Further updated: Yuletide lese majeste

22 12 2020

There’s been quite a lot of commentary on the protests, some motivated by the avalanche of lese majeste cases and some by the fact that the end of the year begs for reviews.

One that caught our attention is by Matthew Wheeler, Senior Analyst for Southeast Asia at the International Crisis Group. It is quite a reasonable and careful rundown of events prompting the demonstrations and the call for reform of the monarchy.

The lese majeste cases pile higher and higher. In a Bangkok Post report on people turning up to hear lese majeste charges, eight are listed: Arnon Nampa, Inthira Charoenpura, Parit Chiwarak, Somyos Prueksakasemsuk, Nattathida Meewangpla, Shinawat Chankrachang, Phimsiri Phetnamrop, and Phromson Wirathamchari.

We can’t locate the latter two on the most recent Prachatai graphic that listed 34 activists charged under 112, but that graphic does include five with names withheld. For us, this brings the total charged to 34-36, but it may well be more.

There was some good news on lese majeste. It is reported that, after more than 4.5 years, a ludicrous 112 charge against Patnaree Chankij have been dismissed. The mother of activist Sirawith Seritiwat, the Criminal Court on Tuesday dismissed the charge. Her one word “jah” in a chat conversation was said to be the cause of the charge but, in reality, going after her was the regime’s blunt effort to silence her son.

A second piece of reasonable news is that the Criminal Court also dismissed charges of sedition brought by the military junta against former deputy prime minister Chaturon Chaisaeng on 27 May 2014 six years ago under Section 116 of the Criminal Code and the Computer Crimes Act. This was another junta effort to silence critics.

As seen in recent days, equally ludicrous charges have been brought against a new generation of critics.

Update 1: Thai PBS reports that the Criminal Court acquitted nine members of the Pro-Election Group who had been charged in late January 2018 with poking the military junta: “Section 116 of the Criminal Code, illegal public assembly within a 150-metre radius of a Royal palace and defying the then junta’s order regarding public assembly of more than five people.”

The defendants were Veera Somkwamkid, Rangsiman Rome, currently a party-list for the Kao Klai party, Serawit Sereethiat, Nattha Mahatthana, Anon Nampa, a core member of the Ratsadon Group, Aekkachai Hongkangwan, Sukrit Piansuwan, Netiwit Chotepatpaisarn and Sombat Boon-ngam-anong.

The court ruled that:

… protesters complaining about the postponement of general elections cannot be regarded as incitement to public unrest. It also said that the protesters had no intention to defy the ban against public assembly within 150-metres of the Royal palace.

Of course, the charges were always bogus, but the junta’s point was to use “law” for political repression.

Update 2: The Nation reports that there were, in fact, 39 defendants who were acquitted.

What happens after the king’s death?

27 02 2016

As far as we know, the king has not passed. Yet an op-ed at the Nikkei Asian Review, by Tim Johnston of the International Crisis Group reads very much like a “pre-obituary,” assessing what happens next.

It will surely anger the regime and the royalists in Bangkok, even if it does repeat some of their propaganda about the ailing monarch. It is an interpretation that includes much that is debatable. That said, it is useful to look forward at a time that will be politically fragile.

Johnson seems to have read some of the academic papers that have claimed that it is “middle class” that has driven opposition to what he calls the “traditionalist elite.”  We’d point out that several of these papers actually confuse low-income supporters of red shirts and allies with the middle class.

That aside, let’s continue with his story, where he observes that the “contradictions inherent in this modern, middle-class country ruled by a traditionalist elite are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile.” He addresses this issue in the context of monarchy.

Johnston is wrong that “[t]he media were full of daily reports on his condition as the palace took the unprecedented step of inviting the public into its ceremonial hall to sign a book for well-wishers.” The signing of well wishes has been in place for years and the reports in the media were mainly limited to Royal Household Bureau announcements. Yet, he is right that “it is clear his [king’s] health remains in decline.”

