Media, agents and reporting

20 02 2021

A couple of days ago, PPT posted regarding protest and violence. We were concerned that the single-minded, dare-we-say, middle-class, insistence on non-violence left protesters open to being picked off by the regime. And it has been doing that, seeking to repress. At the same time, we wondered why the state’s violence and its long history of murderous repression is so easily forgotten or dismissed in demanding that protesters behave as angels.

After reading a couple of reports in Khaosod, we are wondering if this kind of reporting-cum-normative demands hasn’t itself been manipulated by the state.

In that earlier post we linked to a video of military/police-looking men in plainclothes who infiltrated the protesters. Khaosod has a story on this which deserves very careful attention. Despite photographic and video evidence, the “police and the defense ministry maintain that they have no knowledge of the men in civilian clothes who were seen assisting security forces during a recent crackdown on demonstrators.” It seems that “assisting” can range from spying, informing, arresting and acting as agents provocateur.

Clipped from Khaosod

Khaosod saw “about 40 men wearing military-styled buzz cuts were deployed alongside the riot police, senior officials have yet to acknowledge who those men were, and what they were doing at the protest.” If the videos are added in, it looks like a larger group than that. The report states that the authorities initially denied their existence. Defense Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Kongcheep Tantravanich flatly denied the military had anything to do with them.

Of course, this has been going on for some time – the regime has been doing it for several months – and it is a tactic used in other countries. But the mainstream media takes little notice.

Then there’s the report that states:

Several journalists who were covering the Feb. 13 rally near the Grand Palace told Khaosod English that officers ordered them to stay behind the police line while they dispersed the protesters. They also said police intervention was the reason why only a few reporters were able to capture the outburst of violence on that night.

“I didn’t see what was happening in the frontline,” said Sirote Klampaiboon, who was covering the protest for Voice TV. “All I could see was there were clouds of smoke behind the police and I heard several bangs. I was only let go when the police managed to take control of the situation.”

A photo widely shared on social media also shows members of the press being confined between rows of riot police facing each other in front of the Supreme Court building – a police tactic known in Western countries as “kettling.”

Despite this, it is the protesters who are harangued by multiple reporters in several op-eds. Interesting “reporting.”





Our first post

21 01 2021

To mark the 12th anniversary of PPT, we thought readers might be interested in our first post from 12 years ago. Nothing much has changed. Back then it was the military-conjured/judiciary aided Abhisit Vejjajiva regime. Now the military controls the regime, with former generals scattered around the executive and the legislative branches of government. It’s a new king, but the military-monarchy alliance is as tight as ever and as as repressive as ever.

Since launching the Political Prisoners in Thailand blog a few days ago, we have added many links regarding the details of pending and convicted and jailed lèse majesté cases,  key documents,  and commentary on lèse majesté and other issues of political repression in Thailand.   We urge you to explore and monitor the various areas of this blog as links will be updated as often as possible.

The Rohinga, the monarchy and the International Criminal Court, The Nation, 26 January 2009: “Rohingya refugee issue needs a holistic approach”

Thai News, 24 January 2009: “Foreigners warned of lese majeste charge leading to serious penalty”

The Senate has resolved to set up an extraordinary committee to strictly enforce laws to better protect the monarchy following an increasing number of websites found to be offensive to the royal institution – Bangkok Post, 24 January 2009: “Better media protection for the monarchy”

The Straits Times, 22 January 2009: “Lese majeste laws ‘a problem’ for Thais”

The current issue of The Economist has been prevented from circulation in Thailand. See The Economist, 22 January 2009,  “The Trouble with Harry”

Check out our historical section in our commentaries (Lèse Majesté and the Monarchy).





Cops, virus and corruption

2 01 2021

In the first round of virus infection, much of it had to do with a super-spreader boxing match sponsored by the Army. As is normal for the military, no one senior was ever held responsible.

During this second round of locally-transmitted virus, it is again corrupt officials who have arranged super-spreading.

Just over a week ago, the Bangkok Post reported:

Rotten to the core

Authorities are closing in on local state officials implicated in the smuggling of illegal migrant workers into Thailand.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Thursday police were verifying the identities of several officials accused of being involved in the smuggling of migrants. The information has been supplied in tip-offs to the government by netizens.

We’ve heard nothing since then.

