Skip to content

Unfolding and unscrambling the Thai military junta’s policy advertorial

27 February 2016

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 26, 2016

An advertisement supplement touting the polices of Thailand's military government appeared on the front page of the English-language newspaper The Nation on February 23, 2016. (Pic: Reader submission)

An advertisement supplement touting the polices of Thailand’s military government appeared on the front page of the English-language newspaper The Nation on February 23, 2016. (Pic: Reader submission)

THAILAND’S military government has gone on the media offensive to promote its “reform roadmap” by planting paid advertisement supplements in Thai newspapers. But the published product is, in its own words, one giant “confusion trap”.

It is an uphill struggle the Thai military has faced ever since it took over in the coup of May 22, 2014 and almost two years later it has become increasingly Sisyphean. The battle over the sovereign narrative of the political discourse in Thailand is one of the biggest headaches for the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO) – as the military junta formally calls itself.

Considering the restrictions by the junta to curtail any kind of criticism, be it by online censorship, aggressive behavior towards the media (also increasingly against foreign media) and the detainment and harassment of dissidents, the generals have a hard time of convincing anyone of their iron- and at the same time ham-fisted rule, let alone winning back any hearts and minds it has intimidated.

With general grumbling over the government’s performance (especially economically) growing, a second controversial constitution draft far from being safely confirmed and thus eventual elections still an empty promise at this point (despite repeated assurances that it will definitely take place next year no matter what, just not exactly which month!), the military government of junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has its work cut out.

Coinciding with the reemergence of a certain former prime minister in the public eye (more on him next week), the government’s PR department also mounted a media offensive of their own. Over the course of the week, it has placed special policy pamphlets wrapped around the newspapers of Thai-language Thai PostPost Today, its English-language sister publication Bangkok Post and its direct rival The Nation. These supplements were sponsored by the state-owned Government Savings Bank, Krung Thai Bank and the Government Lottery Office.

It was a confusing sight for many readers at first, since the paid advertisements bore the logos of the respective newspapers and looked like an actual product from the newsroom, thanks to the lack of any disclaimers – with the Bangkok Post being the only exception (clearly marked as a “special advertisement supplement”) in addition to a clarifying remark by its editor. While a newspaper being wrapped by a full double-paged advertisement is not unusual, it is not often that a Thai government does it on that scale, which makes it look almost like an advertorial.

Instead of presenting a product with the loftiest ideas money can buy, this particular printed product touts ideas money can’t buy, but is sure to still cost some money anyways: the military junta’s policies, its “reform roadmap” and why the coup was necessary in the first place. However, the end result left readers with a lot more questions than answers.

Starting off with the upper half of the front page (see header picture above), it described “Thailand’s vicious cycle” of “bi-polar”(sic!) political “hyperconflict” (sic!) as a result of “without credibility government” (sic!), leading into all kinds of traps like “conflicting” and “confusing” (and for some reason illustrated by a fishing hook), thus making the “NCPO undertaking” (sic!) – more commonly known as the 2014 military coup – necessary in order to prevent the county from becoming a “failed state”. It does not mention the military’s involvement in this vicious cycle (including the last coup in 2006), nor the manufactured deadlock by the anti-election movement 2013-14 that paved the way for the most recent coup.

The bottom half of the front page featured the usual long-term sales pitch for building Thailand into “a first world nation with stability, propensity, sustainability” through the “sufficiency economy philosophy” while at the same time eventually lifting Thailand into a “high-income country” and “knowledge-based economy” after it has transformed itself into an “innovative industry” (a long way ahead since the country is currently ranked below the worldwide average in that regard) – that and “Hope, Happiness & Harmony”. All in all a tall order for the junta that is fighting a sluggish economy that is expected not to grow more than 2 percent this year.

The biggest headache highlight though is the centerfold, displaying a mind-boggling behemoth of a diagram, supposedly displaying the Thai military government’s “Administration Guidelines”. Written in what can only be smaller than font size 10, it spreads out into a completely illegible maze of different government bodies, which have countless committees, which in turn have countless sub-committees tackling a seemingly wide array of issues – we just simply can’t read them at all!

