Tense Times in Thailand
Image Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Tense Times in Thailand


Human rights groups have warned that Thailand is on a “downward spiral” as the military continues to target pro-democracy activists and supporters of the deposed government following last month’s coup d’état.

Almost 400 activists, journalists, politicians, academics and others have been summoned to report to military authorities, according to observers, and detained for anything from an hour to more than seven days. Most have been released after agreeing to stay away from politics, but a handful – mainly red shirt activists loyal to the former Pheu Thai government – remain in custody. Some have fled the country or gone into hiding to avoid arrest, and one reportedly shot himself dead after being summoned. Speculation is rife that a government-in-exile will be established, possibly in neighbouring Cambodia.

Others have been arrested under the strict lèse-majesté law, which prohibits criticism of the monarchy, or for protesting against the coup. They include a woman who was filmed being bundled into a taxi by plainclothes police officers in Bangkok on Sunday. Her apparent crime? Making the three-fingered salute the protesters have adopted from The Hunger Games film to signify their opposition to military rule.

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A curfew is still in place, television and radio stations have been closed down, efforts have been made to monitor social media, and more than 200 websites have been blocked as the junta – the so-called National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – outlaws criticism and imposes heavy-handed censorship.

“The Thai military junta is engaged in a campaign of intimidation and detention aimed at enforcing silence, apparently without regard to the costs to Thailand’s international reputation,” said Brad Adams, director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Academics, journalists, and civil society activists are all at immediate risk of arbitrary arrest either because they are speaking their mind now, or said something in the past that the military considers objectionable. Soldiers implementing censorship in TV newsrooms, military tapping phones and spying on social media chat groups, and shuttering of numerous satellite TV and community radio stations all show how the NCPO totally tramples on freedom of the press, and the right to free expression … Thailand’s friends among governments in the international community need to step in and demand the NCPO respect basic human rights, and somehow stop Thailand’s continued downward spiral on human rights.”

At a bookstore in the northern city of Chiang Mai last week, The Diplomat caught up with young activists who described the climate of “terror” in the north and northeast, strongholds of the former government.

“I don’t have a number but many red shirts have been arrested,” said Noppon, a 27-year-old student at Chiang Mai University who asked that his surname be withheld for fear of repercussions. Many people are scared and angry, he said, “but don’t want to express it in public.” He predicted the sporadic anti-coup protests seen in Bangkok and other cities would continue, but said some hardcore red shirts might adopt more violent tactics to fight military rule.

While the junta has publicised lists of those summoned to appear in Bangkok, elsewhere in the country army officers are calling people in unofficially or turning up at their homes unannounced, said a journalist who requested anonymity. “We don’t know how many people are in danger, and that’s why the fear is all around.”

Activists released from detention reported that soldiers knew far more than expected about their activities, he said, pointing to the involvement of spies and informers in red-shirt and civil society groups.

When army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law on May 20 and seized power two days later, he claimed such drastic action was necessary to stop escalating street violence, heal Thailand’s bitter political divisions, and get the country working again. For the previous six months, protesters backed by influential members of Thailand’s wealthy elite had been calling for the overthrow of the elected administration, occupying government offices and obstructing its work wherever possible. Their allies in the courts had removed former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a controversial ruling earlier last month.

This was Thailand’s fourteenth successful coup d’etat, by some counts. The last one was in 2006, when Yingluck’s brother Thaksin was deposed as prime minister. The telecoms billionaire, who now lives in Dubai to avoid a jail term for abuse of power, oversaw widespread corruption and human rights abuses, but also changed Thailand’s political landscape by appealing directly to poorer rural voters in the north and northeast. Policies such as cheap loans for villagers and a universal healthcare scheme won him loyal support and have propelled parties backed by him to victory in the past five general elections.

Academics who have studied the red-shirt movement say that while Thaksin remains an important figurehead, it has evolved into a broader struggle for social justice and political enfranchisement – and this terrifies Thailand’s traditional elite, who remain deeply suspicious of electoral democracy. In the past eight years, two prime ministers have been removed by military coups and three more by dubious court decisions. A crackdown on red-shirt protesters occupying parts of Bangkok in 2010 left more than 90 dead and thousands injured.

“The coup-makers have attempted to put a good face on the rationale and plans for the coup. They have said they were compelled to carry out the coup to stop violence from escalating, and to break the political deadlock and provide a ‘cooling off’ period for both sides,” observed David Streckfuss, an independent scholar and analyst based in northeastern Thailand.

“But the coup itself is a radically anti-democratic act. The coup itself places the military clearly on the side of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which led the anti-government protests. The coup-makers have paid some lip service to neutrality by also calling in some PDRC leaders and their supporters, but the overwhelming majority of those called in are red shirts, members of the Pheu Thai Party, pro-democracy activists, artists, and journalists. So in practice the military seems to be targeting the pro-democracy side. Many in Thailand have long associated the military with the PDRC.”

Indeed, pictures circulating on social media last week showed leading members of the PDRC at a party in a swanky Bangkok restaurant. Many wore military-style clothing to show their support for the coup.

Meanwhile, the junta has announced that “reform centers” will be set up across the country to help people adjust their attitudes. Local media cited a military spokesman as saying that “people, notably those in the north and northeast, should forget about everything that happened before the May 22 coup.”

Seasoned Thai watchers say the ruling generals are more hardline than those who led the 2006 coup, and are determined to root out the influence of Thaksin and his supporters this time around.

“There is a sense that they believe this time they must ‘do the job properly’, i.e., destroy the pro-Thaksin forces by whatever means possible,” noted Patrick Jory, senior lecturer in Southeast Asian history at the University of Queensland. “No half measures. I think after 2006 they expected Thaksin to get the message and give up. They know now that he will never give up, so they intend to destroy him and his support base.”

General Prayuth has ruled out elections for more than a year, so the junta can oversee political reforms. But the army’s harsh methods risk alienating many, especially in the red-shirt heartlands, says Duncan McCargo, a political scientist and Thailand expert at the University of Leeds.

“The media crackdown and use of arbitrary detention, plus informal ‘invitations’ to those suspected of opposing the coup, are much cruder methods than were used in 2006,” he said. “However, such methods are really inappropriate to the political conditions of present-day Thailand, and in the longer term are likely to spark increased resentment and fuel resistance to the coup regime. There is already a surprising amount of resistance underway, and this is creating huge problems for the army, who have always wanted to believe they are on the side of the people. The reality that many or even most people across the country are actually against them is something they will struggle with now.”

Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Thailand.  

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