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.
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.
Thailand’s military government has said it will hold a referendum on its draft constitution. However, it’s not without a catch – or several for that matter.
The issue of whether or not letting the Thai people decide on the draft for the country’s 20th constitution has resulted in some clearly drawn battles lines among Thailand’s governing bodies.
On one hand, members of the civic society, the sidelined political parties (likely afraid for their own professional future), the military junta’s National Reform Council (NRC) and even the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) have all been vocally in favor of a referendum.
On the other hand, the military government itself has been hesitant about the idea and even scolded the pro-referendum groups. It also insisted that the power to call for a referendum ultimately lies with the junta and the cabinet – both of which happened to be headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
(READ previous coverage: Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say?)
This back-and-forth came to an end on Tuesday:
Thailand’s military junta has decided to hold a referendum on the draft of its new post-coup charter, although details of the ballot’s options remain unclear.
The decision was reached in the joint meeting between the junta and the Cabinet at the Government House today.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who chairs both the junta and the Cabinet, said his government will ask the interim parliament he appointed to amend the current constitution to allow for a referendum, which is not mentioned in the charter’s present form.
“Once the constitutional amendment is done, we will immediately proceed with the referendum,” Gen. Prayuth told reporters today. “Our duty is to make the law that allows for the procedure. As for the procedures themselves, they will be left to relevant agencies. The referendum will be the duty of the Election Commission.”
”Junta Approves Charter Referendum, Leaving Details for Later”, Khaosod English, May 19, 2015
So, it sounds pretty straight-forward so far: Section 46 of the current interim constitution needs to be amended to mention the possibility for a referendum on the next constitution and has to be approved by the junta’s ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).
The decision whether or not to hold a referendum has to be made before the draft constitution is approved in August by the National Reform Council (NRC) – however, if the NRC rejects it, the whole process would start anew again and the issue becomes irrelevant until a new draft has been drawn up (as illustrated here).
However, there’s this potential catch though:
“The NLA all agrees that a referendum should be held,” deputy president Peerasak Porchit said yesterday. “A public referendum should not be focused on whether to adopt or reject the whole constitution, as it may prevent good elements [from being implemented].
“However, voting on articles that are crucial would not be too difficult for the general public to understand,” he said.
”Referendum should ‘focus on key charter points’”, The Nation, May 5, 2015
It is not known at this point if people can vote on the whole constitution draft or just on certain sections, which we don’t know at this point either.
There’s another catch:
“The referendum will take three months to put together. It will likely delay the roadmap,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told journalists. The junta, which came to power in a coup last May, was initially due to approve the new constitution and organize elections in early 2016.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam explained that a referendum in January would need another several months “to amend various laws,” promising that elections would be held “not more than 90 days after.”
“At the earliest it will take place around August or in September,” he added.
”Thailand constitutional referendum to delay polls until August 2016”, Deutsche Welle, May 19, 2015
That’s another delay of elections after the military junta initially aimed for late 2015, before the time window was moved to sometime ”early 2016” – which shouldn’t have surprised anybody back then and shouldn’t surprise anybody now.
And then there’s – you guessed it – yet another catch:
General Prayut Chan-o-cha said Tuesday he would stay in power to oversee a new drafting process if the draft constitution was rejected by the public.
He said a new process would automatically begin if the current draft was rejected, either through a referendum or by other means, including by the international community.
”Prayut vows to stay if draft charter rejected”, The Nation, May 12, 2015
A cynic might say that the military junta is holding the next elections to ransom in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote in the constitutional referendum – and they wouldn’t be wrong to think that. It is evident again that the military government has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and can move the goal posts (in this case until the next elections) as much as it wants to.
It pays to be welcoming and tolerant – that piece of mundane everyday wisdom especially applies if you’re the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). In one of its few moments of actual good marketing, the TAT launched ‘Go Thai. Be Free’. a couple of years ago. The campaign is specifically aimed at lesbian and gay travelers and Thailand can pride itself as a destination that is rather liberal towards the LGBTI community – or can it?
Despite Thais being able to express their different sexual identities publicly and without fear of persecution, the country is still not quite at the point where everybody is fully included, as many are still facing obstacles and discrimination in their lives and change is coming at very slow pace.
Ironically, we may say real change under the current authoritarian military junta government, a regime generally more known for promoting sanctimonious moralist and traditionalist ”values”, which has passed of the Gender Equality Bill and potentially the Civil Partnership Registration Bill.
