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Siam Voices series: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand

24 November 2014

Over the past seven days, the Siam Voices team (including yours truly) ran a week-long series of articles on 6 months after the military coup of May 22, 2014. Here are the links to all the parts:

Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand by Saksith Saiyasombut
Part 1: Economic stability comes at a cost under Thailand’s military junta
Part 2: Prayuth, censorship and the media in post-coup Thailand
Part 3: An education fit for a zombie? 
by Jack Radcliffe
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup? 
by Thitipol Panyalimpanun
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’ 
by Chan Nilgianskul
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
by Daniel Maxwell
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts 
by Saksith Saiyasombut

Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Familiar faces, uncharted territory

06 November 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 5, 2014

Thailand nominates committee to draft its new constitution, but can the next charter bridge the nation’s fractious political divides?

Last week we looked at the Thai military junta’s attempts to ‘reform’ the political system by highlighting the role of the National Reform Council (NRC), a 150-strong body tasked with making reform recommendations covering a wide rage of issues including political, administrative, social, economic and other areas. It also plays an essential role in forming the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) by appointing most of its members (20) and, more importantly, approving the draft for the new constitution after a process taking several months (we have also explained a possible loophole to indefinitely restart the process).

This week, we look more closely at the Constitutional Drafting Committee, now that all 36 members have been nominated, and what exactly it is being tasked with.

While the NRC was debating whether or not to include people from outside, (namely former political stakeholders such as members from the ousted ruling Pheu Thai Party and their red shirt supporters, or the opposition Democrat Party – all largely sidelined since the military coup) in the end vehemently rejecting this idea, the other government bodies have fielded their CDC nominations with less buzz: the military-dominated ersatz-parliament National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the junta cabinet of ministers and the junta itself, officially called the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), have appointed five members each.

The NCPO also chose the chairman of the CDC: Borwornsak Uwanno, law professor at Chulalongkorn University and secretary-general of the King Prajadhipok Institute. Borwornsak was previously a member of the 1997 constitution drafting committee, widely regarded as the “People’s Constitution” pushing Thailand towards democracy, having the majority of its drafters elected by the people (!) back then. That is a stark contrast to the 2014 constitution drafting process – junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has reportedly picked all the cabinet’s nominations for the CDC “by himself”.

Unsurprisingly, like all the other military government bodies, the CDC nominations show no non-partisanship either. The news website Prachatai has counted at least 7 CDC candidates that were actively involved or have supported the anti-government protests that began last year and ended with military coup of May 22. The rallies led by Suthep Thuagsuban and other veteran politicians of the Democrat Party paralyzed parts of Bangkok for weeks and also sabotaged the February 2 snap-elections.

So, what can we expect from the next charter? Article 35 of the current interim constitution (translation available here) offers a glimpse of what is to come:

Section 35. The draft Constitution shall cover the following matters:
(1) the principle of being one and indivisible Kingdom;
(2) the democratic regime of government with the King as the Head of State which is suitable for Thai context;
(3) the efficient mechanism for prevention, examination and suppression of corruption in both public and private sectors, including mechanism to guarantee that State powers shall be exercised only for national interest and public benefit;
(4) the efficient mechanism for prevention of a person whom ordered by a judgment or any legal order that he commits any corruption or undermines the trustworthiness or fairness of an election from holding any political position stringently;
(5) the efficient mechanism which enabling State officials; especially a person holding political position, and political party to perform their duties or activities independently and without illegal manipulation or mastermind of any person or group of persons;
(6) the efficient mechanism for strengthening the Rule of Law and enhancing good moral, ethics and governance in all sectors and levels;
(7) the efficient mechanism for restructuring and driving economic and social system for inclusive and sustainable growth and preventing populism administration which may damage national economic system and the public in the long run;
(8) the efficient mechanism for accountable spending of State fund which shall be in response of public needs and compliance with financial status of the country, and the efficient mechanism for audit and disclosure of the spending of State fund;
(9) the efficient mechanism for prevention of the fundamental principle to be laid down by the new Constitution;
(10) the mechanism which is necessary for further implementation for the completion of reform.