Johnston is also wrong to declare that “Thailand has been a sheet anchor of stability in an otherwise turbulent region. The disputes were occasionally bloody, but tended to be tightly focused in Bangkok; although the shock waves often spread out across the country, the unrest had little material effect on ordinary people or investors outside the epicenter.” He’s wrong because it downgrades the impact of years of military dictatorship and American alliance and he’s wrong to ignore the long war in the south and the two decades of countrywide political struggle that revolved around communist insurgency.

He is right that the past 15 years of political conflict “has created the conditions for the sort of class warfare that could suck the nation and the economy even deeper into the mire.”

Johnston is wrong to declare, as if a palace propagandist, that “[f]or years, the king was the bridge that spanned the divisions that emerged. He has not personally intervened in recent disputes beyond giving formal approval to successive governments as they were thrown up by elections or coups, but that has not stopped a variety of players, mostly notably the military, from invoking his name to justify their policies.” This is errant nonsense. Has he not read The King Never Smiles? Has he not read any of the academic literature on the current monarch?

Armed king

He’s also wrong to confuse fact and propaganda about the king’s alleged work and service while ignoring his wealth and power and the impact of palace propaganda, usually taxpayer funded, over many decades.

He is right that “the king and the monarchy are not interchangeable: the man is much more powerful than the institution, and such power is not heritable.”

Johnston may be right that there “will be a vacuum at the heart of a deeply unstable social and political system.” But he can’t have it both ways and say the king isn’t a political player but then have him at the very center of the political system.King and junta

He declares that the “self-appointed defenders of the monarchy, … have an over-riding interest in ensuring that the succession is to their liking, if necessary through the use of force.”

That’s probably true, especially if the draft charter is any guide. Clearly, in that document, the military and the “traditionalist elite” are seeking to establish “independent agencies” to assume the political role played by the king in maintaining an exploitative and conservative social order.

He’s wrong that the junta is a self-appointed defender of the monarchy. These generals have been very close to the palace for many years. That loyalty is what got them to the top.

Johnston is on target when he observes that:

The opposition, cowed but not defeated by the draconian emergency powers the generals have granted themselves, knows it cannot take on the palace, the army and the bureaucracy while that triumvirate can invoke the moral and personal authority of King Bhumibol. Without his mystique, the elite’s forceful defense of a status quo that has repeatedly disenfranchised large swathes of the population risks appearing as naked self-interest.

On the middle class, Johnston notes that the current reign “has seen Thailand become a middle-income nation, with all the implied middle class aspirations for progress. The government’s attempts to force the country to retreat into a sclerotic theme-park version of Thai tradition looks quixotic and baffles those whom it does not anger.”

Yes and no. Much of the middle class is opposed to democratic reform and is supportive of “good people” defined in conservative terms that are as sclerotic as the junta’s view of “real” Thailand.

We also think he’s right to say that:

The king’s death will be followed by a substantial period of mourning, but political tensions will continue to seethe under the surface. How the generals and the bureaucracy handle the inevitable challenges to their power will determine whether Thailand’s post-Bhumibol social contract will be settled by confrontation or negotiation.

He may be right to speculate that the king’s death will trigger a “damaging identity crisis.” For the military,

which is among various institutions to have fetishized the concept of “Thainess,” such an identity crisis could easily look like an existential crisis, inviting an overreaction to criticism that risks ripping the fabric of Thai society in ways that would take years to repair.

We also think he’s right that “millions of ordinary Thais” have “outgrown the political and economic paternalism” of the past. Johnston’s view that “[f]or Thailand to continue to grow socially and economically, the elite needs to relinquish its hold on power and trust ordinary Thais to play an equal role in determining their future as a shared enterprise.”

The question is whether the elite can do that without being pushed and shoved off its trajectory. To be honest, we doubt it. The International Crisis Group should probably expect more crises in Thailand.

A bomb narrative

21 08 2015

The Bangkok Post reports Matthew Wheeler, a Bangkok-based security analyst at the International Crisis Group: “It seems like a conscious effort on the part of the government to present a certain narrative of what has happened…”.