The recent news has been about casinos. Sadly, Khaosod reported that “the first death associated with the coronavirus since the new wave of outbreak struck a little over a week ago … was a 45-year-old employee of an illegal gambling den in Rayong province…”. Illegal casinos operate because police allow them to operate and profit from the operations, with corrupt funds flowing all the way up the police hierarchy.

Of course, the cops in Rayong “investigated”:

“We inspected this venue following rumors on social media and found no gambling activities,” Rayong City police chief Phatsarut Watcharathonyothin said Sunday. “We believe it is only a warehouse. Rayong City police have always been strict on gambling.”

And it is not just Rayong. It is reported that Chanthaburi’s virus outbreak has links to another illegal casinos. “Investigations” are again underway.

Corruption is not just about the virus. In rolling back the political clock, the regime has rolled back administration, putting officials in positions where they can gobble up corruption money with few impediments. This occurs because of the shift of power from the people to the officials.





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, Intira 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.





Precious asses

19 12 2020

PPT had seen this story a few days ago in a Thai-language newspaper and we were skeptical. Could it be true that the Royal Thai Air Force was to spend over 54 million baht  to refurbish a lavatory on board a VIP aircraft?

Khaosod now reports that this seems true. It reports that the “54.43 million baht project is detailed in a document published on a military-run website earlier this week.”

The air force is reported as saying that the $1.8 million price tag is “reasonable.” The “excuse” is that “it involves sophisticated engineering…”.

Only a pissy $75,000. Clipped from DemotiX

The “golden toilet” is for an RTAF Airbus A340-500 (HS-TYV). It will leap into the ranks of the world’s most expensive loos.

This aircraft was acquired from Thai Airways in 2016 “for a price of reportedly 1.7 billion baht – paid from the state coffers.” It was “converted for use in ‘VVIP’ transport missions and entered into service under the 602 Royal Flight squadron.”

We can guess that this expense might have something to do with a royal bottom needing special care and complex engineering to separate royal excretions from common crap. Or maybe it is just a gift – paid by the taxpayer – for a “valued” consort? We are reminded of the need a few years ago for special potty arrangements that again bled the taxpayer. This was an expensive, temporary, and unnecessary loo for Princess Sirindhorn.

The Khaosod report goes on to list another royal suck on the taxpayer:

Another procurement document shows that the air force also awarded Thai Airways a 750 million baht contract to renovate the interiors of a Boeing 777-800 royal aircraft with the tail number HS-MVS.

Little is known publicly about the details of the project or the aircraft itself, though official records said the twin-engine jet entered into service in 2007 and is under direct command of King Vajiralongkorn’s Deachochai 3 Royal Flight Unit.

This is one of the aircraft that regularly shuttles the king, queen and their entourage around Europe and flits back and forth between Europe and Thailand, depending on where the king is. That’s a lavish fit-out for the taxpayer to fund.

It seems pretty clear that the calls for monarchy reform are not changing the way the military, regime, or royal family siphon funds from the public purse into luxury accoutrements for precious asses.





New VIP aircraft

3 12 2020

Numerous industry reports have the latest VIP aircraft for the Royal Thai Air Force recently arriving in Bangkok.

The Aeronews Facebook page on 27 November reported “THE LAST Airbus #A320ceo built in Toulouse, HS-TYW.” It includes the following photo:

Clipped from Facebook. Photo attributed to Dirk Grothe

Another site has it as an A320-214SL. The Airbus page on this aircraft type is here. The oddity in this is the use of old technology engines:

In December 2010, Airbus announced the re-engined A320neo (new engine option), which entered service with Lufthansa in January 2016. With more efficient turbofans and improvements including sharklets, it offers up to 15% better fuel economy. Earlier A320s are now called A320ceo (current engine option).

We note the photo includes sharklets, so assume that the RTAF ordered a new aircraft with old technology engines.

The aircraft underwent VIP conversion at Lufthansa Technik. We don’t know what the fit-out is for this VIP aircraft, but Airbus provides this video of its general approach to VIP aircraft for corporate customers:

To add to the splendor that must attract generals, admirals, air marshals, and royals, Lufthansa Technik provides another corporate video:

The aircraft’s registration details are here. It arrived in Bangkok-Don Mueang late evening on 27 November 2020.

It joins a fleet of VIP/transport aircraft: two Boeing 737, three Airbus 319/320/340, three ATR 72, 3 Sukhoi Superjet 100, one Super King Air, and four Saab 340.