The Constitution Drafting Committee shall deliberate the necessity and worthiness of the Constitutional Organs of, and other organizations to be established by the provisions of, the new Constitution. In case of necessity, measures to ensure the efficient and effective performance of each organization shall be addressed.

While somewhat vague in its wording, the motivations behind it are pretty clear: a self-proclaimed crusade against “corrupt” politicians and even a constitutionally enshrined restriction of “populist” policies utilized by the previous governments associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Some other CDC members (to remind you, as of now officially not confirmed yet!) are thinking out loud of some other ideas including curtailing the power of political parties in the future or preventing banned politicians from running for office again – a clear indication of the military junta’s goal to hinder yet another election victory by a Thaksin-associated party as much as possible.

“My hope is that the new constitution will put a stop to past divisions and that the public will be as involved in its drafting as possible,” Gen. Prayuth was quoted in the media. However, the partisanship of all government bodies under the military junta makes it clear yet again that the so-called “reform process” will not include all sides of the political spectrum – it’s quite an one-sided raw deal for everyone (naively) hoping for a quick return to democracy in Thailand.

Unlike the last constitution in 2007, there will be no referendum on the next constitution. So the earliest point in time the Thai people will have any say in the political discourse will most likely be at the next elections, as promised by the military junta to be held some time late 2015 – or not!

Thailand’s post-coup ‘reform’ process: Only a few ‘good’ men at the helm

31 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 30, 2014

The “reform” plans by Thailand’s military government continue to take shape. After the establishment of the so-called National Reform Council, a Constitutional Drafting Committee will be created soon. But developments in both groups suggest again that any attempts to revamp the political system will be a very exclusive, one-sided affair.

In the immediate aftermath of the military coup of May 22, one of the often-cited reasons for the hostile takeover was the “need” to reform Thailand’s political system, which was later extended to a desire to eventually create a “true democracy” that may or may not include democratic elections at the end of 2015. Apart from those that were against the toppled government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra – and a few of them actively helping to pave the way for the coup – it was clear to most people that it meant that the military junta would change the rules to its own liking.

The actions of the military junta have continued to show that: Then-army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha became prime minister thanks to the confirmation by a rubber stamping, all-appointed ersatz-parliament called the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), which is stacked mostly with military officers. Also, the recent inauguration of the National Reform Council (NRC) and soon the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) are indicative that the country’s “reform” process is an exclusive one.

The junta-drafted interim constitution (full translation available HERE) initially mandated a 14-member selection committee to pick 250 members for the National Reform Council. But the junta – thus the country’s entire military top command – then decided to do all the appointing by itself, basing it on Article 30.6 that basically makes the selection committee redundant since in the end the junta makes the call anyway.

Despite previous pledges by Gen. Prayuth that “people from all walks of life” will be included among the reportedly almost 7,000 applicants, the final members’ list is rather unsurprising:

Critics have lambasted the 173 selected members of the National Reform Council (NRC) tasked with 11 areas of reform for their affiliations with the military regime after a list of names was leaked to the media.

The Pheu Thai Party and red shirts have voiced concern that the National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) reform process will fail because the list is made up largely of regime sympathisers and lacks representation from a cross-section of groups in society. Meanwhile, opponents of the previous government and members of the yellow-shirt group praised the NRC’s composition, saying it comprises experts in various fields and is not dominated by the military.

The leaked list includes several former members of the anti-Thaksin Group of 40 Senators, such as Rosana Tositrakul, Kamnoon Sitthisamarn, Phaiboon Nititawan and Wanchai Sornsiri. Academics on the council are noted sympathisers of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee [the anti-government protesters that paved the way for the coup], including Charas Suwannamala and Chuchai Supawong.

NRC picks stir barrage of criticism“, Bangkok Post, September 30, 2014

The National Reform Council – whose members don’t have to reveal their assets, by the way (unlike their NLA colleagues) – has mainly two tasks: First, it is supposed to make recommendations to, well, reform a good dozen of targeted areas including politics, social issues, education, administration and economy. That also includes drafting bills for the NLA to vote on.

Secondly, it also is an important component for the drafting of a new constitution (remember, we currently only have an interim one). The NRC can send 20 members to the so-called Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), while the NLA, the junta cabinet and the junta itself can appoint five members each (the latter also decides on the CDC chairman).