11025623_10154608911152366_1277160416811391931_n

Behold, the centerfold of the Thai military junta’s policy pamphlet! (Pic: Reader submission.)

One noteworthy item in this unattractive centerfold is the junta’s purported timeline in the right bottom corner, which claims to hand back power to an elected government sometime in 2017, while also already setting off a “20-Year National Strategy Plan”. The plan, which in fact is a bill, came out of the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA, a fully-appointed government body) and was passed by the fully-appointed legislative body last week. The bill sees the establishment of a 25-member group that seeks to dictate long-term policy goals to the cabinet, which could be yet another mechanism  to restrict an elected government. It’s not made better by the fact that members of the current junta, including Prime Minister Prayuth, will be on this panel for the first few years.

The backside is probably the most egregious part of this pamphlet, attempting to explain why its policy of “Pracharat” (commonly translated as “state of the people”) is the polar opposite to the “evil” populism-schemes of the previous governments the military has ousted – even if the former is currently nothing but the junta’s hottest buzzword as it has yet to be defined into actual policies, unless it’s just a simple rebranding.

However, the coup de grâce is found in the bottom half. Not only does the graphic un-ironically define how a “pseudo-democracy” differs from a “genuine” one (considering the current state of Thai politics), but it also tries to cram several dozens of items from the centerfold into just three small boxes – and fails miserably …

All in all, it does beg the question: what is the military junta is trying to achieve here? It is not going for maximum exposure since it has published this pamphlet in three four newspapers, only one two of them in Thai, thus leaving international readers as the likely target audience. However, given the authoritarian rule of the government, it won’t be easily swayed by some loftily phrased aspirations – let alone by that giant policy diagram.

The last time the military published a diagram, it was a largely unfounded mess. This time, it published a series of haphazardly-constructed infographics, making things more difficult to understand to the general public. The junta’s long-term policy vision just mentions democracy as a side note and reinforces a paternalistic style of governance, seeing itself as the ultimate arbiter of the future direction Thailand is taking, while at the same time completely muddling its message.

But then on the other hand, transparency has never been the military’s strong suit.

Correction: An earlier version stated that three newspapers have carried the Thai junta’s advertorial. It is four – in addition to Bangkok Post, The Nation, Post Today, Thai-language daily Thai Post also ran this.

h/t to several Twitter followers and readers for providing photos and copies of the pamphlet. 

Exiled Thai academic accuses military junta of threatening his family

26 February 2016

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 25, 2016

The Thai military has allegedly threatened the family of self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor at the Center for South East Asian Studies at Kyoto University and currently a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge.

The scholar wrote on his Facebook profile on Wednesday evening that army officers have appeared at his house and called one of his sisters, demanding them to tell Pavin to “stop all activities overseas” – especially “talking about the monarchy” – or else his “family will have to bear the consequences” and demanded his entire family to “report themselves at the army camp”.

AFP’s Southeast Asia correspondent Jerome Taylor tweeted Thursday that junta spokesperson Colonel Winthai Suvaree told the agency that he had no information on authorities’ contact with Pavin’s family.

Pavin is known for his outspokenness on Thai politics – including the monarchy – and even more so since the Thai military summoned him among hundreds of other academics, politicians and journalists in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, while he was based in Japan at that time. He openly refused to comply and, in his typical mischievous online manner, replied mockingly on Facebook if he could send his pet dog instead.

Shortly thereafter, the military junta revoked Pavin’s passport, practically exiling him. But that didn’t stop him from slamming them in numerous opinion pieces in the foreign press and also traveling abroad, giving lectures and participating in academic events discussing the current state of Thai politics. One of these events was this Wednesday on the future of the Thai monarchy at Oxford University, which was the likely cause for the Thai military’s alleged harassment of Pavin’s family. In the past, Pavin has accused Thai authorities, through their consulates and embassies, to have attempted to sabotage these public events either by discouraging Thai students from attending or pressuring the hosting universities to cancel.

Furthermore, Thai authorities have attempted to ask Japan to extradite Pavin on the premise that not only did he not comply with the military summons, but also that some of his articles were deemed “insulting to the monarchy” or lèse majesté, an offense punishable with up to 15 years in jail and rigorously (ab)used under the current military government. The junta has also asked other countries like New Zealand and France for extradition of lèse majesté suspects that have fled Thailand.