The Post states: “From day one of the blast, senior government officials were constantly referring to suggestions it was related to domestic politics, with the prime minister referring to a possible red-shirt link.”

Ambika Ahuja, Southeast Asia analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group: “Every hypothesis that has been presented has holes and inconsistencies that investigators and analysts are still unable to explain credibly…”.

American security consultant Zachary Abuza: “The junta wants it not to be southern insurgents, because if it is, then they have to do something about it…”.

The Bangkok Post’s bomb history image:


Two border tales

8 12 2011

Readers may be interested on two reports related to Thailand’s borders:

1) The Irrawaddy has a report on the Thai industrial and port development project at Tavoy/Dawei in Burma. PPT has mentioned this Italian-Thai corporation-led development previously, here, here, here and here.

This report is of a visit to the area by a “fact-finding mission” from the Foundation for Ecological Recovery. Beerawat Dheeraprasart, FER’s chairman said “he is worried about the environmental impact of building the massive seaport.”

FER reported “that the Thai Investment Board has offered a substantial sum of money to build the Tavoy Deep Seaport and Industrial Zone.” FER worried about issues of local participation and environmental impact and compared it to the troubled Map Ta Phut Industrial Zone in Rayong, although the Burma project is said to be “eight times bigger than …[Map Ta Phut].”

FER sees the investment in Tavoy as an effort by the Thai investors as an attempt to flee the troubled Map Ta Phut project.

2) The other report is on the violent border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia earlier in 2011 by the International Crisis Group. The report, which also reflects on ASEAN’s role, is titled Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict (the link is to the Executive Summary, from where the PDF of the report can be downloaded).

The ICG argues that the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) used the issue of Cambodia’s attempt to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site “to whip up nationalist sentiments against the subsequent Thaksin [Shinawatra]-back[ed] government and Cambodia in 2008, halting border demarcation and setting off the deadly bilateral confrontation.”

The role of ASEAN is said to break “new ground by deciding to dispatch observers to monitor a conflict between member states.” Well, kind of, for the deployment of border observers has yet to take place, mainly because Thailand’s Army is obdurate, a point noted in the report.

ICG, elections and crisis

11 04 2011

The International Crisis Group has released its latest report on Thailand (Thailand: The Calm Before Another Storm? It’s a 20 page PDF). PPT hasn’t read it yet, but AFP reports on it, saying: “Thailand should allow foreign observers to monitor its upcoming election, which could trigger fresh political violence and mass protests…”. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has already said he opposes this and doesn’t respect farang. He opposes this incursion against Thailand’s sovereignty. Really he just doesn’t want any scrutiny.

ICG responds that “Xenophobic reaction to electoral observation by foreigners is counter-productive…”. The report is correct when it observes that “Thailand has never officially allowed monitors to operate in polling stations during its elections, but the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has been allowed to work in the country during the last two votes.”

The ICG observes that: “Anger or any sense of injustice over how the new government is formed could be the rallying cry for renewed mass protests…. Even if the elections are deemed generally credible, it will be a challenge for all sides to accept the results.”

Red shirt resentment and action

4 10 2010

There’s a useful report on red shirts outside Bangkok in a U.N.-based newsletter that warrants consideration. It does considerable summarizing of already well-known information, and continues the theme of lack of reconciliation by the government as it hunts and arrests red shirts. As the report states, “though many of its leaders have been detained, the Red movement is, in fact, far from over, as community grassroots groups … continue to collect money for the cause and as Reds convene more rallies…”. See some clips of recent events below.

It cites Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group: “Genuine reconciliation can only happen when the government stops suppressing the Red Shirts and allows them to voice their aspirations and grievances through peaceful political channels.” The report continues: “That means restoring electoral democracy and respecting the vote, even if those in power lose.”

