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A climate of fear in Thailand

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

The Thai military has claimed that the coup it staged May 22 was needed to restore peace and order in the country. In reality, the military intervention has restored neither peace nor order. Instead, what has come to replace the political uncertainty is a climate of fear.

The governing body of the junta — the National Council for Peace and Order — has committed gross human rights violations. It has issued a series of orders, summoning hundreds of people from various backgrounds, including those close to the deposed government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and those critical of the coup makers.

Politicians, political activists, media personalities as well as members of civil society organizations have been summoned to appear before the authorities for no apparent reason. They can be detained for up to seven days. Some have been released and some have been charged with various wrongdoings. They all had to go through the military court without lawyers to represent them.

For the first time in a long while, academics have been summoned by the junta too. Known critics of the government or politics have been harassed and detained. Those released were forced to sign a contract affirming that they would not participate in political activities or publicize their political opinions again. Some academics have left Thailand for fear of imprisonment.

My name is on the list of those wanted by the junta. Since the coup, I have been critical of the army. I rejected the legitimacy of the coup and have refused to report to the military. I will not take orders from despots. Consequently, on June 13, an arrest warrant was issued for me. I am now officially a fugitive.

The argument that the military intends to transform Thai politics into something more democratic is absurd. Indeed, the junta has no plan to return power to the Thai people anytime soon. Holding an election is not a priority for the junta. Staying in power to oversee the imminent royal succession is the army’s ultimate goal.

Fear of a power vacuum occurring as a result of the royal succession drove the military to stage its coup. Military leaders have schemed to take control of the royal transition to maintain their power interests when King Bhumibol Adulyadej passes from the scene.

The enemy of the military has long been former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of recently overthrown Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Should the Shinawatras manage to further dominate electoral politics, the military fears it could lose its fortunes and benefits.

Therefore, this coup is not only about the looming royal succession but also about eliminating pro-Thaksin elements, once and for all.

The elimination began with calls for top leaders of the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai Party to be summoned before the junta. As most refused to surrender, arrest warrants were issued for them, hence guaranteeing at least two years’ imprisonment for them.

The army has also targeted supporters of the Shinawatra family in the “red shirt” movement. Crackdowns on the red shirt networks are ongoing, but their stories have not been told in the mainstream media.

It is reported that the army has sent its troops to the far-flung north and northeast regions — known to be pro-Thaksin strongholds — to harass, detain and charge members of the red shirt movement. Some have been kidnapped and some have disappeared.

Psychological warfare has been waged against the red shirts. Red shirt villages, established in the aftermath of the last coup of 2006, have been forced to close down and red flags burned. Almost overnight, the color red is missing from these once anti-coup villages.

One of the most powerful tools in undermining political opponents has been the lese-majeste law, which stipulates that anyone committing defamatory or insulting acts against the king, queen or heir apparent could be sentenced to three to 15 years in prison.

Under this precarious situation where the only justice is the martial court, cases of lese-majeste almost guarantee a lengthy jail term.

It is true that there is an anti-monarchy element in the red shirts. After all, some have come to the realization that the monarchy has long actively participated in politics despite the limits of its role stipulated in the constitution.

The last two coups were evidently endorsed by the king. Resentment of this endorsement among some red shirt members could explain the rise of anti-monarchy sentiment.

Using lese-majeste law to silence critics is convenient. Yet it can be dangerous too, not just to the state of human rights in Thailand but also to the position of the monarchy itself.

Already some Thai hyper-royalists living in the United Kingdom have embarked on a hunt for a fellow Thai — a British citizen — who goes by the name “Rose.” She has broken the taboo against criticizing the Thai royal family. Rose has made video clips cursing the Thai monarchy, thus enraging royalists in Thailand to the point that some of them seem willing to kill her in the name of protecting their beloved king.

Rose has recently been harassed by two Thais. A royalist lady went to her house with a dozen eggs, hoping to throw them at Rose if she was there. But she didn’t know that Rose had long moved out of her home in West London.

In another case, a Thai man carrying a fake gun also paid a visit to her old house and vandalized the property by painting a Thai flag on the door. Both cases demonstrate the extent to which Thai hyper-royalists will go.

The coup of 2014 has intensified a degree of hyper-royalism. Both inside and outside Thailand, the army has striven to politicize the monarchy to legitimize its existence. I am lucky to be living in Japan, where my basic rights are protected. Other Thais are not so fortunate, and have their rights restricted by the heavy-handed policy of the Thai junta.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

  • commenter8

    Thaksin’s regime was responsible for 2,800 extrajudicial executions. General Prayuth is doing a root canal on Thailand to uproot the criminal Thaksin regime which had only contempt for human rights and was incredibly corrupt as well. Prayuth is using chemotherapy against the malignant cancer called Thaksin Shinawatra. His good treatment will restore Thailand to good health and happiness.

  • boonteetan

    No matter what military does to pacify the people after the coup, an element of oppressiveness remains. Meanwhile bombings and killings continue in restive South Thailand, one wonders if any leader cares.