Abhisit Vejjajiva at Oxford: charmer?

15 03 2009

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva spoke at St. John’s College at Oxford on 14 March 2009. This engagement followed a meeting with Gordon Brown, the U.K. prime minister. There has been considerable commentary. According to the Bangkok Post (14 March 2009: “PM: Recovery will take longer. Democratic credentials questioned on UK trip”), PM Abhisit was forced to respond to criticism regarding Thailand’s armed forces and their abuse of Rohingya migrants and to other human rights issues, including lesé majesté.

On the Rohingya, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Abhisit’s line continues to be: “We have taken these allegations seriously, we have tried to check up on the facts and I can say that the alleged abuses have not happened, especially in terms of whipping or body abuses or so on.”

Prior to speaking on democracy in Thai politics at Oxford, the prime minister faced some opposition from dissident Thais, Oxford academics and the media (see below). The prime minister’s response was to label any moves opposing his speech as undemocratic. Of course, there was no disruption and his speech went ahead as planned. Abhisit went further and accused Giles Ungpakorn, who fled Thailand to Britain last month to avoid imprisonment on lesé majesté charges, of being behind the move. According to the Bangkok Post, “Mr Abhisit criticised the former Chulalongkorn University political lecturer for acting undemocratically as his activities violated other people’s rights of expression.”

PPT wonders if Abhisit is aware of the irony of his complaint when lesé majesté and computer crimes laws in Thailand prevent free speech on a daily basis.

Dr. Lee Jones, Rose Research Fellow in International Relations, Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford, has accused Abhisit’s Democrat Party-led coalition of human rights failures caused a stir when an email he sent to a St. John’s College colleague was leaked to the press (see his letter and his later response at his blog). Jones has a long history of supporting freedom of speech, and was pointing out the same irony PPT notes above. It is also worth reading the commentary on this at New Mandala, where much of the pro-Democrat statements follow the Party’s own statements.

For example, the Democrat Party has felt the need to demonstrate and state its credentials (Bangkok Post, 14 March 2009: “Spokesman defends PM’s rise to power”): “Thepthai Senpong, spokesman of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, insisted that the government came to power democratically and is not backed by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) nor soldiers as claimed by the foreign media.His response came after Lee Jones, an Oxford lecturer, accused Mr Abhisit of being undemocratic and came into power with the help of ‘street politicians’ who were rewarded with ministerial posts. Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times, also wrote a commentary attacking Mr Abhisit. He, however, said that the media have the right to express their opinions.”

Meanwhile, Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times of London (13 March 2009: “The charmer making a mess of his country”), wrote a commentary attacking Prime Minister Abhisit, observing that “Mr Abhisit’s charm should not be a distraction from ugly truths about what is happening in Thailand. In the past four years, it has gone from being one of the most free and stable countries of South-East Asia to one of its most chaotic and divided. Writers, academics and journalists have been imprisoned or hounded into exile for harmless comment on Thailand’s monarchy. Helpless boat people have been chased out to sea to their deaths. Democratically elected governments have been forced out, first by the army and then by the power of the mob.” He adds, “Mr Abhisit owes his job, not to the will of his people, but to the support of powerful friends – and even they have required a comically large number of attempts to propel their boy to power.”

Giving Abhisit more credit than he probably deserves, Parry states, “At times, it has looked as if someone in power is consciously making a fool of Mr Abhisit – such as the speech he gave last week about the importance of media freedom, which was followed a few hours later by the arrest of the webmaster of an independent website.”

Parry concludes: “Thailand is no Zimbabwe or China, and by comparison with most of their Asian neighbours, Thais are blessedly free and prosperous. But it has the alarming air of a democracy lurching into reverse and out of control, in which familiar freedoms are flying out of the window with unpredictable speed. It is all the more painful that this should be happening under a leader of such obvious talent, a man with all the qualifications except the essential one – democratic legitimacy.”

