
  • Release political prisoners detained for exercising their freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, including those charged under the lèse-majesté
  • Guarantee defendants’ right to a fair trial, due process, public hearing, and bail in line with international standards.

At a time when democratic rights are imperiled around the globe, world leaders cannot just pay lip service to preserving democracy; they must act. In Thailand, we have an opportunity to usher in a new era that empowers people and upholds democratic freedoms. Human rights defenders like Sainam and many others should not spend decades in prison for exercising their basic right to freedom of expression. The United States and world leaders can – and must – seize this opportunity to restore democracy in a country that has been backsliding for too long.

IMAGE: A Thai runner dressed in a costume gives a three finger “hunger games” salute as thousands gather at Suan Rot Fai Park for a “fun run” against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government on January 12, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. Police estimated that more than 12,000 people joined the protest against the Prime Minister, who seized power during a 2014 coup, led a junta in the following years and was elected Prime Minister in a much-disputed March 2019 election. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)