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Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect

22 August 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2015

As the hunt for the main suspect in the Bangkok bomb attacks continues, Thai authorities are increasingly contradicting each other about the possible perpetrators. That’s par for the course, says Saksith Saiyasombut.

“He doesn’t really look Thai,” a woman was heard saying Tuesday, looking at the grainy CCTV footage showing the main suspect in Monday’s bomb attack at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 people and injured about 120. Authorities are looking for a young man who was wearing a yellow t-shirt, dark shorts and dropped a suspicious backpack at the shrine before leaving the scene. On Wednesday, police released a composite sketch of the suspect, based on eyewitness reports, and announced a bounty of 1 million Baht ($28,000).

That about sums up what the Thai authorities can agree on so far. After the initial uncharacteristic hesitant response by Thai officials on who could be behind the unprecedented attack (and the subsequent failed bomb attack on Tuesday), the police and the military government seem to be slowly but steadily getting back to their usual “we said, they said”-thing, complete with open, unsubstantiated speculations, making the overall investigation seem less credible as it is being observed by a wider international audience.

Four days after the attack, officials are still in the dark about the possible motives and perpetrators, with the usual suspects getting a mention and wilder theories popping up. This hasn’t stopped Thai authorities from pressing forward with their own findings and opinions – regardless of any contradictions among themselves.

With the release of the sketch, reports cited an motocycle taxi driver who is believed to have given the suspect a lift away from the scene of the blast, who he described as somebody who didn’t “seem to be Thai” and spoke “an unfamiliar language” on his phone. Police spokesman Prawuth Thawornsiri wouldn’t confirm the description, saying that: “If the suspect disguised himself, wore a wig, put on fake nose and spoke Arabic, we wouldn’t know if he’s really [a foreigner] anyway.” Nevertheless, the arrest warrant issued a few hours later was for an unnamed “foreigner”, which is based on the sketch.

The contradictory statements started then to pile up on Thursday, starting with the National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmuang’s assessment that “at least 10 people” of a “big network” were involved in preparing it “at least one month in advance”. How he knows this, despite still not knowing who’s behind the attack, is not known.

(ANALYSIS: Transparency is essential in Bangkok bombings probe)

Regardless of the amount of suspects and the ambiguous nationality and ethnicity of the main suspect, the military junta has ruled out that the attack was carried out by an international terrorism network, which kinda makes sense since Thailand is rarely targeted by any international terrorist group, except for a few instances but never against Thais (we reported). Junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree then suggested an “organized crime” connection, without giving any clear motive.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Thai police requested assistance from Interpol, as confirmed by deputy national police spokesman Kissana Phathancharoen first to Reuters, whereas Thai military junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha – who appeared comparatively measured in the first two days after the attack – was quoted saying in his usual manner:

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha bristled when asked if his government, which was installed after a military coup last year, was seeking outside help. “This incident happened in Thailand. It is Thailand. Why do we want other people to come in and investigate?” the former general told reporters on Wednesday.

Thai police grapple for firm clues to Bangkok bomb suspects“, Reuters, August 19, 2015

He later went on to suggest to that police officers watch an American police procedure drama for inspiration. Whether he was being sardonic or serious is not known. That still didn’t stop his military junta deputy PM and defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan asking the UK and US for assistance in the investigation – but only in form of equipment, not personnel. How the Thai officials are going to use the tools without any instruction and assistance and what tools were actually requested is not known.

With the hunt ongoing and the authorities continuing to chase any clue they can find, their senior officers aren’t really sure if they’re too late, as police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri openly wondered whether the main suspect is still in the country, while Major-General Werachon Sukondhapatipak, another military junta spokesman (mostly dealing with the foreign media), is certain that he’s still in the country.

These few examples from Thursday alone show how contradictory the statements from the police and military government are, sometimes even coming from the same branch. The root cause for this problem can be regarded as a pathological phenomenon in Thai bureaucratic culture: the compulsive need to say something – no matter if it’s substantial, truthful or none of that – in order to appear knowledgeable, proactive and in command. While in many Western countries, the police would have one or two daily press briefings, many Thai senior police officers are constantly give updates whenever they’re asked. It also doesn’t help that Thai police and military usually have a tense rivalry.