There was some speculation that the NRC might appoint people outside their ranks to join the CDC, in order to include those political stakeholders that have been largely excluded for the entirety of the political process since the coup, mainly the main political parties (Democrat and Pheu Thai) and their supporter groups (e.g. the red shirts). The rationale behind that idea was to show that the ‘reform’ process isn’t solely an ‘inside job’, but actually an inclusive one with people across the spectrum represented.

However, that idea had at best a snowball’s chance in hell and it was overwhelmingly struck down in a vote on Tuesday, with most opponents saying it’s the “NRC’s duty” and getting former political stakeholders would only “negatively affect” the drafting process. In the end, the NRC voted 20 of their own people into the CDC on Wednesday, mostly comprised of persons that are politically aligned to the junta.

The NRC’s essential role in the drafting process of the next constitution is that it’s going to approve the CDC’s draft after a set time limit of 120 days (Article 34). However, should it fail to do so, the CDC will be dissolved and a new one will be created (Article 38). Even harsher, should the NRC either fail to decide on the draft within 15 days or flat out reject it, BOTH the NRC and the CDC will be dissolved, its members sacked and new ones will be filled for both groups (Article 37). The worst case scenario could result in multiple loops of NRCs and CDCs being created and sacked until there’s eventually a new constitution everybody’s happy with – practically the junta’s version of Groundhog Day!

What all these developments show is that the so-called ‘reform’ process initiated by Thailand’s military junta is nothing but a smokescreen for a short-sighted, one-sided revamp of the political system, aimed at excluding their political rivals at the risk of disenfranchising at least half the country. By mainly sticking to themselves, the men and women in the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council and the Constitutional Drafting Committee are the manifestation of yet another monopoly of power under Thailand’s new military government that will only create more opposition than there already is.

Also, NRC president Thienchay Keeranan recently said in an interview that he’s open to put the constitution draft up for a referendum (even though there are no such plans as of now) and that he anticipates the NRC’s work to be completed by 2016, despite another council member previously saying that the NRC should exist “no longer than one year.” However, that coincides with recent hints by junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s that elections might be postponed into 2016, thus extending the junta’s reform roadmap to their vision of a “true democracy”.

It looks like the few ‘good’ men deciding about Thailand’s future are going to stay a little bit longer than promised.

The US scales down “Cobra Gold” military exercises in Thailand

28 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 27, 2014

US Marines march past a Royal Thai Army member after a drill during the annual “Cobra Gold” military exercise at Sattahip Naval Base, Thailand, on February 14, 2013 (Photo: Saksith Saiyasombut)

A crucial part in the military junta’s desire to win approval from the international community are its current ties to the United States. But the signs between Washington and Bangkok are somewhat ambiguous right now, writes Saksith Saiyasombut.

It was a calm morning on the empty Hat Yao beach near Pattaya overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, but it was clear it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. On the horizon, a good dozen amphibious landing vehicles appeared, racing towards the shoreline owned by the Thai Navy. Things were about to get louder and more crowded as the vehicles unloaded several units of United States Marines onto the beach as part of the annual “Cobra Gold”, the oldest multinational military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region.

Established in 1982, “Cobra Gold” was initiated to strengthen ties between the United States and their long-term ally Thailand, then under the semi-democratic rule of Prem Tinsulanonda, now the head of the Privy Council. It was the height of the Cold War and there were fears of a communist threat in the region. Over the years, the focus has shifted from fending off hypothetical invasions to multinational humanitarian operations. The exercise also involves other armed forces in the region either as participants or observers, including China and more recently Burma. These annual “war games” drills are seen as an essential pillar of US-Thai relations.

16,000 troops took part in the “Cobra Gold” military exercise in February when Thailand still had an elected, but deeply embattled civilian government. Now, almost half a year after the military coup of May 22 and with the military junta at the helm of the country and its fundamental dismantling of the political system, the question remains whether there will be another “Cobra Gold” in 2015. And what of Thai-US ties?

The United States have warned of “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” and suspended $3.5m of military aid to Thailand in the immediate aftermath of the coup (still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn). There also have been demands that “Cobra Gold” should either be cancelled or moved out of Thailand in order to send a strong signal to the Thai generals. While these demands have been the only direct punishments–if you can call them that–from Washington it was still enough for the Thai junta to appear “unfazed” and offended at the same time.