Thai junta PM embarks on day-long rant after criticism of constitution draft

04 February 2016

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 3, 2016

The Thai military government’s intolerance towards dissent is nothing new. But its reactions against criticisms of the newest constitution draft – over a single day, no less – is a renewed display of insecurity by the junta.

Either you’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t. That’s the conundrum Thailand’s military government has put itself ever since it seized powers in the 2014 coup, suspended electoral democracy and almost every other aspect of political discourse and freedom that comes with it.

While its rule is undoubtedly authoritarian, the junta has promised to “reform” the political system, introduce a new constitution and then to hold new democratic elections in late 2015 – before postponing it to early 2016then delaying again to mid-2016 in order to accommodate for a public referendum on the constitution draft and then it got delayed yet another time to 2017 because that draft didn’t make it through the junta’s fully appointed ersatz-parliament and the whole drafting process had to begin all over again.

Last week, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) (whose members were all replaced after the first draft failed) presented their second attempt to the public (PDF) which will be directly put up to a public referendum this summer. However, the contents and their intentions are largely the same as the previous one, aiming to restrict the powers of elected governments and have more unelected forces to easier intervene (we will address the contents of the draft in a future story).

To make matters more dubious, CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan already hinted before the publication that elections could be further delayed beyond mid-2017 to accommodate more time for organic laws to be drafted and implemented. However, Thai junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha later reaffirmed that democratic elections will actually take place in July next year, even if the constitution draft ist rejected in the public referendum – only then to change his mind on Monday again and widened out the timeframe to the whole of 2017.

That only further fueled suspicion and criticisms and seemingly this has all come to a head on Tuesday with a string of incidents and reactions that show how thin-skinned the junta is.

It started in the morning with the temporary detainment of Jatuporn Prompan, a prominent leader of the red shirts, a protest group that largely supports the toppled government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, the also deposed ex-PM Thaksin. The red shirts have announced last week that it would boycott the draft constitution, which is the likely reason for Jatuporn’s brief detainment – or “attitude adjustment” as the junta’s euphemistically calls it. He was released later in the afternoon.

At roughly the same time at Government House, prime minister Gen. Prayuth started lashing out at reporters, triggered by a question concerning the current constitutional drafting process and the delayed election date, saying things like “If you wanna vote, then go vote – you get the crappy ones [in the parliament], what are you gonna do then?” or “If the country goes down, don’t come blame me!”

All this venting took place while he was inspecting exhibition stands, making it for those involved a possibly very awkward photo-op (see video below). As he was sniffing a wooden chicken and reading some labels he continued yelling: “I understand everything because I read! Are you reading anything? Have you read anything that the government is doing something good?!” When a reporter asked him what he was actually referring to, Gen. Prayuth fired back with: “If you’re an idiot than look it up yourself!”

Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the junta’s number 2, deputy-prime minister and defense minister, commented on Jatuporn’s brief detainment by saying that “constructive criticism” on the draft constitution is welcomed by the military government, but it must be “civilized”, not using such words like “dictatorship”, let the junta do its job, not “inciting unrest” – or else be “invited” for another round of attitude adjustment.

By the afternoon after the weekly cabinet meeting, PM Gen. Prayuth held another press conference and continued his tirade, claiming that nobody’s helping him whenever he gets pelted by criticism: “Why is nobody talking about my rights? (…) I have democratic rights, too! You don’t defend me, but you defend all these scoundrels?”

The reporters continued asking the still visibly agitated prime minister (see video below) with such questions like on the unclear sections of the draft (to which he replied “Why do you wanna know all this? You want this [draft] to fail, do you?!”) or on the criticisms against the draft that it would create further political conflict instead of resolving it (“Who is inciting conflict, apart from politicians, apart from the press?! Who else?! Tell me!!”).

He concluded his fiery press briefing by bemoaning the lack of trust he has by the public (despite a recent government poll attesting him a “98.9 per cent” approval rating, even though we all know better): “You don’t trust me at all after these two years? Haven’t you seen the work I’ve done? [slams podium] HUH?! You trust all the others, but not me!!”