One of the surprising aspects of the report is the claim by [m]any Reds” that there was “a utopia completely void of corruption during the Thaksin [Shinawatra] years…”. That may be a rural villager’s perspective on the changes that have taken place post-Thaksin as the military and civil bureaucracies have reinforced their control, and this allows for increased demands on the public for “support.”

As PPT has also pointed out, “there is little awareness on the part of the ruling elites as to how deep-seated change needs to be.” Michael Montesano is quoted: “There are people who get it and are virulently opposed to change, and there are even more people who don’t get it…. I don’t think there’s an understanding in the top rungs of the government that the old tricks just won’t work any more.”

The report also comments on “Red Sundays” partly organized by Sombat Boonngamanong. Some of these are seen in the clips below. Sombat says: “The government can now see that the Red Shirts will not be defeated…”.

PPT is pretty sure that Thai E-News remains pretty much blocked in Thailand. Our recent scan of their posts revealed some recent video gems, which we wish to post here for those interested in current red shirt activism:

The site also includes links to Picassa pages of photos.

On the government’s part, repression and startling claims regarding “terrorism” remain the order of the day. The government’s leading supporter, banned politician and former Thaksin supporter Newin Chidchob has claimed that a former “boss” has put out an assassination contract on him. Newin says the”former boss” – PPT and everyone else assumes he means Thaksin – has put up 20 million baht for the assassination. The claim seems odd given that Newin is often in highly public situations, not least at football games, so he would be a relatively easy target if a professional assassin had really been hired. Maybe he’s been watching Bangkok Dangerous.

PPT notes that claims of assassination plots are legion in recent years, but that the only ones that had any basis appear to be that against Thaksin when he was premier, and another against yellow-shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul. Neither seems to have seen any effort to get the masterminds brought to justice.

This claim by Newin follows hard on the heels of a government report that it has busted a ring of 11 “red shirt” assassins-in-training “at a resort in Chiang Mai in preparation to launch violent acts and political assassinations.” That is convenient given Newin’s accusation. The Post states that the police “acknowledged the arrest but refused to provide details.”

Red shirt leader and parliamentarian Jatuporn Promphan, in the story on Newin, called the the arrest “a birthday gift for Mr Newin.” He added that the arrests and confessions “seemed to be scripted.” He denied all knowledge of the men and suggested that they weren’t red shirts.

At the very least, the claims of terrorists need to be substantiated and more information supplied; usually, it is at this stage that the claims seem to melt into history…. Let’s see if anything happens this time.

Anti-red shirt/pro-yellow shirt

8 07 2010

It has never really been clear why the government didn’t push ahead with earlier allegations against red shirt leaders. But with regime boss Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday saying “a group of red shirts are planning further political activities,” the government is now pushing, trying to crush its opposition.

The public prosecutor has just “indicted four leaders of the UDD on charges of leading red shirts in laying siege to the Si Sao Thewes home of Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda in July 2007. Veera Musikhapong, Natthawut Saikua, Wiputhalaeng Pattanaphumthai and Weng Tojirakan were indicted yesterday in the Criminal Court.” Three others Nopparut Worachitwutthikul, of the 2006 White Pigeon group, Weerasak Hemathilin and Wanchai Naphuttha have also been charged.

Apparently, the prosecutor alleges that the red shirts “violated the rights and liberties of Gen Prem while causing difficulty to people who could not use the roads around his home.”

Meanwhile, yellow shirt sympathisers have mobilized against the ICG report PPT posted on yesterday. While the Bangkok Post seemed to cautiously welcome the report, the yellow-hued 2Bangkok.com editorialized as follows [with PPT comments in brackets]:

“The recommendation of this think tank shows a complete lack of awareness of what the recent and current unrest is related to [We are not at all sure how such a conclusion could be reached, but read on]. It is incredible that the International Crisis Group could issue such a high-handed recommendation without commenting that they realize they are asking the government to completely accede to Thaksin’s goals of elections so budgets and military appointments can be influenced [Aha! Thaksin’s evil plan all along has been to gain control of government via the ballot box. The evil genius stumbled upon such a devious plan and it undercuts the elite’s usual way of ruling via the barrel of a gun, dictatorship and royalist nonsense.]