At Oxford, according to The Nation (15 March 2009: “Democracy is strong and alive”), Abhisit said: “I can’t tell how fast the Thai democracy will progress. Looking back at the Western experiences, you’ll find that it took centuries.” He added, “Most importantly, democracy in Thailand will no longer go backward. Thai people are now at the crossroads. Be assured that the people have taken the right path and will go ahead despite some obstacles.” The Nation reports TNA as having an exchange with Giles Ungpakorn, who reportedly accused the government of using the lesé majesté law to protect itself and the military.

In his usual style, Abhisit again claimed that this law could be compared to a defamation law for ordinary people and pointed to similar laws in European countries. For commentary on this, see PPT’s notes here, here and here.

Abhisit then attacked Giles personally, stating that many cases had been brought to court and most defendants had not fled. Giles is reported to have replied: “I didn’t escape;” to which the PM said: “Then why can you be here now?”

Like so much related to  lesé majesté, it is unclear what the prime minister thinks should happen to those charged with lesé majesté. PPT cases listed here and here, show that some others have fled and that there are some who have been held in jail, in poor consitions for a long time, without having had their day in court. And, data for 1999 to 2005 show that of the cases taken to court, the conviction rate is 100% in all years but one, when a sole case was acquitted.

Giles has circulated a brief account of Abhisit’s talk. He says, amongst other things: that Abhisit’s talk was “full of lies, excuses and half-truths. But despite his arrogance, … anyone … with a simple knowledge about Thai politics would not have been taken in. Two exceptions were the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University and the President of St John’s College who … praised Abhisit’s “commitment to Democracy”.

Giles continues to state that “Abhisit claimed that he had been democratically elected and that he was a ‘guardian of Thai Democracy’. Yet, he fully supported using lese majeste to protect ‘national security’ and agreed that I should face charges for writing an academic book which criticised the 2006 coup. However, he could not remember which in which part of the book I had ‘insulted the King’. He claimed the lese majeste charges against Chotisak Oonsung had been dropped and that the arrest of Prachatai website manager was a ‘police mistake’. He said he had ‘cleared the matter’ with a phone call to the Prachatai Manager. He stated that the PAD leaders who seized the airports would ‘definitely be charged’ and that the Generals responsible for the Takbai massacre ‘would also be charged’. He denied that his foreign Minister was a PAD supporter who took over the airports.”

We at PPT await more news of this event and more statements and details from the prime minister that will see charges dropped, “mistakes” rectified and the lesé majesté abolished.

Again, however, PPT must point out that Prime Minister Abhisit’s statements on these matters are short on detail and are full of contradictions.

It was only a couple of days ago that he met a group of cyber activists, and told them that the arrest at Prachatai was not a result of government policy (Prachatai, 14 March 2009: “PM tells cyber activists crackdown on websites damaging country’s image”) while the police claim that the Prachatai arrest was strictly legal.

Remarkably, Abhisit asked the activists for details of the arrest. How can it be that a prime minister does not know what his police and ministries are doing?

Abhisit admits that the crackdown on websites that are periodically announced by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology have adversely affected the country’s image and that this was cause for concern. Surely the prime minister should be expected to do better than this?

Abhisit also said that the crackdown on websites and arrests of “internet users were not problems resulting from the provisions of Criminal Code Article 112, or the lèse majesté law, but from implementation. If anything needs to be changed, it should be the practice, not Article 112.” So the logic – if theat is the right word – is to keep the political law but improve on the implementation of it, when the prime minister himself claims that he doesn’t know how it is being used.


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15 03 2009
New: Some further reactions on Abhisit at Oxford « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] to power have caused a considerable flurry of media reporting. PPT blogged on this earlier and we recently updated the report. Now a number of other reports have emerged. First, there is a statement in the Bangkok Post (15 […]

25 09 2009
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[…] Political Prisoners in Thailand Abhisit admits that the crackdown on websites that are periodically announced by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology have adversely affected the country’s image and that this was cause for concern. Surely the prime minister should be expected to do better than this? […]