Even for Gen. Prayuth, known for his often mercurial and sardonic outbursts in public, the constant criticism and skepticism towards the military junta’s constitutional draft process must have hit a nerve. It displays a distinct lack of confidence and insecurity in the process to go on ranting for almost a whole day.

It also explains why a spokesman for the military junta has come out reiterating that the junta “never prohibits criticism or expression of opinion,” but asks for discussions of the draft to be held “respectfully”. The thing about respect is that it is mutual – something that the Thai military government and its leader clearly does not show and Tuesday tirade was no exception.

Tongue-Thai’ed – A woman’s (supposed) worth in a military man’s world

02 February 2016

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 1, 2016

This is part XXXII of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

AS we’re entering the second full year of the Thai military government and with things likely to stay the same for the foreseeable future, one thing is for certain: we’re still have to endure another year of the junta’s authoritarian rule. But it also means that we will have another guaranteed year of the generals putting their foot in their mouths, be it out of temper, not enough understanding of a certain matter, or just hypocrisy. For the even more ridiculous and outrageous ones we fortunately have our long-running “Tongue-Thai’ed!“-section, a standing record of astonishing verbosities of Thai public figures.

And no other Thai public figure has been delivering it like Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. For several years already, back when he was ‘just’ army chief, Il Generalissimo has regularly contributed to this section here and it has only increased when he assumed the highest ranking political office in this country. Be it his constant aggressively sardonic remarks against reporters, his lengthy rants during his weekly TV addresses, or other seemingly off-script moments, his compulsive loquaciousness always causes a raised eyebrow or two. And the first Tongue-Thai’ed! of 2016 is par for the course.

A man of his (thousand) word(s)

Prayuth spoke on Friday at an event originally promoting vocational education, but the junta leader decided to temporarily talk about something entirely different.

“Everybody’s saying that we should create equality, women and men should have the same rights, should be able to do the same good and bad things – if that’s the case, if that’s how you think, Thai society will deteriorate!”

Erm, yes… Gen. Prayuth and his government ministers have stated several times in past what they think is going to lead to Thailand’s downfall – such things like “extreme human rights“, people voting for the wrong partylimiting military power and just generally “too much democracy“. For the generals, these things have brought Thailand to the brink of collapse and made the 2014 coup necessary.

Prayuth continues:

“Women are the gender of motherhood, the gender of giving birth. When you return home… who is it? Who has a wife? Isn’t the wife looking after the home? At home she’s the big boss, isn’t she? Outside I’m the boss – at work, everywhere I have lots of authority. When I return home, I have to be quiet because she’s looking after the home, the kids, everything in the house. I haven’t done anything at home since we married, she’s doing everything.”

It seems that Gen. Prayuth is mixing up women’s rights with women’s (supposed) roles in the family and at home – and still gets it wrong for the most part or at least it sounds awfully antiquated. But okay, he’s from a different generation with very distinct gender roles and at least also admits one area in his life he has absolutely no control over.

He then concludes:

“That’s why I have my head free to think about everything [else], not worrying about anything, not picking up the kids, not doing anything at all, because I work far away from home. That’s the small difference! But all the bad things I have done to her, have benefitted others. That’s what I think.”

Wait, “all the bad things I have done to her” (“แต่สิ่งที่ผมทำไม่ดีกับเขา”)? Did he just admit something he shouldn’t have said? And who’s benefitting from that? Let’s assume for a moment that Gen. Prayuth, in his usual off-script manner, meant with that “the things I haven’t done for her” – which still shows that he’s absolutely unwilling to do anything in the family household!

All in all the whole quote is astonishing and reveals Gen. Prayuth’s thoughts about women: stay at home, do what you’re told, look after the kids and don’t make any demands!

What doesn’t seem to be clear to him is the fact that he is prime minister over a country with a female population of 50.7 per cent and they comprise roughly 45 per cent of the country’s workforce, which makes it among the highest rates in Asia. Thailand has also an above-average number of women in senior management positions. However, despite countless policies and campaigns by previous administrations, a lot more women are still facing at least some discrimination at work.