As mentioned previously on this blog, the military junta is desperately seeking approval from the international community to legitimise their rule. Despite the rather symbolic sanctions and condemnations by the US and the European Union who have suspended an almost-signed agreement on closer economic and political ties, the Thai junta seems to have found new friends in Burma, Cambodia (the former literally welcoming them with open arms) and also in China.

In light of this, what will the US’ next response be? It seems like they’re actually shaking one of the US-Thai diplomatic pillars:

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok told VOA on Friday the so-called Cobra Gold 2015 exercise set for February will be “refocused and scaled down.” The statement said “in light of the current political situation, the U.S. government has increased its focus on non-lethal activities, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

Thai officials have recently denied that the war games would be affected by the May coup, the military’s 12th takeover in 80 years, which has caused a minor rift in U.S.-Thai relations. Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanga-net said this week that 2015 was long ago set as the year for “light military exercises.” He said the 2016 version will be designated as “heavy, and prove the exercises have not been affected by the coup.” For his part, Worapong said the reduced U.S. participation was not an indictment of the military takeover.

US Scales Back ‘Cobra Gold’ War Games in Thailand“, Voice of America, October 24, 2014

The US is also reported to have cancelled a “large-scale live fire exercise tied to a planned amphibious landing,” similar to the one described in the introduction.

As evident in the comments of Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanga-net above, one key element of selling their view of international relations to the public is copious amount of spin, literally bending and distorting the truth. This was evident in the vastly different accounts of a meeting between Thai junta prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha and Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe by their respective news agencies.

Whether Thais fully believe them or not, the junta is eager to pose with foreign dignitaries and maintain a level of involvement on the international stage – such as forums such as the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan earlier this month – in order to show that there is business as usual in Thailand. It seems that normalizing ties to the military government is the pragmatic way to go for many foreign diplomats, since they believe they can better influence the junta that way.

With US Ambassador Kristie Kenney leaving Thailand at the end of this month (and her successor yet to be determined), the United States should take a hard look at the current situation and think about the long-term consequences of a change in their relations to Thailand. A stance that is too tough could drive Thailand into the arms of China while being too soft could be seen as an endorsement of the junta. But any response should demonstrate that things in Thailand are far from normal and the general’s words about when they  may return to normal should not be trusted.

Re-drawing the invisible line: Lèse majesté cases pile under Thailand’s junta

24 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 23, 2014

Since the military coup, the number of lèse majesté cases has been rising in Thailand as the chances of the accused grow even slimmer under the junta’s rule.

The trial was about to start when everybody except the defendants and their lawyers were asked to leave the room. Despite negotiations by observers and in the presence of representatives from the European Union and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the court officials insist the session to continue “in camera” – in other words: behind closed doors.

Some time later it emerged from behind these closed doors that one of the accused, Kathawut B., a radio host associated with the red shirts, has been denied bail for the sixth time, the court citing national security reasons and deeming the defendant a flight risk. Explaining why the public was shut out of the proceeding, the judges claim that these kind of cases could negatively affect “public order and good moral” despite the fact that such cases have mostly been held in public.

The reason cases like Kathawut are becoming more strict is because Kathawut is being tried for lèse majesté.

The draconian lèse majesté law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code, states that it is a criminal offense to “defame, insult or threaten” the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. If convicted, the accused can face up to 15 years in prison.

Coinciding (many observers argue even directly correlating) with the growing political polarization of the past years, the number of lèse majesté related complaints have sky-rocketed even reaching far into the hundreds in 2010. Often such complaints have been politically motivated, either to attack a political opponent or because an individual is perceived as a threat to Thai ultra-conservatism (read our 2013 summary here.)

Things have gotten considerably worse since the coup in May 2014, as the military junta announced days after the hostile takeover of powers that certain cases including lèse majesté are being sent to a military court.