Even though their recommendations might be perceived as fair [Hmm. Perceived as fair… well, maybe they are! See the Bangkok Post], it seems ridiculous to make this sort of call knowing the government would never give into the Red Shirt’s key demands–especially after the recent turmoil that threatened the authority of the state itself [Can’t have the authority of the state being challenged! That would be mutiny. A bit like the PAD demonstrations and the military’s failure to follow orders]. Any call for elections before November would not “bridge Thailand’s divide” as International Crisis Group suggests, but undoubtedly result in a new coup [Yes, can’t have elections when the election-shy Democrat Party might lose].

Nearly every part of their report has assumptions from a Westernized perspective with very little Thai historical perspective [When in doubt, use jingoism]. For instance: “The ruling royalist establishment cannot unilaterally push forward its “road map” to national reconciliation while simultaneously suppressing the Red Shirts’ dissenting voices.”

In fact, this is exactly the two-pronged approach the Thai establishment has historically used after bloody political upheavals of the past [Now we have Thai-style reconciliation, and it probably has its roots deep in Sukhothai]. Rightly or wrongly, the establishment will be believing that this approach would be the appropriate and customary one for Thai society [We assume the reference is to the 1980s. But look at “historical reconciliation” by the elite post 1932…. Look at the reconciliation with Pridi…. Look at post 1976…. Nonsense really.]

It is usually thought that “think tanks” are commissioned to validate partisan political opinions and stances [PPT does not understand the reference here and in the Thai media about ICG being a “think tank”. That seems a misrepresentation]. However, it is just as likely that the International Crisis Group has no understanding of the background of present Thai events and are simply drawing conclusions based on Western notions of common sense [When in doubt, hit the nationalism button].

ICG on Thailand

6 07 2010

The International Crisis Group has released an important report on Thailand. The media blurb for the report is below. The synopsis is also available.

Bridging Thailand’s Deep Divide

Bangkok/Brussels, 5 July 2010: The Thai government should immediately lift the state of emergency to create conditions for national reconciliation that would allow the building of a new political consensus and the holding of peaceful elections if the country is to return to stability.

Bridging Thailand’s Deep Divide, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, says the protracted tussle between the royalist establishment and those allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has left the country deeply polarised. In April and May it sparked the most violent political confrontations in decades, killing at least 90 people, injuring nearly 2,000 and inflicting deep wounds on the national psyche. Shortly before authorising a violent crackdown on anti-government protestors by the army, the establishment-backed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva unilaterally offered to opposition groups a “roadmap” to national reconciliation. It now persists with this plan despite having created an atmosphere of repression where basic rights of the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” movement are denied by emergency laws.

“There is little prospect that genuine reconciliation will succeed when the offer comes from the same government directly responsible for the recent deadly crackdown on the Red Shirts and their ongoing repression”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “The first gesture that might demonstrate a renewed commitment to building bridges would be to unconditionally and immediately lift the state of emergency”.

Empowered by the emergency decree imposed in 24 provinces – one third of the country – authorities have prohibited Red Shirts’ demonstrations, shut down their media, detained their leaders and banned financial transactions of their alleged financiers. Reconciliation when the government’s partners in resolving this conflict are on the run and denied their political rights is impossible. While the Red Shirts have no opportunity for open and peaceful expression because of draconian laws, their legitimate frustrations are being forced underground and possibly towards illegal and violent actions.

Establishing facts of the recent violence and holding perpetrators of the crimes on all sides accountable is another critical step on the road to reuniting the country. The Independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by former attorney general Kanit na Nakhon should not only seek truth but also initiate prosecutions of those it finds to have committed violent acts. The government’s use of terrorism charges to go after Red Shirt leaders as well as Thaksin is inappropriate for what was mostly a peaceful political movement that did not target civilians. It is also short-sighted as these are the very people that will need to be brought into a national reconciliation process to address the difficult issues facing the country.