The shambolic investigation in the murder case of two British tourists on Koh Tao last year garnered a torrent of international criticism and now heightened international attention is observing the ongoing investigations of the bomb attack. The Thai authorities are collectively already guilty of one thing: being incapable of delivering a clear and consistent message.

And thus, the worst case scenario could be what Thai scholar and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes:

At issue will be whether any party makes a credible claim of perpetration, or the authorities make a credible apprehension of the culprit. Without either, the latest blast may well fit the pattern of previous Bangkok-based explosions that ultimately fade into Thai oblivion due to a lack of forensic means and popular regard for the law.

Terrorist attack in Bangkok turns up heat on Thailand“, by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2015

With the Erawan Shrine already cleaned up and re-opened again within 72 hours after the blast, one can wonder if the work to find the callous attacker(s) behind Monday’s bomb attack has been thorough enough. A BBC report suggests the contrary, with reporters still finding shrapnel and ball bearings at the scene. And when correspondent Jonathan Head attempted to hand them over at the National Police headquarters down the road, he was told that it was outside the office hours…

After deadly Bangkok bomb blast, questions arise about culprits, motives

19 August 2015
tags:

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 18, 2015

A screencap of CCTV footage shows the moment of explosion at the Erawan Shrine in Central Bangkok. The blast, which authorities say was caused by a bomb, has claimed at 19 lives and injured around 80 people. (Pic.: Screenshot/Nation Channel)

A still from CCTV footage shows the moment of explosion at the Erawan Shrine in Central Bangkok on August 17, 2015. The blast, which authorities say was caused by a bomb, has claimed at least 22 lives and injured around 120 people. Pic: Screenshot/Nation Channel.

After the deadly bomb attack in central Bangkok claimed at least 22 lives Monday evening, questions remain about who carried out the attack and why? Saksith Saiyasombut puts the questions into context.

It was at almost 7pm when a huge blast rocked the busy Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok in the middle of rush hour. Moments later, a horrifying scene of carnage, injured people and bodies revealed itself in front of the Erawan Shrine, a Hindu religious sanctum popular with both Buddhist Thais and foreign tourists.

In the initial confusion over whether it was a targeted explosion or an accidental blast – slightly hampered by the language barrier since both the words for ‘bomb’ and ‘blast’ or ‘explosion’ are the same in Thai (“ระเบิด”) – the authorities quickly closed off the scene to commence their investigation. One hour after the blast, a spokesman for the national police stated that the explosion was caused by an “improvised explosive device” (IED), which was later confirmed by national police chief Somyot Poompanmuang to be a “pipe bomb”. Two more explosive devices were found in very close proximity to the scene and were defused by police bomb disposal experts.

Latest official figures as of writing report that 22 people have been killed, 123 people have been injured.

(READ MORE: Bangkok blast: Thai authorities hunt male ‘suspect’)

As no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Thai authorities themselves have been hesitant to point the blame in any direction. During a televised address late Monday night, a spokesmen for the Thai military government read out a statement expressing “deep concern” for the victims and their families, while emphasizing that it is “too early to speculate which group may have been responsible for this crime but authorities are following possible leads”.

However, at roughly the same time, the army’s Internal Security Operation Command openly speculated on possible motives for the attack (“political conflict, state official reshuffle, and international terrorism”) without providing any substantial information that supports their assessment. It also reportedly ruled out insurgents from the Deep South.

Defense Minister and deputy junta leader Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters that the perpetrators “intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” while his spokesman got a bit carried away…

But Defence spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanich said later the bombing was “the work of those who have lost political interests and want to destroy the ‘happy time’ of Thai people. It’s an attempt to ruin Thailand’s tourism image and cause damage to the country’s business sector.”

19 killed, 123 hurt as bomb blast rocks Bangkok tourist attraction“, Bangkok Post, August 17, 2015

With many details still murky at best, much speculation has arisen in the aftermath of the bomb attack. We attempt to put these claims into context and analyze the likelihood of each scenario.

Option 1: Anti-junta activists? Highly unlikely, because…

…it would do their cause more harm than good.

Ultra-nationalists and supporters of the Thai military government like to point their fingers at the red shirt supporters of the ousted government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for any disturbances and incidents that cause unrest.