The past few months saw a considerable surge in arrests, trials and sentences relating to lèse majesté cases. The independent news website Prachatai and the legal advocacy group iLaw have compiled a list of such cases on top of those already imprisoned, last updated on September 10, 2014. Among the 21 cases, they include:

7 Apichat P., a graduate student at Thammasat University, who joined a protest against the coup on 23 May 2014 and was arrested. He was the first person that been charged with lese majeste after the 2014 coup. (…) He had been detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison for 26 days before released because the court denied the police’s custody petition. (…)

9 Sombat Boonngam-anong, aka Nuling, a red-shirt activist, was summoned by the NCPO to report himself. Sombat defied the order by hiding himself from the authorities but still was very active online. He was arrested on 5 June 2014 and detained for 7 days in an army camp. He was charged with sedition and was granted bail for the charge. Later police from northeastern province of Roi-et detained him and accused him of posting picture deemed lese majeste on Facebook. Sonbat was granted bail. (…)

14 Patiwat S., a student activist from northeastern Khon Kaen University, was charged with lèse majesté for taking part in a political play “The Wolf Bride” about a fictional monarch, deemed lèse majesté by the police.

15 Pornthip M., a theatre artist and former leading member of Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn performance arts group, was charged with lèse majesté. She was accused of being involved with the political play “The Wolf Bride” about a fictional monarch, deemed lèse majesté by the police.

16 Yuthasak, a taxi driver, was reported by one of his passenger of defaming the King. The passenger also gave the police the record of their conversation in January 2014. The police from Phayathai police station arrested him from a taxi garage on 2 June 2014. The Court denied his bail request. He was detained in Bangkok Remand Prison.

17 Akaradej, An undergraduate student from Mahanakorn University of Technology, was accused of posting messages deemed lese majeste on Facebook in early 2014. It was his Facebook “friend” which reported the case to the police station in Sutthisan district. The police arrested him at his house in June 2014. The Court denied his bail request. He was detained in Bangkok Remand Prison.

2014 coup marks the highest number of lese majeste prisoners in Thai history,” Prachatai English, September 10, 2014

In addition, the following cases have occurred in the past few weeks:

  • A musician was sentenced to an unprecedentedly harsh 30 years in jail for lèse majesté and violating the Computer Crime Act by a court in Ubon Ratchathani in early October. A legal academic also argues that the judges have incorrectly added 3 years. Since the defendant pleaded guilty, the prison sentence was halved to 15 years.
  • American journalist Tom Plate interviewed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and this resulted in the 2011 book “Conversations with Thaksin: From Exile to Deliverance: Thailand’s Populist Tycoon Tells His Story.” Suranand Vejjajiva, former secretary-general to toppled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister), translated this book into Thai. All three are subject to a lèse majesté complaint filed by a former MP of the then-opposition Democrat Party, claiming some parts in the book are “harmful to the royal institution.”
  • Veteran political activist Jaran Ditapichai was charged with lèse majesté on October 16 for organizing the theater play “The Wolf Bride” which resulted in two other people involved in the production also being charged (see the list above). Jaran is currently in exile in Europe.
  • Two retired army officers filed a lèse majesté complaint against veteran social activist Sulak Sivaraksa last week, accusing the 82-year-old of insulting the medieval 17th-century King Naresuan during a seminar.
  • “Same Sky” publishing house has been threatened twice by the military junta with a lèse majesté charge. First, they demanded to delete a Facebook post deemed offensive. Secondly, they ordered Same Sky to stop selling t-shirts with motives they think are offensive. The editor, Thanapol Eawsakul, has been arrested and released twice without trial BBC Thai reports.

It seems that in this current atmosphere – where the media is under close watch, the internet reportedly heavily monitored and public displays dissent not tolerated by the junta – that ultra-royalists in Thailand have almost free reign to act against what they perceive as a threat to the nation and the monarchy.

This is further underlined by the junta’s announcement to rigorously prosecute lèse majesté offenders, in a bid to bolster its moral legitimacy and also make the case of an anti-monarchy movement (and thus one of the needs for a military coup in the first place). It also even seeks extradition of suspects abroad, while junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha recently told them to come back to Thailand voluntarily and promised a “fair” trial.

The ongoing existence of martial law in Thailand has helped in the reactivation of the cyber-scout program, which recruits students into an online volunteer force combing the internet for allegedly offensive content.