Other women’s issues in Thailand are still in need of improvement as well, such as abortion still being illegal (with very extreme exceptions), sexual assaults still ineffectively dealt withfemale Buddhist monks still not recognizedsexual hypocrisy still prevails with a stark bias against women. In fact, the country is currently ranked 93rd out of 188 in the most recent Gender Inequality Index by the United Nations Development Programme (PDF, page 225).

Women’s representation in politics has been rather low in recent years and even lower since the military junta took over, with now a meager 5 percent of women in the junta’s fully-appointed legislative assembly (from previously 15 per cent). Thailand’s only female prime minister so far, Yingluck Shinawatra, was never supported by Thai women’s groups, solely for political reasons, until the 2014 coup.

Which brings us back to Gen. Prayuth – the same man who suggested after the murder of two British backpackers in 2014 that tourists wearing bikinis wouldn’t be safe “unless they’re not beautiful” (for which he later apologized). His views about family values and clearly defined gender roles reflect the old Thai saying that “the husband is the fore leg of the elephant, the wife is the hind leg” (“สามีเป็นช้างเท้าหน้า ภรรยาเป็นช้างเท้าหลัง”) – and for him, that should stay the same. But what if the front leg has been limping for a while?

P.S.: Ironically, the Royal Thai Air Force announced last week that they’re looking to hire female pilots for the first time amidst a shortage of male pilots.

Thailand in 2015: Some personal thoughts

28 December 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 24, 2015

A definitively incomplete look back at a year in 2015 where few things made headlines for the right reasons.

FOR the second time since its most recent assumption of powers, the Thai military junta has presented its annual government performance to the general public. This was the opportunity for the cabinet of junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha to show what it actually has achieved in its first full year ruling over Thailand. But for some reason, it has cut the schedule down from three days last year to just one day today.

This is also the fifth time that I’m writing a year-in-review ever since I started covering Thai politics. This is the opportunity for me to reflect and comment on the developments in the political sphere in order to help the general public understand what the hell is actually going on in the circles of power. But for some very specific reason, this year’s exercise is an exceptionally frustrating one.

Last year, I wrote about the metaphorical arsonists that have caused the death of Thai democracy as we knew it and those complicit in it. The latter have now been largely sidelined since then, as well as their political enemies.

If 2014 marked the watershed moment in Thai history, 2015 was largely a continuation of the season of infamy.

The Thai military government – with all its doublespeak about their so-called “roadmap” back to democracy, its nonchalance about the blurred lines between military and government, its incredibly tone-deaf verbosities and compulsive loquaciousness, its “attitude adjusting” detainments and ultimately its blunt threats against those daring to oppose or those just simply doing their jobs – has put this country in a petulant state of revertigo, a dizzying regression to old behaviors triggered by something in the past, or at least what should be in the past. Or to put it in the words of a Thai education official, a “360 degree turn”.

The junta’s reimagineering of the political landscape, in which the powers of elected officials will be severely restricted or otherwise affected by outside intervention, was both dead on arrival and on schedule at the same time: on one hand, the junta was mulling over a referendum on the next constitutional draft, but also delaying the possible election date, which was initially set for late 2015, but kept getting pushed back further and further. The next possible date for new polls has now been pushed even further at mid-2017, since the draft was rejected by the junta-appointed legislative and the whole process started anew. And that on the other hand just simply extended the junta’s rule, as it claims that it will definitely hand back power in 2017unless they decide otherwise.

It seems that almost nothing can dampen the junta’s rule: not the still-sagging economy, not the ongoing cases of slavery in the fishing industry, its poor handling of refugees (if they were not deporting them back), or the air traffic security downgrade. Not even the bomb attack on August 22 at Bangkok’s busy Erawan shrine that killed 20 and injured over 100 people has shaken the generals too much, as it has self-congratulatorily declared the case closed after a shambolically contradicting investigation. Just don’t call it an act of terrorism.

Other “achievements” by this government would be too long to list all of them here (as well as PM Gen. Prayuth’s almost daily sardonic hissy fits), in a year where very few things indicated progress and even fewer cases where common sense has prevailed, such as the tiny advancements in LGBTI rights and the dismissal in the libel case against the Phuketwan journalists.

