Thailand in 2015: Some personal thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 24, 2015 A definitively incomplete look back at a year in 2015 where few things made headlines for the right reasons.

FOR the second time since its most recent assumption of powers, the Thai military junta has presented its annual government performance to the general public. This was the opportunity for the cabinet of junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha to show what it actually has achieved in its first full year ruling over Thailand. But for some reason, it has cut the schedule down from three days last year to just one day today.

This is also the fifth time that I’m writing a year-in-review ever since I started covering Thai politics. This is the opportunity for me to reflect and comment on the developments in the political sphere in order to help the general public understand what the hell is actually going on in the circles of power. But for some very specific reason, this year’s exercise is an exceptionally frustrating one.

Last year, I wrote about the metaphorical arsonists that have caused the death of Thai democracy as we knew it and those complicit in it. The latter have now been largely sidelined since then, as well as their political enemies.

If 2014 marked the watershed moment in Thai history, 2015 was largely a continuation of the season of infamy.

The Thai military government - with all its doublespeak about their so-called "roadmap” back to democracy, its nonchalance about the blurred lines between military and government, its incredibly tone-deaf verbosities and compulsive loquaciousness, its "attitude adjusting" detainments and ultimately its blunt threats against those daring to oppose or those just simply doing their jobs - has put this country in a petulant state of revertigo, a dizzying regression to old behaviors triggered by something in the past, or at least what should be in the past. Or to put it in the words of a Thai education official, a "360 degree turn".

The junta's reimagineering of the political landscape, in which the powers of elected officials will be severely restricted or otherwise affected by outside intervention, was both dead on arrival and on schedule at the same time: on one hand, the junta was mulling over a referendum on the next constitutional draft, but also delaying the possible election date, which was initially set for late 2015, but kept getting pushed back further and further. The next possible date for new polls has now been pushed even further at mid-2017, since the draft was rejected by the junta-appointed legislative and the whole process started anew. And that on the other hand just simply extended the junta’s rule, as it claims that it will definitely hand back power in 2017 - unless they decide otherwise.

It seems that almost nothing can dampen the junta’s rule: not the still-sagging economy, not the ongoing cases of slavery in the fishing industry, its poor handling of refugees (if they were not deporting them back), or the air traffic security downgrade. Not even the bomb attack on August 22 at Bangkok's busy Erawan shrine that killed 20 and injured over 100 people has shaken the generals too much, as it has self-congratulatorily declared the case closed after a shambolically contradicting investigation. Just don’t call it an act of terrorism.

Other "achievements” by this government would be too long to list all of them here (as well as PM Gen. Prayuth’s almost daily sardonic hissy fits), in a year where very few things indicated progress and even fewer cases where common sense has prevailed, such as the tiny advancements in LGBTI rights and the dismissal in the libel case against the Phuketwan journalists.

The ongoing rule of the military junta also unsurprisingly signals the ongoing regression of human rights and freedom of speech, as dissidents are detained in what officials euphemistically call "attitude adjustment” and assemblies are outlawed (unless you are an ultra-nationalist protesting against the US embassy). Political parties across the spectrum have been rendered irrelevant, either unable and unwilling to engage in the current political climate, leaving the field to a very few but brave student activists.

Lèse majesté has reached its lowest point yet in 2015, as both criminal and military courts have handed out record sentences and arbitrarily extended the definition of the draconian law, from vague allusions in university theater productions to sharing Facebook posts mocking the King’s dog.

The military government has also extended its front lines online as well. The new proposed Cyber Laws aim to create the foundations for "digital economy”, but also enable widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (just on Wednesday the alternative news website Prachatai lost its appeal) and more legal uncertainty, benefiting the state more than Thai online users.

Compared to that the junta’s plans to bottleneck internet traffic through a "single gateway” to filter unwanted content was just the icing on the cake - and something that sparked a rare display of civil disobedience, as online activists crashed government websites, sending officials scrambling for an appropriate response. While the government states it isn’t pursuing those plans any more, one shouldn’t be surprised if the single gateway and other means to control the narrative online will pop up next year.

But that is a losing battle and no other case has proven it more than the Rajabhakti Park corruption scandal. What was initially planned as yet another big display of the military’s loyalty to the monarchy worth around 1 billion Baht ($28 million) has descended into a massive headache for the junta, as military officers are accused of receiving kickbacks and suspects in similar cases have died in custody. The junta has so far responded in the only way it can: by detaining critics and crying conspiracy.

What this and the year as a whole shows is that the assumption of control by the Thai military junta remains a textbook definition of an assumption - one without proof or legitimacy that will be constantly challenged. The junta is obviously playing the long game sitting comfortably at the helm for the foreseeable future in one form or another, it is mounting a battle of attrition for its opponents.

For me personally, it is a battle against cynicism. The actions by those in power are self-evident and predictable, yet stupendously brazen and unashamedly blatant in their execution - in that regard that is pretty much the status quo for Thai politics in general regardless of what era we are talking about. But wouldn’t that be the lazy way to explain all this and then leave the foreseeable future to be damned like this? Wouldn’t it be cynical?

I honestly don’t know any more, because my articles over the past five years have chronicled the systematic failure of the Thai political discourse by nearly all involved, hence it is no surprise how we got here where we are now. And it still seems that we haven't reached the worst yet. But how many more years are we gonna be trapped in this repeating state of revertigo and how will this cycle be broken? The answers to the question may already have been given multiple times along the way, but amidst this constant regression in Thailand, how many more times do they have to be repeated?