In this climate, it also seemingly doesn’t matter how frivolous some of these charges are, as the complaint against Plate, Thaksin and Suranand was filed by a political rival.

But the complaint against veteran social activist Sulak Sivaraksa for allegedly insulting the medieval King Naresuan is particularly ludicrous. The 17th-century king has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the Thai public recently, as he has been the subject of a dramatized bio-epic series – the most recent part launched in Thai cinemas shortly after the coup and the junta organized free nationwide movie screenings for it.

Nevertheless, the implications of this complaint if this actually goes to trial are even more severe: as mentioned above, the law only applies to the current king, queen, heir-apparent and regent. However, the Supreme Court decided last year that it also covers past kings, as a defendant was found guilty to have insulted King Rama IV., who ruled from 1851 to 1868. If Sulak was found guilty, it could affect several centuries of history and it would make for instance critical academic research into it nigh impossible.

It would also re-draw the invisible line of lèse majesté, making it even harder to navigate the legal boundaries of Thailand’s already draconian law.

Thais in Milan rally for and against junta leader’s visit

18 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 17, 2014

Exiled Thai activist Junya "Lek" Yimprasert (center) holding a sign denouncing Thai junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a rally in Milan, Italy, which hosts the Asia-Europe Meeting. (Photo by Eugenio Morongiu)

Exiled Thai activist Junya “Lek” Yimprasert holding a sign denouncing Thai junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a rally in Milan, Italy, which is hosting the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting from October 16-17, 2014. (Photo by Eugenio Morongiu)

The attendance of Thailand’s junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan has promted Thais to take action to either protest against his arrival or to display support for him as the political polarization among Thais extends abroad, writes Saksith Saiyasombut.

“Dittatore NON sei benvenuto!” – The message in Italian makes it clear in no uncertain terms that somebody isn’t welcome and judging by the face on the image it is also very clear who it is directed at: A drawing of the trademark stern look of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. A few of these stickers (in different languages) have been put in the northern Italian city of Milan.

One such sticker was put on a lamppost, when Mrs. Wiyada discovered it. She immediately put up her own sign on the post (and took it down again after snapping the picture): a portrait of a proud-looking General Prayuth in front of an Italian flag above silhouettes of a crowd waving Thai flags with the slogan “Welcome Thai PM to Italy.”

It comes to no surprise that the recently retired army chief is causing such an uproar: in May 2014, he launched a military coup – the second within 8 years and the 12th in total since 1932 – and his military junta has appointed a quasi-parliament dominated by military officers, who in return have appointed General Prayuth as prime minister. Furthermore, his military government intends to “reform” to political system in a self-proclaimed crusade against “corruption” that may eventually results in fresh elections some time in late 2015 – or not. Also, not to mention the countless summons, detentions and trials against dissidents critical of the coup and severe media censorship, especially online.

Contrary to general impressions and most appearances in recent months, the Thai junta seems not to be completely tone-deaf of the opposition it has suppressed in recent months, as the Foreign Ministry anticipated that there’ll be protests against General Prayuth‘s visit to ASEM in Milan in order to explain the political situation to leaders of the European Union heads of states from Europe and Asia from their point of view.

(READ MORE: Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’)

Junya “Lek” Yimprasert is one of the people protesting against Prayuth in Milan. A veteran labor and political activist, she is forced to live in exile after being charged last year with lèse majesté for writing a 2010 essay critical of Thailand’s monarchy, for which she could face a jail sentence of up to 15 years. Now she lives in Finland and has traveled to Milan a week before the ASEM to attend the associated Asia-Europe People’s Forum to explain her opposition against Prayuth at a panel discussion on Thailand under military rule. (Disclaimer: This author was one of the other panelists at this forum, following an invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation)

“The ASEM must not allow a military dictator to come to Europe and collect stamps of approval,” said Junya in a rapid-fire manner during the three hours panel talk. Her demand would be later echoed in the final declaration (PDF) of the bi-annual and bi-continental meeting of NGOs and social movements, adding that “democratic governments to grant asylum to all citizens who have been put under pressure and have been prosecuted in Thailand.”

