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 2017 – unless 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?
”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?
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.
A LETTER appearing to be an invitation by European Union parliamentarians to former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to talk at the EU is being circulated in Thailand, sparking speculation about her future whereabouts amidst criminal charges at home and implications for the relations between the EU and the Thai military.
Signed by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Elmar Brok and Werner Langen, the letter (see below) recalls Yingluck’s visit to the EU in March 2013, before addressing the current political situation in Thailand under the military junta “with concern”. The letter concludes with an invitation to the former prime minister for an ”exchange of views … either in Brussels or in Strasbourg.”
Yingluck invited to talk Thai politics at European Parliament. But will junta let her go?http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/773944/yingluck-invited-to-talk-thai-politics-at-european-parliament
Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party-led government were toppled in a military coup on May 22, 2014 following over half a year of sustained anti-government protests. She and hundreds of Thais, including her cabinet ministers and party colleagues, were detained for several days by the military at various places in the country, before being released under the condition that they not rally against the Thai junta.
Since then, she has been impeached by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), an ersatz-parliament fully appointed by the military junta, and is now facing criminal charges at the Supreme Court for alleged negligence over her government’s rice subsidy program.
The policy – in which the government bought the rice from farmers at roughly 50 per cent more than the market price – was hugely popular among her party’s rural electorate and is credited to have helped her secure a landslide election victory in 2011. But the rice scheme program was slammed by critics for alleged cases of corruption, a huge financial loss of reportedly 500 billion baht ($14 billion) and millions of tonnes of rice rotting away in stockpiles while still waiting for a buyer. The latest reports suggests that 2 million tonnes of rotten rice have been approved for sale, which then can be used for industrial purposes such as the production of ethanol.
Amidst that, the letter from Europe comes at a peculiar time. Thai-language daily Khaosod reported on Monday that it received word from the Pheu Thai Party about the letter, a copy of which was later circulated by its sister publication Matichon. Other media outlets reported, based on sources close to Yingluck, that she hasn’t decided yet whether to accept the invitation.
Since the coup last year, several Western countries have downgraded their relations with the Thai military government, including the European Union. Not only has it banned any state visits on and above ministerial levels, it also suspended talks over a potential free trade agreement in the immediate aftermath of the coup (much to the annoyance of European business lobbyists in Bangkok). The likelihood of a resumption of talks is “probably zero”, according to Miguel Ceballos Baron, a top aide to EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. He added that ”it’ll be never ratified” as long as the junta stays at the helm.
In light of the deteriorating human rights situation under the Thai military junta and the deep revamp of the political system under the guidance of the generals, several European parliamentarians across the political spectrum criticized the current regime in October. The European Parliament as a whole passed a non-binding resolution condemning the ”illegal coup of May 2014” and demand to ”overturn convictions and sentences, to withdraw charges and to release individuals and media operators who have been sentenced or charged for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or assembly.” (Full text here)
The letter to Yingluck is dated October 7, a day before the vote in the EU parliament. The signatures are apparently those of MEPs Elmar Brok and Werner Langen, both from Germany and members of the European People’s Party (EPP), consisting of national Christian democratic and conservative parties. Mr. Brok is the longest-serving member of the EU parliament and has served as the chairman of the EU foreign affairs committee since 2012, a position he held previously between 1999 to 2008. Mr. Langen, an MEP veteran of over 20 years, is the chairman of the EU parliamentary delegation to ASEAN. Both men are also co-signatories of the aforementioned resolution condemning the Thai junta (full voters’ list).
Whether Yingluck will travel to Europe is entirely up to the junta. While it allowed her to travel to Paris in July 2014 for the birthday of her exiled brother and former PM Thaksin, the generals banned her from traveling abroad without prior consent immediately after last year’s coup, and again earlier this year, in order to prevent her from fleeing into exile (like her brother), shortly before her indictment over the aforementioned criminal charges for the rice scheme policy.
Asian Correspondent has reached out to MEPs Elmar Brok and Werner Langen for comments.
+++UPDATE 20.30h – Nov 24, 2015 +++
One of the co-signatories of the invitation to former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has confirmed the letter’s authenticity. “Yes, the letter is by me and Mr. Brok,” says Werner Langen, MEP, in reply to an email by Asian Correspondent. He hopes that “the military government will allow” Yingluck to travel to Brussels or Strasbourg. Furthermore, Mr. Langen says that the European Union wants to assist Thailand with “a return to democratic structures contribute a reconciliation between the rivaling factions.”