The cost of the new aircraft is probably US$100 million, with the further expense of VIP fit-out. We recall that this aircraft was in the 2018 budget. This year the RTAF also wanted several other VIP aircraft: “the RTAF hopes to obtain a new VVIP aircraft to transport the country’s royal family, as well as a replacement for a VIP configured ACJ319, and a three new VVIP helicopters.” We also recall that the Army has its own desire for a VIP aircraft.

It’s a great life for some.





Military and their (slave) conscripts

10 11 2020

One of the policies that attracted voters to the Future Forward Party was to get rid of military conscription in peacetime.

Rangsiman Rome of the Move Forward Party has revealed that Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has dumped the “military conscription bill by refusing to endorse it.”

The bill was meant “to create professional armed forces that are smaller but more efficient. The number of recruits will be lower but they will be trained more intensively.”

Of course, as has been pointed out many times, including at PPT, what the military brass wants is no so much conscripts, but slaves. Not that long ago, Wilat Chantarapitak, a former Democrat Party MP and former advisor to a parliamentary anti-corruption committee, said the conscription system is “riddled with corruption because more than half of the conscripts end up as servants in the houses of senior officers or in military cooperative shops.”

The stories of conscripts being flogged, enslaved and exploited are common and several conscripts die in circumstances that the military almost never satisfactorily investigates or explains. Yet, as the Post notes, “[o]ver the past six years, demand for conscripts by the armed forces was on the rise, from 94,480 in 2013 to 104,734 in 2019.”

And, as soon as Rangsiman revealed The Dictator’s move, it was reported, sadly, that another two conscripts “were found dead in their bases in the Northeast.” In one case, the mother of the deceased stated that “he was pinned to the floor while his hair was cut and hit in the back. Chili and salt were put on his back…”. The other reportedly dies in a military prison.

A feudal institution maintains not just its loyalty to a feudal monarch but to feudal (mal)practices.

 





Law as political weapon

31 10 2020

It was only a few days ago that we posted on the ever pliant Election Commission deciding to file criminal charges against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for the time when he was with the Future Forward Party. It no coincidence that the regime believes Thanathorn behind the rallies. In addition, its pretty clear he’s being punished for his questioning of the monarch’s use of taxpayer funds and for posing a challenge to the ruling regime and the ruling class.

The regime’s strategy, managed by Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and the odious Wissanu Krea-ngam is to tie the upstart opposition (and student protesters) into legal knots.

The Thai Enquirer reports on yet another regime move against the former Future Forward and now heading up the Progressive Movement.

The former leaders of the dissolved Future Forward Party – Thanathorn, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, and Pannika Wanichhave – been summoned by police “to hear charges of sedition and other alleged crimes…”. As the newspaper puts it, this is “continuing a judicial campaign against people thought to be behind the current pro-democracy protests.”

Summoning the three is a step taken before issuing arrest warrants.

Piyabutr pointed out the bias and yet more bending of the rules for the regime:

“If the police take off their uniforms and think back to their second year in law school, they would know very well that almost every warrant that was issued [is not a real violation of section 116],” Piyabutr said.

“Thailand is unlucky because these police officers have to throw away everything they learned in order to become part of the government’s mechanism and serve the people in power,” he added.

A Bangkok Post picture

That the judicial system is now a tool for repression is now widely acknowledged – we have been saying it for years – with even the Bangkok Post’s opinion page scribbler Thitinan Pongsudhirak writing:

When Thailand’s justice system issues decisions that have political ramifications, fewer people are holding their breath these days because conclusions are increasingly foregone. In fact, when the historical record comes into fuller view, it will be seen that the politicisation of the judiciary has fundamentally undermined Thailand’s fragile democratic development and reinforced authoritarian rule that has been resurgent over the past 15 years.

He adds something else we have been saying for years:

The lesson is that Thailand’s political party system has been deliberately weakened and kept weak to keep established centres of power in the military, monarchy, judiciary, and bureaucracy paramount and decisive. No democracy can take root until voters have an equal say on how they are to be governed without the usurpation and distortion of party dissolutions and power plays behind the scenes.

The point of the junta’s time in power was to ensure that there was 20 years of non-democracy.