The ongoing rule of the military junta also unsurprisingly signals the ongoing regression of human rights and freedom of speech, as dissidents are detained in what officials euphemistically call “attitude adjustment” and assemblies are outlawed (unless you are an ultra-nationalist protesting against the US embassy). Political parties across the spectrum have been rendered irrelevant, either unable and unwilling to engage in the current political climate, leaving the field to a very few but brave student activists.

Lèse majesté has reached its lowest point yet in 2015, as both criminal and military courts have handed out record sentences and arbitrarily extended the definition of the draconian law, from vague allusions in university theater productions to sharing Facebook posts mocking the King’s dog.

The military government has also extended its front lines online as well. The new proposed Cyber Laws aim to create the foundations for “digital economy”, but also enable widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (just on Wednesday the alternative news website Prachatai lost its appeal) and more legal uncertainty, benefiting the state more than Thai online users.

Compared to that the junta’s plans to bottleneck internet traffic through a “single gateway” to filter unwanted content was just the icing on the cake – and something that sparked a rare display of civil disobedience, as online activists crashed government websites, sending officials scrambling for an appropriate response. While the government states it isn’t pursuing those plans any more, one shouldn’t be surprised if the single gateway and other means to control the narrative online will pop up next year.

But that is a losing battle and no other case has proven it more than the Rajabhakti Park corruption scandal. What was initially planned as yet another big display of the military’s loyalty to the monarchy worth around 1 billion Baht ($28 million) has descended into a massive headache for the junta, as military officers are accused of receiving kickbacks and suspects in similar cases have died in custody. The junta has so far responded in the only way it can: by detaining critics and crying conspiracy.

What this and the year as a whole shows is that the assumption of control by the Thai military junta remains a textbook definition of an assumption – one without proof or legitimacy that will be constantly challenged. The junta is obviously playing the long game sitting comfortably at the helm for the foreseeable future in one form or another, it is mounting a battle of attrition for its opponents.

For me personally, it is a battle against cynicism. The actions by those in power are self-evident and predictable, yet stupendously brazen and unashamedly blatant in their execution – in that regard that is pretty much the status quo for Thai politics in general regardless of what era we are talking about. But wouldn’t that be the lazy way to explain all this and then leave the foreseeable future to be damned like this? Wouldn’t it be cynical?

I honestly don’t know any more, because my articles over the past five years have chronicled the systematic failure of the Thai political discourse by nearly all involved, hence it is no surprise how we got here where we are now. And it still seems that we haven’t reached the worst yet. But how many more years are we gonna be trapped in this repeating state of revertigo and how will this cycle be broken? The answers to the question may already have been given multiple times along the way, but amidst this constant regression in Thailand, how many more times do they have to be repeated?

Analysis: US to play the long game with Thai military junta, but not forever

19 December 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 18, 2015

”YOU always meet twice in your life,” is a saying Germans used to tell each other, which can either be a simple figure of speech when two people say goodbye – or it can also be a reminder that no matter on what terms you part ways, you might have to settle your issues in the future.

When news broke that for the fifth Thailand-United States Strategic Dialogue a certain Daniel Russel would return to Bangkok, certain people within the Thai military government might have been seething at the announcement. The last time the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was in town, he left a particularly sour taste among the generals.

In January earlier this year – not quite a year after Thailand’s military seized power in the coup of May 2014 and half a year since junta leader Gen. Prayuth Cha-cha was made prime minister – Mr. Russel visited Southeast Asia, meeting with then-Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn and those political stakeholders that have been largely sidelined since the coup, namely toppled former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, Russel also gave a speech at Chulalongkorn University, in which he said in no uncertain terms that the military junta’s crackdown on dissenting opponents under (at that time still active) martial law and the apparent unwillingness to foster an inclusive political discourse is putting a dent in the long-running relationship between the two countries. And indeed the United States sent early signals of initial disapproval of the coup, suspending $3.5m in military aid (which is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn) and scaling down the annual joint-military exercise ”Cobra Gold”.