Since the hostile takeover of power by the Thai military on May 22, 2014, there have been two explosions in Bangkok: one just down the road from Monday’s blast in front of the Siam Paragon mall on February 2, 2015 and a grenade blast at the Criminal Court a month later on March 7, 2015. Both incidents caused minimal damage (only two were slightly injured in the Siam Paragon incident). Another blast occurred on Koh Samui in April after a car exploded in the underground parking garage of a mall after closing time. Authorities have been quick to point the finger at anti-junta activists, but have so far failed to apprehend suspects in some cases, and make a solid connection in all cases.

(READ MORE: Bomb explosion in central Bangkok kills at least 22 – as it happened)

Also since the coup, the military junta keeps a tight lid on any possible display of opposition and dissent, as protests have been curtailed and activists arrested, including groups unaffiliated with any political factions. Furthermore, mainstream media and internet are being heavily monitored.

While targeted grenade blasts (some of them deadly) have occurred at political rallies on both sides in the past, a bomb attack on this scale, with casualties being coldly accepted as part of the plan, would be absolutely out of character for any political protest groups and thus highly unlikely.

Option 2: Muslim separatist insurgents from Southern Thailand? Unlikely, because…

…the separatists hardly operate outside of the south. And just because foreign media has raised this issue before any Thai outlet did, doesn’t mean it has any more or less credence.

(WATCH: WATCH: The moment the Bangkok bomb exploded)

The ongoing conflict in the southernmost Thai provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are often overlooked and underreported in Bangkok. However, the sad reality is that the separatist insurgency has been going on for over a decade now and claimed thousands of lives on both sides, on nearly a daily basis.

However, the conflict has never spread out of the region – let alone reached the capital – as Southeast Asia security expert Zachary Abuza explains:

The conflict remains dominated by conservative Sha’afi clerics, who see themselves as the guardians of traditional Malay culture, and a bulwark against Thai colonialism and cultural influence. Thai officials are frustrated that the 100-year project to assimilate the Malays has failed, unlike every other minority group. (…)

Despite concerns that the insurgents could reach out to transnational groups, such as the Islamic State, to date they have remained inwardly focused. Thai authorities have expressed concern about the influence of the Islamic State, including after recent arrests in Malaysia, but the concerns are driven more by ignorance than reality.

The Smoldering Thai Insurgency“, by Zachary Abuza, Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, June 29, 2015

And then there’s this:

“This does not match with incidents in southern Thailand. The type of bomb used is also not in keeping with the south,” Royal Thai Army chief and deputy defence minister General Udomdej Sitabutr said in a televised interview.

Bangkok bombing ‘does not match’ insurgent tactics in Thai south – army“, Reuters, August 18, 2015

As mentioned above, the ICOC “ruled out insurgents from the deep South” Monday, the Nation reported.

Unless there’s a change in tactics and a claim has been made by any of the insurgent groups, the likelihood that they carried out Monday’s attack remains low at this point.

Option 3: Who else? Well…

This is probably the most theoretical territory and thus also the most dangerous as pure speculation has thrown around a lot of names, groups and factions. Many of the theories being thrown around in the vast space of the internet are incidental or anecdotal at best and should be – until any further solid confirmation pointing into any of these directions – taken with a huge grain of salt.

Nevertheless, whoever made carried out these attacks has played into the hands of the hawkish Thai military government, regardless of the intentions. It potentially delivers them the justification for harsher security measures or, even worse, a reason to somehow remain even more of an influential power stakeholder in the near distant future, thanks to political changes being undertaken since the coup.

What we can say for certain is…

…that we don’t know anything about the perpetrators yet! But – as the above is subject to change once we do know more – what can also be said for certain is that the attack, the way it has been carried with the aim of causing the most damage possible, is unprecedented for the city of Bangkok and, with possible suspects and motives being still highly elusive, is serving the very definition of terrorism: causing chaos and intimidating uncertainty in an already tense political situation.

Thai military courts hand down record prison sentences for insulting monarchy

08 August 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2015

Thailand’s military courts have issued record prison sentences – 30 years and 28 years – against suspects for allegedly defaming the country’s monarchy on Facebook. Two separate verdicts have found the accused guilty of posting content on Facebook that is deemed a violation of the country’s infamously draconian lèse majesté law, also known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code, that states “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

The first sentence was delivered Friday morning in the Thai capital Bangkok:

On Friday morning, 7 August 2015, the Military Court of Bangkok sentenced Pongsak S., a suspect of offences under Article 112 or the lese majeste law and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing of illegal content into a computer system), to 60 years imprisonment.

