A housewife was arrested and charged with sedition in Thailand for posting a photo of a red bowl given by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Facebook. She was released after posting a bail of 100,000 baht ($2,800). If found guilty in a military trial, she could face up to seven years in jail.
The red bowl has an inscription which reads: “The situation may be hot, but brothers and sisters may gain coolness from the water inside this bucket.” It is intended for Thaksin’s supporters in north Thailand to be used in the Buddhist water ceremonies during the Songkran festival or Thai New Year this month.
However, Thailand’s ruling junta, which seized power in a coup in May 2014, believes the distribution of red bowls could be part of a sinister plot to undermine the government.
“If he has innocent intentions, there wouldn’t be his photo or his name on the bowls at all,” an official said.
The incident is an indicator of just how sensitive the ruling junta is about support for Thaksin, a policeman-turned business tycoon who has been at the center of an ongoing struggle with the country’s military-backed royalist elite. While Thaksin-linked parties have won each of the country’s last three elections – in 2001, 2007 and 2011 – each time they have been by ousted by military coups, paralyzing political protests, and other legal maneuvers, with the latest coup in May 2014 deposing Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.
Thaksin urged the junta to focus on addressing the country’s problems rather than his gifts to his constituents. But the junta shows few signs of backing down on what it perceives as threats to its rule, even though the ‘seditious’ posting of Facebook photos may appear to be absurd to many outsiders. Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself defended the sedition charge.
Posting the photo “was [a show of] support for people who have violated laws and run away from criminal charge,” he said in a media interview.
Prayut was referring to the fact that Thaksin had gone into self-imposed exile to avoid detention following his ouster after being found guilty of corruption.
This is not an isolated incident. Last weekend, the army raided the home of an opposition politician and confiscated more than 8,000 red bowls, which were also gifts from Thaksin to his supporters. The red bowls are inscribed with this message: “Happy 2016 Songkran Day. This Songkran, I especially miss all my brothers and sisters very much and want to help you solve problems, but before that I would like to send encouragement, love and thoughts.”
Read in the context of the broader rights situation in post-coup Thailand, this is the latest manifestation of the junta’s ever-growing paranoia and its intolerance of activities organized by opposition groups. Last January, the junta blocked the distribution of calendars that bore the photos of Thaksin and his younger sister Yingluck, who was prime minister before she was ousted in the May 2014 coup.
Since it grabbed power in 2014, the army has imposed several measures that have curtailed the civil liberties of Thais. The media is strictly regulated, public protests have been banned, and critics have found themselves slapped with heavy penalties.
The aim of the junta is clearly to weaken the support base of Thaksin, who continues to be popular among voters especially in the country’s northern region. Yet it is increasingly difficult to see how the junta will succeed with such irrational and extreme methods. Its best chance to restore public confidence is to adhere to its original commitment of reforming the bureaucracy and allowing the return of civilian rule.
If an ordinary red bowl provokes such an overreaction from the junta, how can Thai citizens be convinced that they can ever express their real views about politics? And if posting photos on Facebook constitutes an act of sedition, how can the ruling junta convince Thais, as well as concerned international observers, that it is still committed to preserving basic freedoms even as it attempts to balance that with concerns about political stability?