The other part of her plan to protest against Prayuth is to mobilize local activists, as she and her group of other concerned Thai citizens have met with Milan-based groups to jointly organize a rally on Thursday, when the leaders from Europe and Asia arrive at ASEM. “It is an act of international solidarity,” Junya would say later.

Meanwhile, the other side was also preparing to convene in Milan. Mrs. Wiyada (full name withheld), a 38-year old resident of Cervia (roughly 3 hours away from Milan) who has called Italy her home for 9 years now, is charge of PR for several groups “all across Europe in 18 countries” that are aligned with the group that have held prolonged anti-government protests from autumn last year and whose actions have paved the way for the military coup in May 2014.

Talking to Asian Correspondent, Mrs. Wiyada says that initially she only planed to greet General Prayuth with a small group of Thais. “But when we heard that the other side (referring to Junya Yimprasert) were coming, we decided to meet up,” she said, claiming that  Thais from “all over Italy and some from Switzerland” will join to show their support to the Thai junta leader – all on their own initiative and nobody the background paying them.

While she admits that the current military government “isn’t a democracy,” she claims that the toppled government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra “wasn’t democratic either,” reiterating the claims that her and previous affiliated administrations may have won at the polls, but weren’t acting in the interest of the country.

It is not known where exactly the political allegiances are among the roughly 5000 Thais living in Italy, but like in the rest of the continent, political groups from both sides of the spectrum exist and regular meet to discuss the state of Kingdom. However, Mrs. Wiyada claims that “the other side doesn’t have the support from most Thais here in Italy. That’s the difference!”

On Thursday, Wiyada’s group – roughly two dozen – are waving Thai flags and holding signs at the hotel where General Prayuth stays in the morning and later in the afternoon (see HERE), and then waiting for him at the famous Duomo cathedral in the evening, cheering to him whenever the group saw him.

In a different part of town, at least 200 to 300 protesters are rallying through the streets of Milan – the overwhelming majority being Italian students. Nevertheless, Junya and other Thais are to be seen front row holding anti-Prayuth signs, joined by other students as well. Junya was also holding the picture of Fabio Polgenhi, the Italian photojournalist killed in the deadly crackdown by the Thai military on anti-government red shirt protesters in 2010. The investigation of his death have dragged on and may never be fully concluded.

While some local Italian media outlets would later refer these protest merely as a student rally against the Italian far-right party Lega Nord and racism in general, other media outlets specifically point out the opposition to the Thai junta as well. Regardless that may appear for some that the anti-Prayuth angle was an afterthought, the pictures of Mrs. Junya leading a large rally protesting the leader of Thailand’s military junta have effectively framed her cause.

Talking after the rally to Asian Correspondent, Junya Yimprasert thinks it was “a success” and emphasized the cooperation with Italian activists. When asked about whether the participation of mostly Italian students in a protest about a Thai issue would diminish her campaign, she counters that “Italians also have a right to discuss issues in Thailand. The case with Thailand is an international problem (…) and it is time for the world to tell Thailand that enough is enough!”

While Thais were protesting for and against him, General Prayuth himself was shaking hands with leaders from Japan, China, Singapore and many other heads of states from Europe and Asia. According to the junta, these pictures of the encounters will be spun as a sign of acceptance by the international community of Prayuth and the military government – regardless of what was actually said.

Thus it is astonishing but unsurprising that a junta spokesman in Thailand claims that there have been no protests against Prayuth in Milan – Thursday’s events evidently rebuke that assessment, showing that the junta cannot control the complete narrative. Both the rallies for and against Thailand’s junta prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha prove that not only does the political polarization exists among Thais abroad, but also that he not necessarily welcome everywhere.

Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’

17 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 16, 2014

Thailand's prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Malpensa Airport in Milan, where he will be attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting on October 16-17, marking his first visit to Europe since taking over powers in a military coup in May 2014. (Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam)

Thai prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives in Milan, Italy Wednesday to attend the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting. Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam.

Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha will meet leaders of the European Union for the first time since the military coup this week in a self-proclaimed mission to help Western leaders “understand” the political situation in Thailand. But there is no guarantee that it is going to work, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

One of the many life lessons one will learn is that you simply can’t win over everyone. That’s something that Thailand’s military government seems to be struggling to cope with, especially when it comes to foreign policy towards the West. Observing the reaction from Thai prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha and members of his cabinet shows a curious split in narrative wobbling back and forth between desperately seeking approval and snide dismissal when it comes with dealing criticism abroad.