The court gave 10 years prison term to each of the six lese majeste counts he was charged with. Since the suspect pleaded guilty as charged, the court, however, halved the sentence to 30 years in jail.

Pongsak used Facebook under the name “Sam Parr” to distribute messages and images defaming the monarchy, which he copied from other sources. At the press conference in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to all charges and said he did so because he was instigated by some Facebook friends. He also said that he went to anti-establishment red-shirt demonstrations.

He told Prachatai that he was tricked into meeting a decoy who had been talking to him via facebook under name ‘Numbannok Rak Seri’ (a free country boy) in the northern province of Tak and was arrested on 30 December 2014 at the bus transit in Phitsanulok Province.

“It turned out when I met the guy at the military base later that he was an officer out of uniform,” said Phongsak.

Military court sets new record on lese majeste sentence; man gets 30 years behind bars“, Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Hours later on the same day, another military court in the northern city of Chiang Mai sentenced a woman to prison:

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the military court of the northern province of Chiang Mai on Friday afternoon, 7 August 2015, sentenced Sasiwimol (surname withheld due to privacy concerns), a 29-year-old employee of a hotel in the province, to 56 years in jail for allegedly posting six lese majeste messages under the Facebook identity ‘Rungnapha Kampichai’.

The military court gave 8 years jail term to each of the 7 lese majeste counts of the suspect. However, since the defendant pleaded guilty as charged, the court halved the jail term to 28 years.

At the deposition hearing in June 2015, the defendant denied all allegations. However, during the plaintiff’s examination hearing today, 7 August 2015, she retracted her pretrial statements and pleaded guilty.

Prior to the ruling, Sasiwimol submitted a letter to the court, requesting the judges to reduce the jail sentence because she has never committed any crime and is a mother of two daughters aged seven and five. The military court judges dismissed the request and reasoned that the jail sentence is already light since case is severe because it is related to the revered Thai monarchy and gravely affected public sentiment of Thai people.

Northern military court sends mother of two to 28 years in prison under lese majeste“, Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Both cases have set an unprecedented record for long prison sentences, since the court issued the punishment per offense that was deemed not only a violation of the lèse majesté law, but also to the Computer Crimes Act. In other words, the accused were punished twice for allegedly violating two vaguely worded laws and also accumulated a long prison term because the courts counted each Facebook post as separate offense. Both defendants have pleaded guilty not only to halve their sentences (the fact that they were still unprecedentedly long is telling) but also to keep the possibility of a royal pardon open.

Lèse majesté-related complaints have sky-rocketed in the past decade (regardless of who was in power) thanks to self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist vigilantes as more verdicts have shown increasingly looser interpretations of the law, rendering a reasonable debate or even a possible amendment of the law impossible. To make matters worse, ever since Thailand’s military – which sees itself as the defender of the Thai monarchy – took power in the coup of May 22, 2014, it has transferred jurisdiction of lèse majesté cases to military courts. Unsurprisingly, the number of cases have piled up under the  junta.

The Thai military government is fighting against lèse majesté suspects at multiple fronts: evidently, social media is under increased surveillance and Facebook itself reported a sharp increase of blocked content in the second half of 2014, while it also states that Thai authorities have requested information of certain Facebook users three times.

Furthermore, the junta is hunting a number activists charged with lèse majesté that have fled abroad, often resulting in diplomatic spats, and other repeated requests to countries that have granted asylum to the prosecuted suspects.

Tongue-Thai’ed – With ‘love’ from Bangkok to Beijing

07 August 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 6, 2015

“If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency” – Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimapakorn
_____________________________

This is part XXXI 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.

It is no big secret that ever since Thailand’s military seized power in a hostile takeover with the coup of May 2014, the military junta would face big challenges – among them, on the diplomatic world stage. Thailand just narrowly avoided becoming a pariah state among Western countries (we reported) only because it is still a (geo-)strategically important stakeholder in Southeast Asia. But all the rather soft and symbolic sanctions still couldn’t avert Bangkok’s diplomatic pivot towards Russia and especially towards China.

We reported back in December:

(…) it did not come as a surprise when then-army chief and still-to-this-day-junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha greeted Chinese businessmen as his first guests shortly after the coup of May 22 in an effort to woo investors back to the country and help jump start Thailand’s struggling economy. That was shortly followed by a visit of Thai military commanders to China.