These critical remarks led the Thai military government to throw a week-long overzealous, yet insecure temper tantrum, with Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth verbally retaliating by declaring himself to be a ”soldier with a democratic heart,” while being well aware that his ”government came from a [non-democratic] seizure of power,” but still telling that ”the United States doesn’t understand” what’s going on, only then to let his frustrations out by scolding Thai reporters again. At the same time, US Chargé d’affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned ”invited” by the Thai Foreign Ministry to receive a high-level earful and insisting to relabel the coup was a ”revolution to install stability”.

Eleven months later, Glyn T. Davies, an experienced diplomat, took over as ambassador, ending a 10-month vacancy that was less a snub against the Thai junta and more due to domestic political squabbles back in the States. However, his decisive criticism of the notorious lèse majesté law during his introduction at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) has drawn the wrath of ultra-nationalists, protesting at the US Embassy (and apparently the only ones allowed to do so) and even going so far as to file a lèse majesté complaint against Ambassador Davies – and even more amazingly, the police actually launched an inquiry.

With that in mind, the strategic talks earlier this week already came with some baggage – which might explain why the joint statement (which can be read in full here) after the six hours-talk has been rather nuanced in expressing what it agrees on, such as public health, disaster relief and combating human trafficking. Nevertheless, Mr. Russel himself made sure during a personal meeting with Prayuth that while the United States wishes to ”restore full engagement with Thailand,” it would only happen when it ”restores a civilian-led and democratic government,” and he also raised concerns on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation. Gen. Prayuth responded by explaining the junta’s ”reforms” to the political system before there’ll be any elections (if at all).

The current approach by the United States could hint at a few things: While the US maintains consistent concern over the dire human rights situation in Thailand, it also understands that things are not going to change politically anytime soon. Thus, the confirmation of Ambassador Davies was already an early sign that it needs an experienced diplomat to engage with a mostly uncompromising Thai military government that is going to stay longer than anybody initially anticipated – and his dealings with the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea before certainly could come in handy. Nevertheless, most Western countries have still stopped short from branding Thailand a pariah state, most likely to prevent from completely driving the country into the arms of both China and Russia.

But the U.S.’s patience isn’t infinite, as lawmakers back in Washington have already expressed their frustration at the lack of progress (or rather the reversal of any progress). In a rapidly changing  region (with one neighbor in particular) that comes with new geo-political challenges and economic potential, it requires multi-lateral cooperation from consistently reliable partners. One such ‘incentive’ could be brining Thailand into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional U.S.-led trade agreement that already has Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru on board – that is IF Thailand actually meets the requirements and the military government can convince their otherwise FTA-critical political supporters, who have been largely mum on this matter so far.

The visiting U.S. diplomat Daniel Russel went on record after the bilateral strategic talks, stating he got a “full and respectful hearing” by the Thai military government, a slight contrast in tone compared to his last visit in Bangkok. That should not be mistaken as a softened stance though. The U.S. is prepared to play the long game with the Thai junta, which is persistently solidifying its authoritarian rule. And that probably will lead to more chances to meet again in future – the question will be on what terms?

Rajabhakti Park: The corruption case the Thai junta doesn’t want you to talk about

18 December 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 17, 2015

The statues of seven past Thai kings in Rajabhakti Park, a military-sponsored project embroiled in corruption allegations. (Photo: Khaosod English)

The statues of seven past Thai kings in Rajabhakti Park, a military-sponsored project embroiled in corruption allegations. (Photo: Khaosod English)

The ongoing controversy over alleged corruption at a military-sponsored park and other events to honor Thailand’s monarchy is becoming a big headache for the military government, as it struggles to uphold its own pledge of a ”clean” rule and instead cracks down on criticism.

IT was supposed to be a monument to honor the past: seven giant bronze statutes of seven past Thai kings – from the Sukhothai period (1238 – 1583) to the current ruling Chakri dynasty (since 1782) – were erected in a newly built park near the royal resort town of Hua Hin.

Rajabhakti Park is a project sponsored by the Thai military in another very public display of its loyalty to Thailand’s monarchy, of which it regards itself to be its ultimate protector amid growing concerns over the health of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 88 years old earlier this month.

But one year after the project’s initial announcement and with the construction of the park pretty much completed, the Thai military junta is being besieged by allegations of corruption and has so far not been able to convincingly refute them.