Thailand’s military government is becoming increasingly blatant about its intentions to stay in power
THAILAND’S Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has never been shy about letting everybody know his opinions. The junta leader also expects everybody to listen. Nobody knows that better than the local journalists who have endured the daily press briefings by the PM that have more often than not turned into prolonged tirades (as we have reported previously). The rest of the country might have caught some nuggets of his wisdom during his weekly TV addresses while waiting for their nightly fix of local television’s ubiquitous and hugely popular soap operas.
It’s one and a half years into the rule of Thailand’s military after it took power in the coup of May 22, 2014. Its reign has been authoritarian, dominating nearly the entire political discourse, censoring the flow of information and intolerant of criticism and dissent – even if it’s something as innocuous as an old man giving flowers to anti-junta protesters.
The junta has its hands in almost every institution that is currently re-writing the constitution, thus re-defining the rules for any future elected government – that is IF there is going to be an election any time soon. With a new timeframe for democratic elections in mid 2017 – instead of initially late 2015 – the military junta has postponed the date at least three times already. First the constitutional drafting process was blamed to be taking too long, then the generals granted a public referendum on the next constitution in exchange for another delay, and eventually the rejection of said draft constitution by a fully-appointed government body pushed it further back even further, since the whole process of writing a new constitution has to start over again.
But even when the rules for the currently sidelined politicans are set and the veneer of democratic normalcy is being prepared to be raised, there is no guarantee that that’s actually going to happen.
While Gen. Prayuth himself has decided to reduce his daily press briefings, he didn’t keep it short during a meeting of the self-titled “five rivers”, which includes the military junta, the cabinet, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) and the newly established National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), this week.
In his speech Wednesday morning, a hot-headed Prayuth went on an extensive tirade clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, attacking his opponents and ultimately culminating in this threat:
“Politicians do not have to be suspicious of me. [The media] writes every day that I intend to cling on to power. I must make it clear. If there is no peace and order, I must stay on.”
In other words, if there are any political groups or individuals are attempting to stage anything large-scale that the military government sees as a threat, it has a very convenient excuse to shut the country down.
Even though his Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan tried to downplay Gen. Prayuth’s threat, saying that the prime minister ”didn’t mean it literally” and people ”shouldn’t read too much into it”, it becomes increasingly obvious that this wasn’t just yet another slip of the tongue by Gen. Prayuth and what the military junta is doing to ensure its grip on power, no matter how the political landscape looks in the foreseeable future.
As a return to democracy becomes more and more elusive, Thailand’s military rulers are turning the twindow for the next election into a time horizon: always visible, but never reachable.
“We will not talk about this any more. If we say we won’t do it, we won’t do it,” said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak at an economic forum in Bangkok last week. His decisive words were in response to the ongoing controversy over the Thai military government’s plans to introduce an online single gateway.
Last month, Thai internet users discovered a cabinet resolution surveying the implementation of a single online gateway ”to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.” Subsequent resolutions ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and related agencies to speed up their preliminary work.
If realized, Thailand’s internet traffic would be bottlenecked through a single gateway, making it possible for officials to filter and block undesirable content. This is in line with the military junta’s ongoing efforts to monitor and censor dissenting voices, both in real life and online, ever since it launched a military coup in May 2014.
Amidst widespread criticism and a coordinated mass-click-and-refresh bombardment that briefly knocked several government websites offline, Thai officials were scrambling to calm public opinion, only then to contradict themselves justifying why the junta wants to have a single gateway in the first place. The explanations varied from economic reasons, cybersecurity concerns and ultimately ending at Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha being initially ”worried” about the ”youth addiction to online games and access to inappropriate media”.
A week later, the government was hoping that the debate had died down. However, despite repeated statements insisting that it won’t pursue the single gateway plan anymore, not everyone is convinced by their declaration. And it seems there is more trouble coming the junta’s way:
Online activists have announced they will launch attacks against the government beginning Thursday after the prime minister said the project to route all internet traffic through a single point of control is still alive.
The coalition of anonymous internet users known as Citizens Against Single Gateway last night warned private sector operations with IT systems linked to government servers to transfer them to safe places before the assault on government systems begins at 10am on Thursday.
Those behind a crippling attack earlier this month, the Thailand F5 Cyber Army, issued the announcement yesterday after Prime Minister and junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said agencies are still studying the project (…).
”First Chapter of ‘Cyber War’ to Begin Thursday”, Khaosod English, October 21, 2015
The little detail that the government is “still studying” the single gateway plan is enough reason for opponents to distrust the Thai military government. But there are several more signs that justifies the continuous skepticism by many online users.
