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28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts

23 November 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 22, 2014

Hindsight is a tricky thing. It is the understanding of something only after it has already occurred. You may anticipate or predict it, but getting a truly clear picture of what has happened mostly is something that is visible after the fact.

In the case of Thailand in the past 12 months, however, the deterioration from dysfunctional and disrupted democracy to an unashamedly military dictatorship only confirmed our deepest fears that a military coup and thus the regression back to darker, more authoritarian times was something unfortunately never completely out of the question.

Who would have thought at this time one year ago that the self-inflicted, massive political own-goal by the ruling Pheu Thai Party of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, full of hubris and total miscalculation, would spark the large, sustained anti-government protest, ultimately paved the way for the military coup?

The hostile takeover of power on May 22, 2014 was a watershed moment in Thailand’s modern history – and it was not for being the 12th such military coup the country has suffered since 1932. It was the consequential execution of what the Thai military thinks the lesson of their last coup in 2006 was: that it failed to remove the political forces of former Prime Minister (and Yingluck’s older brother) Thaksin Shinawatra. In other words: the hindsight of the Thai army is that their 2006 coup wasn’t good enough!

And now, six months – or 28 weeks – later, the Thai military junta is in firm control of the discourse, both politically and publicly.

The military-installed political bodies are intended to permanently re-shape the power structure in the foreseeable future. The fact that then-army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha is now also prime minister  – and thus not only remaining the face of the coup but also representing Thailand on the international stage – indicates a thoroughly sustained and even increased presence of the military in politics.

It has also set off a persistent, revisionist re-imagineering of Thailand’s society, complete with a ‘Happiness Campaign’ to win back the hearts and minds it has intimidated (and still is), and a revamped education curriculum that focuses on teaching ”12 values” in order to create a new Thai generation that is good at following, but not at leading.

But while this re-imagineering of ‘Thainess’ might have worked a few decades ago, it is unlikely to work this time for a number of reasons: the political crisis in the past decade has been so polarized that both military coups have unnecessarilyy antagonized its opponents, mostly groups that are either pro-Thaksin or pro-democracy – or both (yes, that’s possible too)!

Furthermore, assisted by the internet and social media, Thais are now less likely to hide their animosities in public, especially when they feel that their right to express themselves may be taken away. Hopefully some of those that protested for the previous government to be removed, and gleefully rejoiced when that eventually happened, will have the hindsight to see that they have bet on the wrong horse.

This week alone saw sporadic and small flashes of dissent, as students activists flashed the three-finger-salute made popular by ‘The Hunger Games’ movies. And yet it was enough to send the junta into a panicked frenzy, detaining everyone showing the sign and sending them for ”attitude-adjustment”, even forcing a movie chain to drop the blockbuster from its program and sending police officers to patrol screenings.

It is evident from the reactions this week alone that this is a junta that regards disagreement as division, dissent as damaging, differences as disharmony, and defiance as dangerous.

It is telling that deputy prime minister General Prawit Wongsuwan said essentially that the junta graciously allow the right to disagree with them, ”but they cannot express that” publicly. Let that sink in: freedom of thought is apparently allowed, freedom of speech is not…! Even with the hindsight of knowing of the widespread backlashes (not to mention the bad PR) it is unlikely they would have acted any different, since force and intimidation are the only methods the military know to maintain order.

And that is basically what we have been dealing with in the past 28 weeks: A military dictatorship hellbent on changing the political system in its very own way solely for the purpose of permanently locking out their political enemies, even if it means to disenfranchise a huge part of the country, so that it could only lead to more dissatisfaction in the future. And with that mindset – and the help of the still ongoing martial law – it will force it on all of us.

This Thai military coup will have short- and mid-term ramifications, but they can never take control of the long-term implications nor escape the consequences – the future direction of Thailand hinges on the willingness to actually learn from this potential future hindsight.

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The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:

Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
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?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts

28 weeks later: Prayuth, censorship and the media in post-coup Thailand

19 November 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 18, 2014

Since his time as army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s relationship with the media has been strenuous at best. Now as the coup leader and prime minister he constantly in the limelight, and his gaffes are under more scrutiny than ever. On the other hand, the media itself is facing stringent censorship.

Reporter 1: […] so it will be sorted very soon in order to have elections, right?

Prayuth: [inaudible]…see my first answer, I already said it.

Reporter 1: General, may I ask another question: are you now the prime minister?

Prayuth: [pause] It is in progress…I don’t know yet, we’ll see, keep calm! [points to the reporter] You wanna be it?

Reporter 1: [sarcastically] YES, YES, YES…!

Prayuth: Ok, that’s enough! Thank you very much…

Reporter 2: General, just a quick question…how long will the timeline, roadmap take until a new election?

Prayuth: As long as the situation returns to normal!

Reporter 2: General, [the public] may be asking themselves how long’s gonna take, whether if it’s one year…

Prayuth: It depends of the situation! I don’t have an answer. There’s no set time!

Reporter 2: …or one year and a half…

Prayuth: …we’re controlling the situation as fast as possible! Enough! [walks off]

Reporter 2: So do you mean then…General? General…?!

That scene took place when then-army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha held a press conference shortly following the confirmation of him as coup leader by royal command on May 26, 2014 – just a few of days after Thailand’s military has seized absolute power in a coup.

For Prayuth, this was a fairly typical exchange with the media. We have previously pointed out his strenuous relationship with the press here and here – more often than not resulting in the general lashing out at a reporter, resorting to sardonic remarks or simply walking out of a press briefing.