The Economist on King Vajiralongkorn

16 10 2020

The Economist has a timely briefing on the king. With humble apologies to the publisher for taking it in full, but it is very good and deserves to be read by all. Here it is:

Battle royal
Thailand’s king seeks to bring back absolute monarchy
Maha Vajiralongkorn has provoked something new in Thailand: open criticism of a king

THE MONUMENTS disappear in the dark. In April 2017 it was a small bronze plaque from Bangkok’s Royal Plaza. It marked the spot where, in 1932, revolutionaries proclaimed the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy. In December 2018 a statue was hauled away. It commemorated the defeat of rebels who attempted a coup against those same revolutionaries. Last month activists installed a plaque in the heart of Bangkok’s royal district to protest against the missing monuments. “The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king”, it stated. Within a day it was gone.

The world knows Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a playboy who has churned through four wives, lives among lots of women in a German hotel and relishes skimpy crop tops that reveal elaborate temporary tattoos. For Thais, his four-year-old reign has been more sinister.

The king makes elderly advisers crawl before him, shaves the heads of courtiers who displease him and has disowned several of his children. Worse, he has steadily amassed power, taking personal control of “crown property”, assuming direct command of troops and ordering changes to the constitution. He makes no secret of his hankering for the days of absolute monarchy (hence the disappearing monuments). But Thais began to protest in July. Can they prevent the removal not just of plaques, but of constitutional constraints?

On October 14th thousands of protesters marched through central Bangkok to camp outside Government House, where ministers’ offices are located. They also formed human chains to carry away potted plants that blocked the way to the country’s Democracy Monument. Not far away King Vajiralongkorn himself, in the country on a fleeting visit, passed by in a motorcade. Clusters of royalists gathered wearing yellow shirts to show their loyalty to him.

That night a spooked government issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people and prohibiting reporting on topics that could “harm national security” or “cause panic”. The government warned that protesters who insulted the monarchy would be prosecuted. Several prominent leaders of the protest were arrested the following morning. Yet tensions increased as protests continued in defiance of the decree.

Thailand defines itself as a democracy with the king as head of state. The monarchy is revered. Photographs of royals adorn public buildings and private homes. Father’s Day is celebrated on the previous king’s birthday. Thais hear a royal anthem before films start at the cinema.

Technically King Vajiralongkorn rules as a constitutional monarch. But ancient structures have never entirely disappeared. The king used to sit at the apex of society in a semi-divine role. Defenders of the vestiges of this order have long clashed with those claiming to represent an alternative source of authority: the Thai people.

The conflict helps explain why Thailand has endured 12 coups and 20 constitutions since 1932. Since the 1950s a symbiotic relationship between the army and the palace has bolstered the legitimacy of military regimes. For the past two decades the greatest foe of such elites has been Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister ousted by the army in 2006. His supporters, known as red shirts, battled their yellow-shirted foes in the streets on several occasions in the years after he lost power.

The generals engineered a coup in 2014. The commander who led it, Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains prime minister. An army-friendly constitution disadvantaged large parties, such as Mr Thaksin’s flagship one, Pheu Thai, in an election last year.

One supposed reason why the army seized power six years ago was to ensure a steady succession between the ninth and tenth monarchs of the Chakri dynasty. King Vajiralongkorn’s path to the throne was not simple. Thailand’s elites took against him while his popular father still lived. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was considered the richest monarch in the world, his wealth outstripping that of oil-endowed Middle Eastern rulers and Europe’s royals with their castles and palaces.

Aristocratic types fretted because the crown prince, as Vajiralongkorn was previously known, caused so many scandals. Even his mother likened him to Don Juan. After leaving his first wife, a princess in her own right, he disowned four of his five children with his second wife, an actress, who eventually fled Thailand. When the relationship ended with his third wife—once filmed almost naked and crouching before her husband with birthday cake—several of her family members went to prison. The prince spent lavishly and indulged in eccentricity, elevating his beloved poodle, Foo Foo, to the rank of “air chief marshal”.

Still, King Vajiralongkorn took over unimpeded after his father’s death. Whereas the father was publicly loved, the son is privately loathed. His coronation last year attracted tiny crowds compared with those at the late king’s funeral rites. Despite his co-operation with army regimes, millions of Thais felt King Bhumibol displayed the virtues expected of a Buddhist monarch.

King Vajiralongkorn does not even live in Thailand. He rules a country of 70m people from more than 5,000 miles away in Germany. One insider bluntly appraises his activities there: “Bike, fuck, eat. He does only those three things.” The German government finds his presence awkward. “We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil,” the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the Bundestag on October 7th.

