Thailand’s military regime continues to tighten its grip

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Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has commented on the need to remove ‘human garbage from the country’. Abhisit Vejjajiva, Flickr.CC BY 2.0

by James L. Taylor

It was on a normal workday on Tuesday 2 February at around 11 am at the studio of Peace TV - a Red Shirt-affiliated television station where the suppressed UDD (United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan works as a host, when soldiers suddenly appeared and took him away for ‘questioning’. He was released at around 4 pm.

This is one of many such tactics of coercion and intimidation that are common under a despotic regime, but the stakes are high given the matter of the royal succession after the imminent passing of the 88-year Thai monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Coupled with these concerns, increased censorship, surveillance, use of interim military laws and ‘single gateway’ tactics to control websites all work to create new dangers for individuals and groups seeking unbiased information.

A nationalist comparison to contemporary Thailand was the repression, murder and atrocities against opposition committed by the authorities (and sanctioned by the church) in pre-war fascist Spain. This was the notion of a limpieza (cleansing). The term ‘cleansing’ is used frequently by the Thai military and compatriot ultraroyalists against those perceived to be in opposition and, even worse, anti-monarchy, which is frequently and perversely linked to any activities deemed to be opposed to authoritarian rule.

Cleansing politics

The term is also used in the sense to ‘cleanse’ politics, or ‘cleanse’ corruption, despite some of the worst corruption abuses noted under the current ruling junta. This notion of ‘purification’ was noticeable in regard to opposition to the monarchy with the underhand ‘Rubbish Collection Organisation’, led by Major-General Rientong Nan-nah. In 2014, Rientong remarked that he would ‘work to find and hurt those who insult the monarchy’ and that he would ‘exterminate’ any anti-royalists. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has similarly commented on the need to ‘remove the human garbage from the country’.

Taking people who are perceived as a threat away by force, at any time or place, is done under the military’s ‘attitude adjustment’ program and the extensive use of section 44 of the 2014 interim Thai Constitution, which was used to replace martial law lifted on 1 April 2015. According to iLaw (Internet Dialogue on Law Reform), which bravely tries to follow and document such cases, section 44 has been a ‘beneficial tool’ used by Prayut more than 50 times since the 2014 military coup, ‘and increasingly so since the middle of last year …’

iLaw notes that by the end of 2015, under Prayut’s National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta calls itself, at least 829 persons were summoned to report for ‘attitude adjustment’ or visited by the military at home or work; 506 people arrested; 62 people charged with Article 112 (lèse majesté); 35 people charged with sedition under computer crimes, and 155 people tried at a military court. The even greater harshness of many recent Article 112 cases has been because these were dealt with under the military courts. This explains why 2015 was something of a record year for Article 112 cases, charges and allegations.

In the Jatuporn incident mentioned above, he was taken away simply because he had raised concerns about the undemocratic nature of the 270-article, 95-page draft constitution and, along with others, called for a boycott of the referendum expected in July 2016.

The draft has ironically even been criticised among many Yellow Shirt ultraroyalists, those who had cheered the military into power in the first place. In fact, the nomination of Prayut as chief coup-maker was always supposed to be an interim event in a compact between military and royalist Yellow Shirts. But for many Yellow Shirts he has clearly overextended his given authority and has not cleared the ground as anticipated for the royalist Democrat Party to come back in.

Put simply, the situation is a mess and one reason why the Red Shirt opposition waits as the game plays out among the competing ultraroyalist interests. Prayut could be seeking a way out, or a continued stay in power, inspired no doubt by Myanmar’s former dictator Than Shwe, who was also criticised for violence and human rights abuses. But as we see Myanmar now moving cautiously forward, Thailand bounds back in time.

The draft constitution also protects the military for any past coup, postcoups and, of course, after the generals bow out from the damage caused to the nation–state. Increased power is to be effective through the Constitutional Court, known for its unabashed and blatant partiality, and the ironically named ‘Independent Bodies’.

The Constitutional Court will run the country and have in a sense the same power as the monarchy. There will be a (purposely) weak and enfeebled government, stacked with non-elected members of parliament, ultraroyalist and antidemocratic-appointed senators. Indeed, the unelected senators will be able to petition the Constitutional Court at any time to sack an elected government.

The Constitutional Court is controlled by military–royal elites, all out of touch with class contradictions and notions of freedom, rights and justice in contemporary Thailand. In fact, the increased powers for the court, and for other ‘independent bodies’, are a means by which the establishment royalists can maintain their control and power over the masses at a time of increased dwindling of royal power and monarchy charisma.

The future for Thailand without democracy and in the diminishing aura of monarchical rule will be unabashed authoritarianism under the rule of the generals, though still seeking legitimacy on the residual charisma of royal symbolism. The only way to reduce the power of the generals is to keep them in the barracks, reduce their weaponry and sever their endless money train, as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried to do - and we know what happened to him.

There are many concerns in the new draft, which clearly intend to take Thailand back to a period of complete monarchy–military control, small parties, coalition building and busting, unelected premiers and brazen vote-buying. The royalist–military regime want to discredit the popularly elected politicians by any means at their disposal (usually through the courts) and create an atmosphere of mistrust, so that the people turn to them instead, exulting in their reverence and paternalistic moralism. This is all undertaken to prevent a popularly elected government from ever gaining power again. They perceive that this would take the esteem, power and authority away from the monarchy regime and military lackeys and expose decades of political interference.

Thaksin issue

It is clear that there will be no resolution to the entrenched social, economic and political divide or discord in Thailand until the ‘Thaksin issue’ is resolved and dealt with fairly, and the negative and blatant propaganda revealed for its intent, cunning and purpose. It seems that history will need a corrective of sorts sooner or later.

It is hard to imagine Thailand - despite increased awareness of its institutionalised repression and injustice - as revolutionary, or based on anything tangible, other than an ideology of utopianism. There is an increased awareness of class and inequality, especially since Thaksin’s time, but no radical consciousness among those entrapped in a persisting patron–client system and its complex social arrangements.

As long as there are still fish in the ponds and rice in the fields (as the saying goes) Thais on the whole will remain complacent and begrudgingly accepting of the status quo. The desire for change, when the masses have no work or food, implies a spontaneous response to repression and injustice.

The opposition has no opportunity, nor the wherewithal to engage in counterpropaganda work as all channels have been closed to them, starting with the local radio stations after the May 2010 crackdown to the current media censorship. But there are many Red Shirt Thais living abroad who are able to access ‘rhizomatic’ internet sites and social networks. In the Thai metropolis and elsewhere many well-off middle class Thais prefer to see, hear or say nothing. Life goes on, simply because for them it must go on much the same as it always has.

The democratic future for Thailand is in the hands of the masses. The Thai people elected a government of their choice four times (including Thaksin’s second election in April 2006), to be denied each time by the establishment royalist regime (amaat) using the royal power imbued in the Constitutional Court to dismiss the elected politicians. How the country will overcome its present crisis depends on understanding and awareness to these problems, but it is unlikely to bode well in such a deeply divided society.