In the immediate aftermath of the military of coup in May 2014, many countries around the world (to varying degrees) expressed their “grave concerns” about the worst-case scenario. Some condemned the hostile takeover of power and others also added a demand for a “rapid” or “immediate” return to democratic principles and elections.

Western countries reacted initially the harshest at the sight of Thailand’s second coup d’etat in eight years: United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that the coup would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military.” This was emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – which is a drop in the ocean compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself for next year’s budget. The European Union (EU) seemingly went slightly further, stopping all visits to Thailand and suspending the signing of an agreement on closer economic and political ties – an apparent downgrade in EU-Thai relations.

The Thai junta, seemingly offended and also appearing unfazed at the same time, has turned to other countries in the region by seeking closer ties to China, as evident in the approval of a $23bn train network connecting the two countries. But the Thai junta’s China pivot could turn out to be a zero-sum game in the long-term. Neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia have welcomed the Thai generals (literally!) with open arms and gave their blessings to the junta as well, which should alarm ASEAN despite their long-held tradition of non-intervention.

It was evident that the Thai junta and the military government (which is essentially one and the same) had an unsurmountable uphill task to convince the international community that their (vague, but yet so clear) intentions to “reform” the political system are sincerely for a return “swift” return to “true democracy” with elections held sometime in late 2015 – which may or may not be postponed further back into 2016, depending on whether or not their “reform” plans actually stick.

The hardest part still remains the Western head of states and diplomats. The appointment of recently retired supreme commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as foreign minister – much to the chagrin of several diplomats – certainly didn’t help to raise the diplomatic credibility of the military government either.

His first big mission was at the United Nation General Assembly in New York last month, where General Thanasak was spouting the usual claims by the Thai junta that it is “not retreating from democracy,” but that the military intervention was “necessary” amidst the deteriorating political conflict (while absolutely disregarding the manufactured nature of the anti-government protests that made the coup possible in the first place!).

Now his boss has boarded the plane and after making his first visit as Thai junta prime minister to neighboring Burma, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is visiting Europe this week. More specifically, he is attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting in the northern Italian city of Milan on Thursday and Friday.

This marks a curious turn of events after the (in hindsight rather soft) sanctions and nearly universal condemnation from the West as General Prayuth will be meeting EU leadership with Herman Van Rompuy, recently elected President of the European Council, and EU Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, as well as heads of states from both Europe and Asia.

The main goal of this trip is clear: thaw frozen Thai-EU relationships and get back to business – literally! Thailand is poised to position itself in a leading role in ASEAN and being the EU-ASEAN coordinator in July 2015 certainly helps – especially with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community looming around the corner.

But is normalizing relations with a Thai military government that is anything but democratic the right way to go?

“The reason why we’re seeking to engage [with the junta] is that this is the best way to get our points across,” a source within the diplomatic community in Bangkok told Asian Correspondent. “We have ways to pressure them on certain issues. However, we are aware what impression this might give to the public.”

Indeed, the problem is that any engagements by foreign envoys with the junta could appear to give them legitimacy.

“Prayuth is coming here to collect his stamps of approval,” said Junya Yimprasert, an exiled Thai political activist, at a panel this past weekend at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum (AEPF) in Milan*. Junya, who is organizing a protest of General Prayuth’s presence at ASEM on Thursday (which the Thai Foreign Ministry has anticipated), has called for ASEM not to let the Thai junta prime minister take part, which was echoed in the final declaration of the AEPF (PDF).

As Prayuth will be attending ASEM and meeting the same European leaders that have condemned him months ago, he will still have a tough time to convince everybody that it’s time to get back to normal (and it might take even longer, according to his own words).

Since he launched the military coup, assumed absolute power and sat about completely overhauling the political system, things in Thailand are far from being normal. You don’t have to be a foreign diplomat to figure that out. This time, Prayuth won’t be able to convince everybody.

*(Disclaimer: This author was one of the panelists at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum at the invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation.)

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