In the long run, Thailand needs to think deeply about much broader political reforms of its system of government, laws and constitution, including the role of the monarch and military. Wealth needs to be shared, justice delivered equitably, and power decentralised.

“An election that should be held as soon as possible will be the beginning and not the end of this process”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Only a new government, with the legitimacy of a fresh mandate, if it is accepted by all sides, can move forward with such a complex reform agenda”.

Under pressure on emergency rule

4 07 2010

PPT saw Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in a buoyant mood on Channel 9 on Sunday as he was “interviewed” by tame “journalists.” Abhisit was fronting his ludicrous PR stunt involving a phone in of “ideas,” with callers being received by some politicians, some celebrities and some students in uniform. He said that the emergency decree might be lifted in some areas and maintained in others where red shirts remain active.

In The Nation, however, a range of groups have come out to criticize the government for maintaining emergency rule. Business groups and local and international organisations are said to have “heaped pressure on the government to immediately lift the state of emergency for the sake of national reconciliation and stability…”.

Abhisit disingenuously claims that emergency rule “was still necessary” but “not because the government wanted to squeeze the opposition…”. As PPT has pointed out previously, when under pressure, Abhisit claims that he is acting to preserve the rule of law. In this instance he said the “government just wanted to implement the law effectively…”. In fact, the emergency decree allows the government to act as if it is above the law.

The International Crisis Group is cited as claiming the Abhisit government as having “persisted with this [reconciliation] plan despite having created an atmosphere of repression where the basic rights of the red-shirt group are denied by the emergency law…”. It calls for the government to “unconditionally and immediately lift the state of emergency.”

Local groups have also “denounced the government for retaining the draconian emergency measures even though the situation had calmed down enough to be controlled with regular laws. The groups included the Human Rights and Legal Assistance Centre for those affected from Political Turmoil, Human Rights Lawyers Association, Cross Cultural Foundation, Union for Civil Liberty, Campaign Committee for Human Rights, Environmental Litigation and Advocacy for the Wants, and Deep South Watch.”

They have been joined by business groups that see the state of emergency as crippling for the tourism industry. Even the usually tame Federation of Thai Industries and Thai Chamber of Commerce wanted the emergency law lifted. FTI chair stated that the “emergency law has had a detrimental effect not only on the private sector’s confidence but also on human rights…”.

ICG on Thailand’s deteriorating situation

30 04 2010

Like many other international agencies, the International Crisis Group has been rather too quiet on the conflict in Thailand. Today, however, they have issued a Conflict Risk Alert. Its first paragraph is set to stun:

Bangkok/Brussels, 30 April 2010: The Thai political system has broken down and seems incapable of pulling the country back from the brink of widespread conflict. The stand-off in the streets of Bangkok between the government and Red Shirt protesters is worsening and could deteriorate into an undeclared civil war. The country’s polarisation demands immediate action in the form of assistance from neutral figures from outside. It is time for Thailand to consider help from international friends to avoid a slide into wider violence. Even the most advanced democracies have accepted this.

It adds this useful observation:

While some blame Thaksin for the stand-off, the protests have moved far beyond his control. Many Thais are deeply disillusioned by an elite that denied them the fruits of development for decades and then ousted a government elected mostly by the rural poor. Thailand is a country prone to violence, with a history of bloody insurgencies and authoritarianism – an uncomfortable reality for most Thais to accept.  Violence in Bangkok could spread if there is a crackdown.

While thinks the whole alert is worth reading and pondering, we see the recommendations as being oddly flawed. The ICG’s suggestion of Jose Ramos Horta as an independent figure will cut the mustard given hi strong allegiance to figures in the Democrat Party. The idea of a “national government” is essentially a conservative idea. The call for such a government “led by someone from parliament but should be made up mostly of neutral, respected individuals from across society” is potentially undemocratic. New elections and a new constitution makes more sense.

PPT wonders when the government and its backers will accuse the ICG of being in the pay of Thaksin and/or of ignorance.

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