Another day, another squeeze on Thailand’s freedom

EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (C) receives flowers from supporters as she leaves after a hearing on criminal charges stemming from her government’s rice price subsidy, at the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions in Bangkok, Thailand, 19 May 2015. 

When Thailand’s generals seized power in Bangkok in May 2014, the world was rightly concerned that the overthrow of elected leader Yingluck Shinawatra would herald a period of repression.


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The European Union suspended partnership agreements, while US Secretary of State John Kerry hardly minced his words, declaring “no justification” for the coup while announcing a review of US military assistance. Both Brussels and Washington made clear that their course of action depends firmly on the junta’s attitude towards Thai democracy and fundamental freedoms.

A year on and no further international action has been taken. And yet during the same period, Thailand’s self-appointed ruler General Prayuth Chan-ocha has embarked on a systematic campaign to stifle any possible dissent by squeezing and removing basic freedoms. The country’s democracy is being steadily eroded, while restrictions and anxiety now permeate many aspects of Thai life. As the country’s democratic lifeblood is strangled ever tighter, the international community must now match its initial concerns with concerted action.

General Prayuth and his cronies are simply running amok on liberty. Restrictions are imposed with consistent regularity. This week’s target was freedom of speech, with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand forced to cancel a debate on the country’s lese majeste law, or face possible military intervention.

The law itself, designed to protect the country’s revered monarchy from insult has been applied ruthlessly since Prayuth seized power.

While just two royal defamation cases were under investigation before the coup, at least 46 are now ongoing. By intimidating foreign journalists, the junta has this week decreed that even discussion of the laws themselves is off limits. Of course, the clearly conveyed wider and insidious message, is that the media must tow the military line to the letter.    

And in the darkest traditions of dictatorship, the regime’s opponents are specifically targeted by such restrictions, as a warning to others who might threaten their power. During a recent interview with a South Korean publication, Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother and former-Prime Minister Thaksin suggested that privy councillors may have supported last year’s coup.

He was promptly accused of having violated the lese majeste law, endangering “national security and dignity.” He has since had his passport revoked and could be sentenced to prison. The derisory allegations against Thaksin also conveniently opened the door for an investigation into Yingluck, for unlawfully reinstating Thaksin’s passport during her time as prime minister in 2011. The legislation designed to protect the dignity of Thailand’s most powerful symbol is being crudely wielded by the Bangkok military to silence its most potent opponents.

Thaksin or Yinglick have triumphed in each of Thailand’s elections since 2001 and the Shinawatra-led Pheu Thai Party polled almost 50 per cent in 2011.

In fact, Prauyuth’s abuse of Thailand’s hallowed institutions for his own self-seeking ends knows no bounds. He is currently attempting to fashion a new constitution.

While the old version enshrined democracy and the rule of law, Prayuth’s new charter will render his own power untouchable.

One of its clauses would see Thailand’s upper house of parliament, the 200-seat Senate entirely selected by a junta-controlled council. Another would hand an unelected official prime ministerial powers in times of ‘crisis.’

The despotic implications barely need spelling out. Although if any elaboration were required, 250 Pheu Thai MPs were shamefully accused of unlawfully attempting to amend the constitution. Their alleged offence? Insistence that the Senate should be elected by the people.

However, perhaps the most worrying constitutional measure of all was the replacement in March of martial law with Article 44. It is not for no reason that this constitutional clause is known as the ‘dictator’s law.’

It grants Prayuth limitless, absolute power over most aspects of government, law and order. He has of course promised that his omnipotence is solely in the interests of ‘security.’

The introduction of Article 44 has sparked the concern of human rights groups. But at what point will the international community sit up and take note? Perhaps the long-promised elections will be a watershed moment? After all, we can safely assume that the Shinawatras will be excluded from a vote, essentially depriving around half the population of representation.

That is of course, if an election ever takes place. Prayuth recently announced that the vote, which had been slated for early 2016 has been pushed back to August or September “at the earliest.”

And in the meantime, the repression of military rule impacts Thai life in any number of ways. One of the first measures introduced by the junta was a ban on political gatherings of more than five people.

When protesting students organised a “sandwich party” on a university campus, they were arrested on the kind of charges only an autocratic regime can concoct, the ludicrous crime of “eating sandwiches with political intent.” Ominously, at the same time, Thailand’s schoolchildren face the task of having to regularly recite Prayuth’s “12 core values of the Thai people.” The scene is being set for a society ruled by a mixture of fear and the gradual imposition of reverence for its all-powerful leader. It is the kind of society the West long left behind.And yet, this doomsday prospect can still be prevented. Falling exports and a dip in global prices for rice and rubber have contributed to sluggish economic growth which is failing to meet the junta’s expectations. In the short-term, a drought threatens rice productivity and in the long-term, an aging society means that Thailand faces myriad economic challenges on the horizon.

No wonder General Prayuth recently travelled to Singapore to court business.  And while Asia will always be a major business destination for Thailand, the United States remains its second largest trading partner, the European Union its third. Consequently, both Washington and Brussels are perfectly placed to send a clear message to Bangkok – Continued repression will have serious financial consequences and only democracy can breed economic success. The time has come for the world to find a clear voice before it is too late.

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