The Gender Equality Bill, which was passed in March, aims to outlaw: “Unfair discrimination among the sexes’ means any act or failure to act which segregates, obstructs or limits any rights, whether directly or indirectly, without legitimacy because that person is male or is female or has a sexual expression different from that person’s original sex.” It is the first of its kind in Thailand to explicitly recognize gender diversity, but rights groups have criticized exceptions stipulated in the draft concerning education, religion and ”public interest.” These parts have been removed from the final version.
A rather long history has been behind the campaign for marriage equality, starting back in 2012 and gained an unprecedented bi-partisan push in 2013 well on its way being passed, before eventually getting lost in legislative limbo due to the political crisis and the subsequent dissolution of parliament in late 2013.
This issue was picked later after the military coup exactly a year by the junta’s fully-appointed ersatz-parliament in form of the Civil Partnership Act, which defines “civil partnership” as “two persons of same sex who have registered under the bill,” and includes stipulations including property rights between partners and rights in case the partnership has ended.
However, this bill is also not without its problems:
Superficially, civil partnerships seem to enjoy the same rights and status as heterosexual marriages under the Family Act. However, when looked at in detail, the bill does not entitle homosexual partners to raise children. Moreover, the minimum age of those allowed to register civil partnerships is 20, while for the heterosexual marriage it is 17.
Unlike the Civil Solidarity Pact in France, which allows either opposite-sex or same-sex couples to register for civil partnerships, Thailand’s draft civil partnership bill is for homosexual couples only.
Anjana Suvarnananda, head of Anjaree and a renowned LGBT rights campaigner in Thailand, considers this bill as yet another form of discrimination, which puts homosexual couples into a different category and as a result, they enjoy different rights from opposite-sex couples.
”Same-sex marriage may come true under Thai junta”, Prachatai English, October 9, 2014
Not only the controversial fine print in the bill, but also the general political situation led to debate in the LBGTI community. On one hand it would be a unprecedented watershed moment towards marriage equality in Thailand’s history. However, on the other hand, given how problematic it could be for future elected governments to amend or pass new laws because of the military junta’s political ”reforms”, it could mean an imperfect marriage equality bill that is very unlikely to be amended in the near future.
But the problems for the LGBTI community are facing are not only of legal or political nature, but more often than not they run much deeper, especially when it comes transgenders. Social critic and Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala said in a 2012 interview:
Compared to many other societies, yes, Thai society is quite open in day-to-day treatment of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. (…) We have transgender people working prominently in shopping malls, in customer services, in beauty, entertainment and sex venues. But that’s pretty much where most of them are. Very few of them are in regular jobs, often not because they don’t want to, but the opportunities are limited. They are still discriminated against widely in terms of employment. Their opportunities are even officially restricted, in particular in government, police and military jobs. Military service regulations still include “katoey” as a prohibited disease and hence disqualifies anyone who is a katoey to apply for jobs in military service. Only months ago that the official branding of transgender people as “having a permanent mental disorder” on the military conscription exemption paper was finally put to stop. This paper has been the biggest obstacle for transgender people for a long time and has prevented them getting jobs, visas, doing legal transactions, etc.
In short, socially there is a fair amount of tolerance for people with different sexual identities but they are still lots of problems and unfair treatments going on based on attitudes and laws and official regulations in this country, most particularly concerning transgender people. It’s not all peaches!
”On ‘100% Thai manliness’ and the reality of LBGT in Thailand”, Siam Voices, June 7, 2012
And systematic discrimination already starts very early, as a joint-study by UNESCO, Plan International and Mahidol University found out:
Nearly one-third (30.9%) of self-identified LGBT students reported having experienced physical abuse, 29.3% reported verbal abuse, and 24.4% reported being victims of sexual harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Around two-thirds of victims said they did not report these incidents or even talk about them with anyone.
The report paints a troubling picture of the impact of this bullying has on teens. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression were depressed, as compared to only 6% of those that had not been bullied at all. This depression can lead to self-harm. Most alarmingly, seven percent of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression reported having attempted suicide in the past year.
”Media Release: Study shows Thai schools have a long way to go in promoting acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and school safety”, UNESCO Bangkok, November 29, 2013
Unlike most of its regional neighbors (except for Vietnam, which recently decriminalized same-sex marriages), Thailand has a head start on LGBTI issues, but it must not rest on its laurels.
There are no reliable statistics (yet) on what percentage of the Thai population identify themselves with as LGBTI, but there’s really no point denying anymore that people of various sexual orientations are part of Thai society and all efforts should be made to include everybody in this society (and any other societies around the world for that matter), regardless of what somebody identifies as and who somebody choose to love.