However, that exchange on the May 26 (see full clip here) and what followed shortly after that would set the tone for the coming months: The two reporters from that press conference, Thai Rath’s Supparerk Thongchaiyasit and Bangkok Post’s military correspondent Wassana Nanuam (whose relationship with the top brass has been often brought into question), were summoned and chastised by the military junta for their ”aggressive” hounding of the junta leader.

It was an early sign that the military junta was assuming full control of the press and thus also claiming the sovereignty of the narrative. Mainstream media outlets are put under heavy scrutiny by the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO) as the junta officially calls itself. It has created monitor watchdogs dedicated to each medium in order to check that nobody is breaching the junta’s orders aimed at curtailing criticism against the NCPO. Also, the military government has taken on social media platforms for perceived coup-critical and anti-monarchy content, reportedly having installed a system for mass online surveillance.

And yet, with the General himself – now the leader of Thailand’s military government – constantly in the limelight, he still continues to deliver one gaffe after another too tempting for most of media not to report about it. From a seemingly endless stream of gaffes (see a ”best”-of list from September here), here are three examples:

As we mentioned, there are a lot more examples of the junta leader putting his foot in his mouth. The continuous stream of gaffes is indicative of a massive PR headache with Gen. Prayuth and the military junta, even though it seems that the former is resistant to advice – that is if he gets any, despite close aides reportedly worried about his ‘loose canon’ nature. And if he’s not being sardonic, he comes across as an annoyed uncle in his weekly TV addresses, seemingly knowing the answers to most of the nation’s problems.

However, the conditions most Thai journalists are currently working under are no laughing matter, no matter how many verbal (and other) fouls the junta is committing. Several journalists have either been directly or indirectly pressured by the military junta for their critical reporting.

Last week, ThaiPBS dropped a TV discussion program after it aired criticism of the junta, seemingly after a visit from army officers voicing their displeasure. The program’s host has also been “temporarily” pulled off-air . This has sparked a campaign by most of the mainstream media to protest against the military’s interference. Even the otherwise tepid and often silent Thai Journalists’Association has joined the chorus calling for restrictions on the media to be lifted.

The military has denied accusations of censorship and says it would never limit press freedom – only then to threaten the media from crossing the line. And that exactly is the problem: with the military junta claiming solid sovereignty of its narrative and almost everything else in the political discourse it can easily move the undefined and invisible line to suit its needs.

And if you need any further evidence of the military junta’s open contempt towards the media, just listen to Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan – for many the real mastermind behind the coup – responding to the demands in a press conference on Monday (full clip HERE):

The policy of the NCPO is…let me put it this way: I would like to remind the media that the government, the NCPO are currently in the process to achieve reconciliation in this country. Everything that is an obstacle to reconciliation… everything that will create divisions – we won’t let that happen! Let it rest, wait for now. We have the National Reform Council, the National Legislative Assembly – they’re currently at work, so wait… for a year! We have our roadmap, the government, the NCPO are following it, they’re following their promise. So why the hurry?!

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The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:

Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
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?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts

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

18 November 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 17, 2014

”I’m sorry, but I have to seize power.”

These were the words spoken by army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha on May 22, 2014 before he left the conference room at around 5pm, leaving a good amount of people stunned and moments later detained by military police. Among them were representatives of the ruling Pheu Thai government – or rather what was left of it after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted shortly before – and the leaders of the anti-government protests.

Both sides were brought to the table with the military styling itself as an intermediary, after it had declared martial law two days earlier. It was the climax of a political protest campaign against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra that lasted for over half a year. What was initially a rally against an overzealous blanket amnesty bill (which was so broad it even managed to upset their own red shirts supporter base) by the opposition Democrat Party led by veteran political brawler Suthep Thuagsuban morphed into an all-out destructive movement solely aimed at toppling a democratically elected government.

The occupation of public roads, sieges of government buildings and the successful sabotaging of the February 2 snap-elections brought parts of the capital Bangkok and Thailand’s entire political discourse to a standstill. At least 28 people, both protesters and security forces, were killed in numerous violent clashes during the protests.

Thailand’s 12th successful military coup quickly made clear that this hostile takeover of power was going to be a quite different one than the previous coup in 2006. Because unlike last time, where the rule was quickly returned to a quasi-civilian government, the establishment of an ersatz-rubber stamping parliament called the ”National Legislative Assembly” dominated by military officers, a highly partisan ”National Reform Council” and a rather exclusive ”Constitutional Drafting Committee” shows that the 2014 version is set to fundamentally change Thailand’s political discourse – and there’s still no end in sight and no clear sign what the end result will look like.

The military rulers, with recently retired army chief Gen Prayuth carrying on as junta leader and prime minister, are also making sure that this process remains unhindered. Hundreds of people, among them politicians, activists, academics and journalists have been summoned by the junta – some of them detained, some others charged. The press and social media are under heavy censorship and surveillance. Dissidents are being silenced, while the coup supporters are celebrating silently.

It has been roughly a year since the anti-government protests that have paved the way for the coup begun, and it has been 6 months since the military coup itself. It is time to take a look back in order to understand what’s next for Thailand.

This week the Siam Voices team will analyze and comment on the developments after 6 months in post-coup Thailand, and what they mean for politics, economy and society in the Southeast Asian nation.

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The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:

Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
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?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts

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.

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