CAT TELECOM has announced that it will proceed with the plan to build a national Internet gateway, which it claims would help make Thailand a digital hub in Asean.
The aim of the project is not to control the flow of information into the country over the Internet as some fear, said CAT acting chief executive officer Colonel Sanpachai Huvanandana. He said a working committee for the project would be set up. Whether that committee is under the Information and Communications Technology Ministry or under the Digital Economy Committee is up to the ICT minister.
The national Internet gateway is one of two priorities for making Thailand a digital hub for the region by expanding capacity and reducing costs. The other is to have large content providers such as Facebook, Google and YouTube establish servers in Thailand.
”Net gateway for digital hub”, The Nation, October 21, 2015
The other part of the plan to have internet tech giants like Google and Facebook setting up shop in Thailand (the latter already did) seems ambitious to say the least, given a potentially significant infrastructural disadvantage and previous persistent, but unsuccessful attempts by the military government seeking cooperation of these companies to censor posts deemed insulting to the monarchy and also identify their authors.
At the same time it is being reported that General Thaweep Netrniyom, the secretary-general of the Office of the National Security Council (NSC), could be appointed the head of the aforementioned CAT Telecom. It would be the first time that somebody from the NSC would take up that position at the state-owned telecommunication company and unsurprisingly his focus is expected be on cyber security – just as CAT’s current CEO (a Colonel nonetheless) announced they are still not giving up on the single online gateway.
However, as mentioned before, that is not the only measure by the military junta to control the flow of online information in Thailand. It already has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source), ordered internet providers to censor on sight, reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software, it is also in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at “preparing Thailand for the digital economy”. But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertainty, benefitting the state more than Thai online users.
Most recently, Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan announced on Tuesday the creation of a new ”Army Cyber Center” specifically to ”protect” the Thai monarchy and to ”keep track of information on media and social media and to sort them out systematically,” essentially underlining their priorities. In August this year, two people were sentenced to a record 28 and 30 years in prison respectively for allegedly posting Facebook messages deemed insulting to the monarchy.
Thailand has to wait for a new constitution as the drafting process is being sent back to the drawing board with an entirely new Committee taking office last week.
Writing constitutions can be a very costly venture. How costly? In the past 10 months, Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was busy creating the country’s 20th constitution. The Committee members convened 158 times and accumulated a bill of 85 million Baht ($2.35 million), according to Thai media estimates– the catering alone cost 23.7 million Baht ($655,000). Was it worth it? Probably not. The constitutional draft did not survive the vote in the National Reform Council (NRC) on September 6, as the fully-appointed chamberrejected it with 134 votes to 105 and 7 abstentions. However, that didn’t really hurt Thailand’s military junta. Ruling since the Kingdom’s 12th successful coup in May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, have had a tight grip on the political process. With heightened media monitoring, censorship and arbitrary detainment of dissidents – euphemistically called ”attitude adjustment” – the junta also tries to control the official narrative.
Much Ado About Nothing?
Throughout the constitution drafting exercise, the stakes were incredibly low for the military government. As the Chairman of the NRC’s Legal and Justice Reform Committee has recently summed up: “The CDC is like a cook preparing food for the NRC. The NRC tasted the food and it was found to be not delicious.” On the one hand, a passed draft would have constitutionally enshrined the junta’s ‘reforms’ to the political system, which would have ended up severely restricting the powers of elected officials, be it through a new voting system, a fully appointed senate or several non-elected bodies that could usurp a co-existing, democratically elected government. On the other hand, a failed process buys another six months for the junta to cement its position and develop a draft constitution more to its liking – a win-win for prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
From among several reasons, two stand out why the draft was struck down – sending back the constitution drafting process to its very beginning. First is the controversial late addition of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation to the draft constitution. Dubbed by the media as the ‘Crisis Committee’, it would have established a military-dominated, extra-parliamentary executive panel shadowing the cabinet of ministers that would have intervened during a yet-to-be defined “crisis situation”. The other reason for the rejection is, as with nearly all government bodies since the coup, the NRC had 29 members from either the military or the police force. CDC Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno hinted that all these members voted against the draft because of orders from their superiors – regardless that the whole process was initiated and dominated by the military junta in the first place. Whatever the reasons for orders were, it has definitely played into the hands of the generals. The failed draft vote has now conveniently extended the junta’s rule for at least another half year, as democratic elections are postponed yet again to mid-2017, since the entire constitution drafting process had to be restarted. According to the interim constitution, the drafting process would not only take another six months, but would also require the establishment of an entirely new CDC and National Reform Council.