Thailand’s draft for the next constitution is still subject to heated debate. But the hottest issue at the moment is whether the Thai people will actually have a say in the next charter via a referendum.
It’s been almost a month now since the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) presented the fruits of their labor with the new draft that will become Thailand’s 20th constitution (download the draft and English translation here, more analysis in the coming weeks) – that is, if it actually survives the coming weeks and months.
Since a military coup ousted the popularly elected but embattled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra almost exactly a year ago, Thailand’s military junta government is trying its absolute best to ensure that this draft, and with it its singular vision about the country’s political power structure, is written into law with minimal changes.
After the previous military coup of 2006 that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra the Constitution of 1997 was scrapped. Instead of what was widely regarded as the “People’s Constitution” that pushed Thailand towards democracy, the interim government drew up the 2007 Constitution. It included stipulations like a two-term limit for the prime minister, a half-appointed senate and easier processes to impeach the government.
Curiously, and specified in the 2006 interim constitution, the then-military junta put this draft to a referendum and launched a far-reaching PR-campaign (knowing well that it controlled the airwaves, see more examples here, here, and here) calling on the people to vote in favor of it. Eventually, the referendum in August 2007 went in favor of the constitution with 58 to 42 per cent (turnout: 57 per cent) and elections were held later that year in December – only for another Thaksin-associated party to come to power (and later repeated in 2011 with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck).
Now, with the 2007 version thrown into the bin again, another Shinawatra government toppled, and the military tightening its grip on power, a new draft has been drawn up by the junta’s all-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee and the question many are asking is if there will be a referendum again?
There were signs as early as one month after the coup that the military is against a referendum this time. Then later in October – with the country still under martial law – National Reform Council (NRC) member Chai-Anan Samudavanija had this rather singular take on the issue:
Once the constitution had been drafted, he saw no need for a national referendum, because there weren’t any clearly conflicting issues.
“Usually, a referendum is required when opinions are split between alternative options; whether society wants A or B. However in the current situation, those alternative options aren’t apparent, therefore, a referendum is not necessary.”
“Public endorsement of the constitution can, instead, be demonstrated through the absence of public dissent,” he pointed out.
The referendum issue flared up again in March when the sidelined political parties from both sides of the spectrum (the ousted, Thaksin-associated Pheu Thai Party and the opposition, ‘Democrat’ Party) started to become more vocal:
In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Pheu Thai legal experts, led by Pongthep Thepkanchana and secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, insist a referendum must be carried out — and the public should be given a choice of an alternative if they don’t like the one currently being written.
Asking the public to simply accept or reject the new charter is not enough, they say. The voters should be given options and allowed to pick a version of a charter — for example the 1997 version — if they disagree with the coup-sponsored draft.
The experts’ suggestion is in line with what the Democrat Party has proposed, but the Democrats called for the 2007 version (…) to be one of the choices. (…) [Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva] outlined his support for a referendum in a previous interview with the Bangkok Post, saying it will not only ensure the legitimacy of the new charter, but it will also help quell any suspicions the charter has been designed to allow the coup-makers and other bodies set up after the coup to prolong their hold on power.
”Pheu Thai backs charter referendum”, Bangkok Post, March 16, 2015
These calls were repeated by both parties and have been echoed in the most unlikeliest of places, as both NRC member Alongkorn Polabutr and even the CDC’s chairman Borwornsak Uwanno voiced their support for a vote by the people.
However, the military junta government is still staunchly against this and put some people back in their place:
“The CDC needs not say anything because a public referendum is neither the matter nor duty of the drafting panel,” Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngarm said. “It is the matter for the cabinet and the National Council for Peace and Order to decide.” (…) “The CDC’s job was finished once it completed drafting the new constitution,” Mr Wissanu said.
”Govt lashes out at CDC, NRC for referendum remarks”, Bangkok Post, April 30, 2015
However, junta leader and Prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on the same day that it’s not up to him but the CDC and NRC to decide whether or not to hold a referendum. The question here if he was either referring to himself as the prime minister or the leader of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta is officially called, since both positions are occupied by him – in the same way many positions are in the NCPO and in the cabinet.
Meanwhile, civil society groups are speaking up on this matter, while academics, activists, students, NGOs and alternative media organizations have launched their pro-referendum campaign with the unveiling of the website prachamati.org (the Thai word for referendum), providing a forum where users can debate and vote on crucial parts of the draft constitution – because that’s exactly what’s currently not happening in the real world.