Other bilateral meetings between Prayuth and Chinese leaders took place during the Asia-Europe Meeting in October, where he met China’s premier Li Keqiang and a month later at the APEC Conference hosted in Beijing with president Xi Jingping. The latter would welcomePrayuth again to the Chinese capital last week, where both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and build a “medium-speed” rail network linking the countries.

Thai junta seeks deeper ‘China pivot’, lauds Beijing’s leadership style“, Siam Voices, December 29, 2014

Since then, the Thai military government has made more advances towards Beijing by fulfilling the navy’s long-held dream of buying submarines from China worth $1bn – even though the purchase is on hold for now – while around the same time controversially deporting around 100 Uighur muslims to China.

But what’s strikes a bigger chord with the Thai generals is China’s authoritarian one-party rule in exchange for economic propensity.

So, it came to no surprise when the Thai military’s Foreign Minister General Thanasak Patimaprakorn was full of praise for China again, as expressed earlier this week at an ASEAN forum in Kuala Lumpur…

At a joint press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn made a surprise declaration while standing on a podium with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

“If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency,” he told reporters in English, much to the surprise of China’s top foreign envoy who appeared somewhat unsure how to respond. (…)

“Let’s say we are so close, we are more than friends, just say we are cousins with a long history together,” he said.

“We don’t talk diplomatic talk, we talks like personal, like family, like friend,” he added.

Thai junta envoy admits crush on China“, AFP, August 5, 2015

Well, that got awkward pretty quickly…

Also, why the need to change gender to express your love? There’s no need to be ashamed of expressing one’s man crush. And even if the probably biggest one-sided declaration of bromance on the diplomatic stage has been so far not reciprocated, this will most likely not the last we hear of it.

Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short ‘boring’ Friday night rants

02 June 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 1, 2015

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People".

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s weekly TV address “Returning Happiness to the Nation’s People”.

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking… and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government’s media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta’s efforts to “Return Happiness” to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuously intimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show “Returning Happiness to the Nation’s People” (“คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ”).

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the “lakorns”, the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable – so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program – which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen – Gen. Prayuth discusses the week’s progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he’s joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

CLICK TO VIEW INFOGRAPHIC HERE

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme […]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: “I do and I feel bored.”

Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show“, The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of “wisdom” – it could be possible that the majority actually doesn’t watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved “lakorns”. And TV executives aren’t really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

“It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it’s been a year now, it has lost its appeal,” Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (…)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut ‘Returning Happiness to the People’“, The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government’s daily TV show “Thailand Moves Forward”, also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.

ConstitutionNet: Thailand’s next post-coup constitution: The dictatorship of the ‘good people’?

30 May 2015

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on May 29, 2015

There is a persistent theme in Thailand’s ongoing political crisis often touted by one side of the spectrum: the call for the “good people” or barami in Thai. Barami, a Buddhist term for “charismatic power” or “meritorious prestige,” has historically been linked to the Thai concepts of power. In an increasingly polarized Thai political and societal reality, frustration with unstable and often scandalous governments has led to a popular political rhetoric that centred on the need for “good people,” implying that the democratically elected leaders of the country fall short of basic moral standards.

The crisis that started in the mid-2000s and the protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to the revival of barami. PM Thaksin was as popular among the electorate in the rural North and Northeast mostly due to his populist policies, as he was loathed by the upper-middle class and the political establishment in Bangkok for his illiberal tendencies. The latter ultra-nationalist group, commonly known as the “yellow shirts” saw Thaksin as a perversion of electoral democracy and desired a leader, who is “morally clean” above anything else.

The next decade saw many, at times undemocratic, changes of governments. Thaksin is now in self-exile, but he still wields considerable influence. After several street protests, two military coups, and clashes between political stakeholders, those calling for a takeover by the “good people” got what they asked for with the coupof May 2014 – or so they thought. The military that sees itself as part of the “good people” took firm control of the political discourse by outlawing public gatherings, detaining dissenting opponents, and enforcing a high degree of media censorship.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC). The limited political freedom the packed CDC enjoyed while drafting the new constitution became even more obvious last week, when the NRC proposed a striking 129 revisions to the draft the Committee presented in April. Nevertheless, the CDC is confident that it can incorporate all amendments and forward the final draft to the NRC for approval by July 29.