The first rumors surfaced in early November as irregularities in the financing of the tall bronze statues were called into question. Specifically the high costs of reportedly 43 to 45.5 million Baht ($1.19 to $1.26 million) each, with payouts to middlemen, including an army colonel and several amulet traders, of roughly 10 percent “commission”called into question.

Right from the beginning of the case, the military government has denied any irregularities or involvement of any army officers, while deputy prime minister, defense minister and former army chief General Prawit Wongsuwan repeatedly insisted that this is ”not a government matter, it’s the army’s” – suddenly distinguishing the junta and the military as two separate, independent entities.

The royal park project was initiated and supervised by General Udomdej Sitabutr, army chief from October 2014 to September 2015 – exactly the same time it took for the completion of the park. An internal investigation in late November, led by his successor and current army chief General Teerachai Nakwanich (reportedly a protege of Gen. Prawit), declared ”there is no corruption” in the case and ”everything was transparent”, while not giving any details about the inquiry itself and at the same time telling off the media from further digging into the matter.

Just days after the military declared the case closed, Gen. Prawit announced the launch of a new investigation led by defense permanent-secretary General Preecha Chan-ocha – who also happens to be the brother of junta leader, prime minister and also former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The probe is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Another investigation by the Office of the Auditor General, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission found out that 63 million Baht ($1.7 million) of state budget was used in the project, contradicting an earlier statement by Gen. Prawit that the money came entirely from donations. Coincidentally, the chairman of the NACC was removed two weeks later by order of the military junta and replaced by Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, a police general who happened to be secretary-general to Gen. Prawit shortly after the coup.

The Rajabhakti Park case is just one part of a wider purge in recent months, in which several high-ranking officials face lèse majesté charges for allegedly enriching themselves with either false claims to the royal family or abusing their connections to it. Some cases are tied to mass bike rallies to honor Queen Sirikit and King Bhumibol in August and December, respectively.

Two of the suspects, a police major and a prominent soothsayer, died in military custody on October 23 and November 6, respectively. Their bodies were hastily cremated within a day (not in accordance with Buddhist week-long funeral rituals), but authorities have ruled out foul play in both cases. The whereabouts of several other targeted officers is unknown. Some are rumored to have fled the country.

Whatever the inquiries will unearth (or not), the Thai military government is already practicing the worst kind of damage control by cracking down on its critics. Pro-democracy student activists and two red shirt leaders (a group supporting the toppled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra), respectively, have attempted to visit the park, only to be intercepted and detained by authorities on the way there.

Thai officials have also arrested two men for sharing (not creating) infographics on the Rajabhakti Park corruption case on Facebook: a 25-year-old man taken into custody at a hospital while he was awaiting surgery, and a 27-year old factory worker, who has reportedly confessed. Both men, currently in military detention, are being charged for violating the Computer Crimes Act and for sedition, the latter carrying a sentence of 7 years.

The 27-year-old suspect is being additionally charged with lèse majesté, which alone can carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years per offense. It was revealed later that one of the offenses was sharing (again, not creating) contents on Facebook that mocked the king’s dog. That in itself marks an even wider interpretation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code – which only mentions “the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent” – after previous rulings have expanded the law to past kings and even “attempted” insults. Punishments under the notorious lèse majesté law have been particularly heavy-handed since the military coup: In August, two suspects have been given record sentences of 30 and 28 years in jail, respectively.

Thai authorities have also announced its intentions to charge ”hundreds” of Facebook users with lèse majesté as well as for ‘liking’ offending content. Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit told reporters last week not to ask too much about the scandal, as “there’s no point” to further press coverage of issue. He added, “Please stop mentioning this already. It damages confidence a lot. You’re Thais, why do this? The government is working for the country. Therefore, the media must help us out.”

The ongoing controversy over Rajabhakti Park could slowly become the biggest problem for the military junta so far, which has been only able to respond to criticism by stifling it. Not only does it face the tainting of its biggest showcase of loyalty to the monarchy – a nigh-endless source of pride for the army – but this is also a slap in the face to junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has pledged to crack down on corruption. An opaque investigation and more furious backlashes against critics could further undermine a government that is desperately seeking legitimacy that is looking increasingly elusive.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 86 other followers