We can expect a pretty clear schedule in the coming weeks: The cabinet and the junta (essentially the same people) submit their comments to the CDC by May 25. Then the CDC has until July 23 to amend the draft and send the final version to the NRC, which has two weeks to review and approve by August 6 – or not and then start the whole process all over again.
The issue of whether or not to let the Thai people vote on the new constitution is yet another thorny one for the military junta, which doesn’t like leaving anything to chance (or rather choice in this case), most evidently illustrated by the junta’s threat in case of a referendum to delay the future election even further into 2016.
Thailand’s military government is facing new pressure following the discovery of a mass grave in the country’s south, where dozens of bodies, presumably victims of human trafficking, were buried. Police have made several arrests linked to the crime and the Thai junta has vowed to take action.
The shallow graves containing 26 bodies were discovered by Thai authorities on Friday in Songkhla province, deep in the jungle near the Malaysian border and is believed to be part of a camp where up to 400 trafficked migrants were held for ransom and confined to 39 bamboo huts. Some survivors were found at or near the camp. On the possible cause of death, a Thai police officer stated:
“From initial forensic investigation at the site there are no marks on the bones or breakages that would suggest a violent death,” Police Colonel Triwit Sriprapa, deputy commander of Songkhla Provincial Police, said. “It is likely that they died from disease and malnutrition.”
“Bodies from mass grave in Thailand jungle camp ‘didn’t die violently’“, South Chinese Morning Post, May 4, 2015
Thai police also have yet to confirm that the migrants were Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that have been denied citizenship in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and targeted in violent persecutions by extremist Buddhists over the past couple of years, resulting in hundreds being killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. This has driven thousands to flee the country, many via the Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia, but often illegally cross into Thai territory. These risky boat trips are mostly facilitated or intercepted by human traffickers, who then hold these refugees for ransom from their relatives or force into them into labor to pay off their debts.
That these cases have become so rampant and busts like the one last week are so rare is due to many factors: on one hand Thai authorities regard these migrants as illegal economic immigrants and not as refugees. Also they in some instances have failed to report such activities based on a technicality. Even worse, some Thai officials themselves were directly involved in human trafficking as well, with few consequences (see Siam Voices’ coverage in 2013) – other than going after those reporting on these shortcomings.
This has partly contributed to Thailand’s poor anti-human trafficking record, resulting in a downgrade by the U.S. Sate Department last year and more recently being put on a watch list by the European Union because of slaves on Thai fishing boats (see here, here and here) – which could result in a trade ban for Thai seafood products.
The methods of the traffickers have become more sophisticated, as fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade wrote:
[…] it’s worth remembering how [Thai] officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.
“Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand“, by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, May 1, 2015
Also, a survivor who managed to escape captivity told The Nation about the conditions in these camps, saying the 26 bodies may only be the tip of the iceberg:
(…) this survivor said he had heard that more than 500 victims were killed at various camps holding human-trafficking or kidnap victims along the Thai-Malaysian borders. “I’ve also heard that thousands of Rohingya migrants were at those camps waiting for promised jobs or for ransom to arrive,” he said.
This survivor said he was lured out of Myanmar’s Rakhine state six months ago by an offer to find him a job in Malaysia. He ended up in the same camp as Kazim, where between 700 and 800 migrants were held. “My mum had to sell our family’s land to pay for my ransom. That’s why I am still safe,” he said. (…)
The survivor from the camp said that during his time there, between 17 and 20 people were killed. “They were either shot or clubbed to death,” he said. He said victims whose relatives could not afford the ransom would be fatally attacked or left to die.
“Survivor believes more than 500 killed in camps“, by Krissana Thiwatsirikul, Mary Bradley & Somjit Rungjamrasrassamee, The Nation, May 4, 2015
Thai authorities said on Monday that four suspects have been arrested in connection to the mass grave, among them a local administrative official, two police officers and a Burmese man. The latter is reportedly already known to the police as a human trafficker and his arrest is hailed as “huge”, according to the provincial deputy police commander. Four other suspects are being sought.
Meanwhile, after inspecting the scene with the National Police chief over the weekend, Thai army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has pledged to “punish” local authorities if illegal smuggling of Rohingyas take place in their respective jurisdictions. This was followed later that day by an order to transfer local police officers to inactive posts, among them the police commander of Satun province, high ranking officers of the border town Padang Besar’s police station, and the border patrol police.
Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and international inquiry. That is not very surprising, since it expresses skepticism towards the Thai authorities – given that they have been aware of human trafficking actions for years, but have failed to act upon it with some even enriching themselves with it – and their ability to completely clean up their own ranks.
In the past decade, Thailand has seen fair share of political protests. As color-coded groups staged prolonged, large-scale street rallies, politics frequently more often took place outside than inside its usual institutions. Many of these protests went on for several weeks with varying degrees of impact on public life as major public areas (Rajaprasong Intersection in 2010 and 2014, Democracy Monument), numerous government buildings (even Government House itself in 2008) and even Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (also in 2008) have been occupied. And many protests have also sparked violent incidents (sometimes deliberately provoked), some resulting in deaths as protesters have clashed with security officials – or in the case of the red shirt protests of 2010 – the military.
The last major demonstrations we’ve seen were the anti-government protests of 2013-14, which lasted almost half a year and brought parts of the capital Bangkok to a grinding halt – not to mention halting political discourse, deliberately creating a deadlock in which the military could easily launch the coup of May 22, 2014.
Following that hostile takeover and the declaration of martial law, the military junta outlawed public gatherings of more than five people. But even after its recent revocation has effectively banned any protests, as the infamous Article 44 still gives the junta near-absolute power.
Then, the military government’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), passed a law on Friday that seeks to regulate future public protests:
People seeking to stage a public protest must inform authorities 24 hours in advance, and others who think they create public nuisance may petition the Administrative Court or courts of justice under the new public assembly law passed on Friday.
The law also prohibits public gatherings in the 150-metre radius of the royal places of Their Majesties, those of the royal family members, and residences of regents/royal guests. A public rally cannot be held on the premises of Parliament, Government House and courts unless authorities arrange a spot for it. (…) Other places deemed off-limits include embassies, consuls and international agencies.
The law requires a rally organisers to notify police officers supervising the area they would like to use as the rally venue at least 24 hours before the assembly. They must also tell authorities the purpose of the gathering and how long it will last.
”New public assembly law passed”, Bangkok Post, May 1, 2015
The bill was in the works since August last year after a proposal by the Royal Thai Police was approved by the cabinet in late November. The draft bill passed its first reading in the NLA with an overwhelmingly unanimous 182-0 vote in late February. The core components, such as the 24-hours notification and no-go areas at key government buildings, were left untouched until the final vote by the NLA. Other restrictions include a ban on loudspeakers between midnight and 6am, a requirement of protesters to stay at the site between 6pm and 6am and (obviously understandable) a ban on weapons at the rallies (a more detailed list can be found here).
Any violation of these restrictions is enough for the police officer charged with overseeing the protest (in most cases the commander of the police station which has been asked for permission) to declare the protest “illegal” and seek an order to disperse at the civil or provincial courts.
Protesters that refuse to leave despite being ordered by the police could face up to a year in jail and/or a maximum fine of 20,000 Baht (about $600). Other punishments include up to 6 months prison and/or 10,000 baht (about $300) for protesting without police permission, also up to six months for the rally organizers for any stage-related violation (loudspeakers after midnight, “inciting” speeches) and up to 10 years imprisonment for carrying weapons, trespassing and damage, making threats and causing harm to others and any disruption of public service and utilities (e.g. water and electricity).
That’s a lot of obstacles for future protests. Furthermore, declaring most key government buildings such as Government House and Parliament off limits is understandable given that these sites have been besieged and occupied before, but it also prevents some protesters – the smaller, non-obstructive kind – from certain symbolic acts, such as handing petitions to politicians. That is if they even get this far.
The first hurdle that organizers have now to face is asking the police for permission, which could look like this in practice:
If the police station chief says no, we have the right to appeal to his boss. And if the boss says no too, his judgement will be deemed final. But we can still appeal to the court against the ban.
By then, I expect many affected groups which want to have their voices heard through protest will become frustrated and may scrap their planned expression of discontent. Another scenario is that a planned protest will lose steam because instead of protesting, the people involved will be forced to waste their time in courtroom battles.
Also, which police station chief – who will likely be of police colonel rank – will say yes to a protest in his area of jurisdiction at the risk of being reprimanded by his boss? So, there is a likelihood that rejection will be the norm.
“Harsh laws on public gatherings a blow to democracy“, Bangkok Post, May 4, 2015
As usual with laws and regulations in Thailand, it’s not the exact wording that is the problem but the motivation that it was written with. A certain fatigue of political protests regularly descending into chaos is understandable, however one should take the circumstances of the bill’s creation into consideration. There has been absolutely no input by the public and the draft was waved through with few to no changes.
One must also not forget the military junta’s general disdain to any display of public dissent, including rallies concerning environmental issues. The new law could give future governments – and possible extra-parliamentary forces – a handy tool to curtail political protests.