Money, money, money

The king’s militaristic harem inspires embarrassing headlines around the world. Just months after his fourth marriage to a former air stewardess last year, he elevated one concubine, a former nurse, to the status of “royal noble consort”. She is the first woman to hold this title since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.

Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi fell from grace soon after her elevation. She disappeared from view. Then, in September, she was reinstated and declared “untainted”. Chinese netizens have likened Ms Sineenat to a crafty concubine from a popular television series, “Empresses in the Palace”.

In March 2012 permission from the Justice Department was published in the Royal Gazette for a temporary prison. A spartan map appears to show its location as possibly within the grounds of a palace owned by Vajiralongkorn. His bad books are a miserable place to be. Pictures allegedly of Srirasmi Suwadee, once his third wife, appeared in a German newspaper last year. Head shaved and tearful, she was reported as being under house arrest.

Airing such dirty linen in public in Thailand, however, is perilous. The country’s lèse-majesté law allows between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. King Vajiralongkorn has instructed the government not to use the law. But this hardly reflects newfound tolerance. Critics instead risk charges for sedition or computer crime, among others. In July one man was sent to a psychiatric hospital for wearing a T-shirt that stated: “I have lost all faith in the institution of monarchy”.

Playboy antics distract from the more sinister feats of the monarch since he came to power. In political, financial and military matters King Vajiralongkorn has gained powers never possessed by his father. His interventions appear part of a larger strategy to push Thailand closer to absolute monarchy once more.

Take his finances. In 2017 he gained full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages royal investments (it was previously run by the ministry of finance). Its holdings are estimated to be worth $40bn. In 2018 the CPB declared that its assets would be considered the king’s personal property. As a result the monarch has stakes in some of Thailand’s corporate titans. He is the largest shareholder in Siam Cement Group, a conglomerate with revenues of almost $14bn in 2019, with a third of its shares. The head of the CPB, long a stalwart in the king’s circles, is a director of Siam Cement Group and of the 113-year-old Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s biggest, in which the king also has a stake.

In addition to the king’s private means, the Thai state showers the royal family with funds. For the 2021 fiscal year government agencies have drawn up budgets which allocate more than 37bn baht—over $1.1bn—to the monarchy. The Royal Office will receive 9bn baht of that directly. Much of the rest goes to government agencies, the police and the defence ministry for security and for development projects. By comparison, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth cost her taxpayers the equivalent of $87m last year. Precise details on where the money goes are elusive. Huge sums go to pay for royal transport alone (there are many planes and helicopters to maintain).

King Vajiralongkorn’s political interventions are another demonstration of his growing authority. In theory the monarch sits above parties, parliament and politics. But after a referendum in 2016, in which campaigners were banned from opposing the constitution put forward for approval, the monarch demanded changes to the charter. He altered it specifically to make ruling from afar easier.

He meddled even more audaciously ahead of last year’s parliamentary election. Mr Thaksin persuaded the king’s older sister to run as a putative prime ministerial candidate for a party with links to him. But the crown in effect came to the rescue of Mr Thaksin’s military foes. The monarch declared his sister’s ambitions “unconstitutional”. He also stated that royals should stay out of politics—yet the night before the election, he urged Thais to vote for “good people”, which was taken as an endorsement of Mr Prayuth and his allies.

Tomorrow belongs to me

This is just one example of how the palace and the barracks have continued to support each other since King Vajiralongkorn came to the throne. The king has a deep interest in military matters. Trained in an Australian academy, he holds the titles of admiral, field-marshal and air-marshal. The queen is a general and Ms Sineenat a major-general. The king has drawn military forces to his direct command. The Royal Command Guard has been created with some 5,000 soldiers. They are stationed in Bangkok, while other important army units, including an infantry regiment and a cavalry battalion which have facilitated past coups, have been moved out of the city. Overthrowing any government without advance co-ordination with royal troops would prove extremely difficult.

Why has the army permitted such manoeuvres? Defence of the monarchy is one of its central reasons for existing. Both the powerful army commander who retired in September, and his replacement, are deeply loyal to the king. They also rose through the ranks of the King’s Guard, in which Vajiralongkorn himself once served. Mr Prayuth and his closest allies, by contrast, emerged from the Queen’s Guard within the Second Infantry Division.