The new constitution is supposedly designed to re-balance the lopsided party landscape, introduce more checks and balances, and crack down harder on corrupt politicians. However, the underlying political motivation appears to be to curtail the power of elected officials and to transfer power to unelected ones. All junta actions seem to point in the direction of diminishing the electoral strength of Thaksin-associated political parties, which have won all national elections since 2001, and of fueling people’s contempt about electoral democracy in general.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

One year on: Future looks grim under Thailand’s ruling junta

23 May 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 22, 2015

When Pink Floyd’s vocalist and bassist Roger Waters wrote the 1979 rock classic ‘Another Brick in The Wall’, he was thinking about the authoritarian teaching and rote learning he encountered in his school days that would produce, in his opinion, more proverbial bricks in the wall of mental detachment.

I recently came across somebody online pointing out the difference between a teacher and a professor: a teacher makes sure that students learn, a professor on the other hand (ideally) only points them to the general direction and leaves it up to them once they encountered the ”fountain of knowledge”. He then went on to say that a government should be similar to the professor’s job, which creates a free environment where discussions can be held and ideas can flourish. The current Thai government is more like the teacher that not only decides what we have to learn, but also when and how.

And boy, what a teacher we have right now!

It’s been exactly a year since Thailand’s military has launched the country’s 12th successful coup, toppling what was left of the embattled and besieged government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was the end of over half a year of anti-government protests that eventually morphed into anti-democracy rallies, but it was just the beginning of Thailand under martial law and military rule. On that day, we saw the death of Thai democracy as we knew it.

While martial law was revoked earlier this year (with the now already infamous Section 44 in its place instead), the military junta still has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and is busy re-writing and revamping almost everything about it.

The blueprint of the country’s political future is being drafted in the next constitution. But all signs show that this charter does nothing but constitutionally enshrine the steady regression of democracy by massively curtailing the powers of elected governments or otherwise leave the door open for extra-parliamentary interventions. Amidst these legislative changes, The Economist has aptly called it a “baby sitter’s-charter”.

Perhaps this is a better way to describe how the Thai military junta government rules over the country: Not only is it like a bad teacher that expects its students only to obediently memorize the stuff, but also like an overbearing nanny overlooking us on every step.

And no other person exemplifies this “teacher-nanny-in-chief”-dom than junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Driven by what I once described as “compulsive loquaciousness”, Gen. Prayuth sees himself forced and challenged to say something about everything, no matter how ill-advised or confrontational it comes across. Same goes for his weekly TV addresses every Friday night (in a total of 40 hours of airtime since last year).

But it’s not only the former army chief himself who has delayed his retirement. Several other military officers have become either junta members, cabinet ministers, or more often than not both – mostly old men who may or may not have been good at commanding troops, but so far have failed to command the country to their liking.

The economy is at best floundering. But the military junta and their supporters have not realized that they are not part of the solution but an essential part of the problem – a delusion that has befallen them for a year now.

This week also marked the 5th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protesters. Back then, at the very early beginning of my blogging career, I said that “the worst isn’t over – the mess has just begun”. Unfortunately, it seems that I was right.

In the past decade, there has been no real sincere, lasting effort from both sides of the political divide to repair the gaping wounds in the nation’s fabric. Instead, it has been covered by exactly the same “blanket over the ever-increasing rift and [blind preachings of] ‘peace, love and unity’ until the next escalation” that I warned about in 2010 – and what we got since then were more escalations and more blankets. But at this point, the wounds are wider and deeper.

It is this political short-term memory loss and cognitive dissonance that has led Thai democracy astray, weakened and easy prey for those firmly not believing in it and adamantly opposing. It is quite sobering to see those in command of the 2010 crackdown now ruling the country.

The near-term future looks rather grim. The junta has recently approved a referendum on the country’s next constitution, but at the cost of delaying possible elections until September 2016 – and even that is not guaranteed, as Gen. Prayuth threatened to stay on if the charter is rejected.

The past 12 months have contributed truckloads of bricks in the mental wall that has been growing and growing in this political crisis, making it even more difficult and daunting to tear it down.

In May 2010, I expressed my doubts that a lasting change towards a more open, free and democratic Thailand will happen anytime soon.

Five years and a military coup later, I’m still waiting.

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