The prime minister can hardly counter the monarch’s power grabs. He depends on the king’s support for a semblance of legitimacy. Whereas the middle and upper classes of many countries contain democratic champions, those of Thailand “have never needed mass support to advance or protect their interests”, explains James Wise, a former Australian ambassador to Thailand, in his book “Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law”. These conservatives would not stand for an army-linked prime minister rebuffing the royal institution.

Mr Prayuth is also weak: he wrestles even with his allies in the ruling coalition and lacks personal popularity. That hinders his ability to tackle the difficulties Thailand faces. Growth was slowing even before the coronavirus pandemic struck (see chart). Now the central bank expects the economy to contract by more than 8% this year—worse than the crash in the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Why should I wake up?

A very few opposition politicians have resisted King Vajiralongkorn’s growing control. In October most MPs from the liberal Future Forward Party, founded in 2018, opposed an executive decree in the lower house of parliament. The decree, which passed anyway, facilitated the partial transfer of army units and related budgetary allocations to the Royal Command Guard. Even so, it was the first time that lawmakers had ever opposed a legal procedure linked to the monarchy.

Future Forward no longer exists. Its platform in favour of democratic freedoms and army reform, as well as the popularity of its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, made it a threat to the establishment. The outfit grew from nothing to become the country’s third-largest party in parliament in little more than a year. Legal cases against the institution and its leadership started to mount. In November Mr Thanathorn was stripped of his status as an MP. In February the party was dissolved by the constitutional court and its executives banned from politics for a decade. The judges decided that a loan Mr Thanathorn gave the party was an illegal breach of individual-donation limits.

Flash mobs mounted protests, though social-distancing measures soon put an end to them. The lull was temporary. Social media have provided an outlet for audacious criticisms. So widespread was moaning over the traffic jams caused by royal motorcades, for example, that in January the king instructed police not to close entire roads for travelling royals.

Other grumbles could not so easily be sorted. In August, after legal threats from the Thai government, Facebook blocked access from Thailand to a 1m-member group criticising the monarchy. “Requests like this are severe, contravene international-human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” the firm stated. It is preparing to mount a legal challenge.

Popular anger has moved from screens to streets. Since July protesters have gathered to call for the dissolution of the government, reform of the constitution and an end to the harassment of opposition activists. Students’ demonstrations inspired a wider swathe of Thais to march, too. Their efforts mark an evolution from the feud between red shirts and yellow shirts. New battle lines are over democratic freedoms.

Maybe this time

The boldest protesters have called openly for reform of the monarchy. They object to the king’s financial set-up and his consolidation of military power. Mr Thanathorn has also called for transparency about how state funds are spent on the monarchy.

The situation grew more serious as the protests swelled in size. The great fear is that the bloody treatment of student protesters in the 1970s will be repeated. In 1976 police, army and vigilante groups attacked students after they staged a mock hanging in protest against the killing of two pro-democracy activists. A story spread among royalists that the figure hanged resembled Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. According to official figures, 46 students died and more than 3,000 were arrested.

So far the authorities have arrested a few dozen protest leaders. The government had claimed it wanted to talk to students about their grievances. “Having a peaceful and civil dialogue where we exchange our views is the best approach for moving forward,” said the education minister. However, this week the establishment ran out of patience. If the prime minister cannot bring calm he may be replaced. Any drastic intervention is unlikely, however, without the monarch’s foreknowledge.

But King Vajiralongkorn’s clout has come at a price: open criticism of the monarchy. “The ghost is out of the bottle and you won’t get it back again,” reckons one diplomat in Bangkok. The more brazen the king’s moves towards a more absolute form of rule, the more forceful the criticism. “We are trying to bring the king and monarchy under the constitution,” explains one teenage protester. “We aren’t trying to bring them down.” King Vajiralongkorn’s actions could determine whether Thailand continues to revere royalty, or starts to revile it.





Remembering 6 October after 44 years

6 10 2020

44 years after the massacre at Thammasat University, Thailand remains under a under a military-backed regime, under an emergency decree and with a monarch who cut his political teeth in the aftermath of this terrible event.

The 6 October 1976 attack on students and supporters by rightist and royalist vigilantes was supported and promoted by elements in the police, military and in the palace. The then king was pleased with the outcome.

Each year we post on this day, remembering those who were murdered, burned alive, raped and beaten. Some of our previous posts: 2018, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.6 Oct

This year we link to just a few of the stories that are available: