Thai Elections 2014

Thailand in 2014: Some personal thoughts

Originally published on Siam Voices on December 30, 2014 Looking back in the past 12 months in Thailand I’m reminded of the 'The Fire Raisers' ('Biedermann und die Brandstifter'). The play written by Swiss author Max Frisch in 1953 is set in a town regularly attacked by arsonists who talk their way into their victims’ homes to set off the fires.

The central character is a moralistic businessman who pledges not to be taken in by them, only to have the very same arsonists coercing themselves into his home and filling his attic with oil drums. Refusing to believe until the very end that his ”guests” are actually the arsonists - despite being always openly blunt about their intentions - the businessman in the end even gives them the matches to set the fire, actively becoming an accomplice to the crime and the demise of himself and the entire town.

So, in the parable that was Thailand in the year 2014, who were the fire raisers and who the arsonists?

The anti-government protests that ended 2013 continued and gathered pace in 2014. Be it their prolonged blockades of the streets of Bangkok, the harassment or open assault on members of the media or the obstruction of fellow Thais from exercising their democratic right to vote in the February 2 elections, with each passing week it became more clearer the the people behind the protests didn't want more democracy, but less of it.

The protesters themselves - spectating in the thousands, blowing whistles in the ten of thousands and taking selfies in the millions - may not be the villains, yet they were dangerously confusing naive idealism for misplaced fear of the political forces they were protesting against, while missing the bigger threat looming in the shadows.

And they even helped measuring the fuse, not (willingly) knowing for what.

Nevertheless, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban and almost the entire former leadership of the absolutely misnamed ”Democrat” Party, the daily delusions of grandeur, the political weaponization of the Thai flag and the spurious claims of righteousness and a self-proclaimed moral high ground enabled the complete disruption of any reasonable political discourse.

And the attic was stacked to the brim with petrol drums.

The so-called "independent" agencies also did their part  - such as the reluctant Election Commission and the Constitutional Court - annulling the successfully sabotaged February 2 elections and eventually chasing then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office. With the man-made political impasse in place, Thailand’s military was free to launch the coup of May 22, 2014.

We have already extensively discussed in our week-long special last month about what has happened to Thailand under the military junta after the 12th coup in Thailand's history and will continue to do so going forward.

But it still bears repeating: The rule of the military junta led by former army chief and now-Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha is both tight- and ham-fisted in its sovereignty, both overzealous and insecure in its confidence, and both clear and vague in its intentions. The deep re-imagineering of the country, its political system, its teaching and its "myths" will irreconcilably scar Thailand for years to come and an end is not in sight, as the junta can conveniently move its goal posts (i.e. until new elections) indefinitely.

If this year were a play then we’ve been in the afterpiece for quite some time and still don’t know when it will end. But the afterpiece also reflects on what has been before.

A year ago, both The Nation and the Bangkok Post crowned the anti-government protesters as 'People of the Year' - only then to see that they were in fact anti-democracy protests. It was political blindness to a possible transformation, complacency to adapt to another reality and sheer intellectual failure to face a new tomorrow. It was that well-maintained ignorance that eventually culminated in the death of Thai democracy as we know it.

And they handed them the matches in blind faith.

With martial law still in effect and critics and dissidents being silenced, the whistle mob of last year has gone quiet, either silently enjoying their ”victory” - Suthep, who has admitted that it was planned all along, is now practically in political refuge as a monk - or slowly realizing that the cost of said "victory" was too high.

2014 was a bad year for Thailand and hardly anything points to any improvement in 2015. Is that assessment bleak? Absolutely. A little bit too cynical? Perhaps. But what the protests, the coup and the rule of the military junta shows is that a change is in progress in Thailand, it has just been halted yet again by a few not able to see that yet - or as one of the arsonists in 'The Fire Raisers' put it:

Jest is the third best disguise. The second best: sentimentality. (...) But the best and most safe disguise is still the blunt and naked truth. Oddly enough. Nobody believes that!

Thailand junta reactivates 'cyber scout' program to curb online dissent

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2014 In late 2010, the Thai Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) launched the so-called 'cyber scout' program aimed to recruit students and young people to monitor online content that could be deemed potentially offensive, especially to Thailand's monarchy. Now, the military junta is re-introducing the project.

Its originally stated objectives were:

Objectives of the project

1. To create a Cyber Scout volunteer network [...] that observes [...] [online] behavior that is deemed a threat to national security and to defend and protect the royal institution.

2. To collect the work of the Cyber Scout volunteers.

3. To set up a network of Cyber Scout volunteers to contact.

4. To promote the moral and ethics with the help of the volunteers, to ensure the correct behavior, build reconciliation and awareness towards the use of information with regard to morality and safety of individuals in society.

5. To promote and support to various sectors of society to careful and responsible usage of information technology. [...]

Taken from: "Cyber Scout Seminar Schedule, December 20-21", Ministry of Justice Thailand, ca. December 2010

That year, the government of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva blocked a record 45,357 URLs under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, according to a study by Thammasat University. Of these, 39,115 were blocked because they were deemed offensive to the monarchy - lèse majesté - a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This marked a significant crackdown on alleged anti-monarchy dissent, especially after the bloody dispersal of the anti-government red shirt protests earlier in 2010.

A couple of months later, we got to see a glimpse of the inner workings of the project when one 'cyber scout' spoke to AFP:

He explained that if he finds comments deemed offensive to the king he plans to contact the person who posted them to first to warn them and give them a chance to change their views, before informing officials. “Not many people know about the project. They may think they’re talking to a friend because I don’t tell them I’m a cyber scout,” he said. “I feel I am doing an important job. I can give back to the country.”

Thai ‘cyber scouts’ patrol web for royal insults“, Agence France-Presse, May 11, 2011

It was clear that the government back then was trying to introduce an online society of snitchers against a perceived threat - not unlike the namesake Village Scouts back in the 1970s that were battling against communist threats, both real and perceived. Eventually, the 'cyber scout'-project vanished into obscurity.

Fast forward four years, a change of government, a few protests, one major (enforced) political deadlock and a military coup later. The military junta is now reviving the 'cyber scout'-initiative, according to the Thai government news outlet:

กระทรวงไอซีที เตรียมลงนามความร่วมมือสถานศึกษา 200 แห่ง สร้างแกนนำลูกเสือไซเบอร์ให้กับเด็กนักเรียน อาจารย์และบุคคลากรในสถานศึกษา ช่วยกันสอดส่องดูแลภัยอันตรายและเฝ้าระวังข้อมูลข่าวสารที่เป็นภัยออนไลน์ทุกประเภท

The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology is making preparation for a cooperation with 200 schools in order to create 'Tiger Cyber Scouts' so that students, teachers and school personnel help monitor all kinds of dangerous information online.

นาง เมธินี เทพมณี ปลัดกระทรวง เทคโนโลยีสารสนเทศและการสื่อสาร เปิดเผยว่า วันที่ 26 – 29 สิงหาคมนี้ กระทรวงไอซีทีจะลงนามบันทึกข้อตกลงความร่วมมือกับสถานศึกษาทั่วประเทศ (...) เพื่อทำหน้าที่สร้างความรู้ ความเข้าใจ และความตระหนักในการใช้ ICT อย่างสร้างสรรค์ มีคุณธรรมจริยธรรม มีวิจารณญาน (...)

Ms. Manthinee Thepmanee, permanent secretary at the MICT said that between August 26 - 29, the MICT will sign cooperations with 200 schools nationwide (...) in order to build knowledge, understanding and raise awareness of using information and communication technology constructively, with moral and ethical judgement (...)

เพื่อที่จะช่วยกันสอดส่องดูแลภัยอันตราย และเฝ้าระวังข้อมูลข่าวสารที่เป็นภัยต่อสถาบัน รวมถึงความมั่นคงของประเทศ (...) และใช้งานข้อมูลข่าวสารบนโลกออนไลน์อย่างเหมาะสม และสร้างสรรค์ตั้งแต่รุ่นเยาวชน ตลอดจนเพื่อเป็นเครือข่ายขยายผลการใช้งานเทคโนโลยีอย่างถูกวิธี

[The objectives are] to jointly observe threats and monitor informations that are dangerous to the [monarchy] institution [and] national security, (...) to handle online information appropriately, as well as to incite to youth [with that knowledge] so that they will use technology the right way.

เนื่องจาก ภัยคุกคามจากเทคโนโลยีสารสนเทศและการสื่อในปัจจุบัน โดยเฉพาะอินเทอร์เน็ต ทั้งการให้หรือรับข้อมูลข่าวสารที่บิดเบือน การเผยแพร่ และเข้าถึงข้อมูลที่มีลักษณะหมิ่นเหม่ต่อการหมิ่นสถาบันเบื้องสูง การเผยแพร่ภาพลามก อนาจาร ถือเป็นเรื่องสำคัญที่ผู้ใช้งาน และสังคมออนไลน์จำเป็นจะต้องให้ความสำคัญในการคัดกรองหรือเลือกที่จะเข้าถึง

Apart from the dangers coming from information technology and media today - especially from the internet - that receives or transmits information that distorts, circulates and gives access to information of defaming character to the higher [royal] institution, the circulation of pornography is another important issue that our staff and the online community should be monitoring and regulating access [more].

"ไอซีที เตรียมลงนามความร่วมมือสถานศึกษา 200 แห่ง สร้างแกนนำลูกเสือไซเบอร์ให้ช่วยกันสอดส่องดูแลภัยอันตรายและเฝ้าระวังข้อมูลข่าวสารที่เป็นภัยออนไลน์ทุกประเภท", National News Bureau of Thailand, August 6, 2014 - translation by me

This reads almost like carbon copy of the original 'cyber scout'-project from four years ago - with the notable difference that there is a military junta now in charge of Thailand and it has repeatedly shown in the past months that it will not tolerate criticism or dissent, as it has imposed strict censorship measures on the media and warned social media users against posting or sharing anti-coup messages.  Reportedly over 200 websites have been blocked since the coup and recently the junta has bizarrely banned the sale of a computer game where you can play the role of a military junta.

Previously, the Royal Thai National Police offered 500 Baht ($15) to anyone providing information on anti-coup protesters and now, more worryingly, the military junta is reinstating state-sponsored cyber vigilantism, especially towards lèse majesté-related cases, while teaching school children early on what the junta thinks is right or wrong.

Analysis: Déjà vu in Thailand as court annuls elections

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 22, 2014 The Constitutional Court's ruling to annul the February 2 elections Friday rewards those that attempted to stop the polls from taking place and marks a dangerous development in the ongoing political crisis - something that we have witnessed before.

Activists have wrapped Democracy Monument in black cloth after the Constitutional Court's ruling to annul the February 2 elections. The text says "20 million [voters] + 3 < 6 [judges] RIP".

Ever since the anti-government protesters downsized their rallies and relocated to Lumphini Park earlier this month, the political battlefield has shifted its focus to the judiciary. Whether it's the crippling of the emergency decree (which has now been lifted) or the ruling against the 2 trillion Baht ($62bn) transport plan, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced strong opposition and was handed a series of defeats at the hands of the courts.

On Friday, it suffered another setback:

The judges on Friday voted 6-3 to declare the Feb. 2 vote unconstitutional because elections were not held in 28 constituencies, where anti-government protesters had prevented candidates from registering. The constitution says the election must be held on the same day nationwide.

The court ordered that new elections take place.

"Thailand’s court rules elections invalid", Associated Press, March 21, 2014

The reasoning that the elections were not held on the same day is at best contentious thanks to a one-sided interpretation of the law*. Here's what fellow blogger Bangkok Pundit wrote before the ruling:

It is important to note that [Section 108 of the Constitution] doesn’t explicitly state the the election must be the same day, it is the election date must be fixed (or set) as the same date. These are slightly different things (...) if the election date is set nationwide for February 2 and then we have a natural disaster or political protests and elections in one more constituencies cannot take place, is this unconstitutional? Essentially, this will be the question considered by the Court, but then when it likely rules it was unconstitutional, the Court should make clear on specifically the extent of the problem.

"Thai court nullifies February election", Bangkok Pundit, March 21, 2014

*(Read Bangkok Pundit's in-depth analysis and legal expert Verapat Pariyawong's comment for more details.)

That is exactly what the Constitutional Court did NOT do! It did not acknowledge the circumstances that left the elections incomplete. The court didn't take into account that the Election Commission - especially commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn - has been all too vocal in its reluctance to hold an election and has also been very hesitant scheduling the catch-up voting dates; it has only held re-runs in five provinces, moving the rest to April.

But the more severe implication of the court's ruling is that it rewards the anti-democratic behavior of the anti-government protests, since it was them that blocked voting stations in Bangkok and large parts in the South on election day and disrupted the candidacy registration back in December. To add further insult to injury for the caretaker government, the court dismissed its petition to outlaw the protests back in February, effectively endorsing the antics of the main protest group and its affiliates.

While the ruling also ordered for the whole election process to start over again, no time frame has been set yet by the Election Commission - that is, if we're actually going to get there in the first place. Not only has protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban already promised to derail any near-future elections (while not saying anything against the upcoming senate elections at the end of March - a crucial tool for a potential impeachment), but the caretaker government still has to endure further legal challenges against it.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission's (NACC) filed charges against Yingluck for alleged negligence of duty in the government's disastrous rice-pledging scheme and against 308 mostly government lawmakers for their role in constitutional amendments that would have changed the make-up of the senate - both cases could force them out of office.

Yesterday's decision by the Constitutional Court is a dangerous déjà vu that mirrors the events of 2006, where under similar beleaguered circumstances the government of then-PM and Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra called for snap elections, only to be boycotted by the opposition and to be annulled by the Constitutional Court. While a new election date was set, the military coup pre-empted it and exploited the power vacuum.

With similar circumstances today and the Yingluck government facing more legal torpedoes, the judiciary might have thrown do the gauntlet to pro-government red shirt supporters, which has recently seen a change at the helm: the promotion of Jatuporn Prompan as the leader of the umbrella organization United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) signals a readiness for confrontation should the government by toppled.

That and the utter disregard by the protesters, the opposition (the Democrat Party refused to take part and many of its members are rather at the rallies) and now by the judiciary for the democratic principle of elections makes this development much more dangerous, as the political polarization is getting closer and closer to breaking point.

Thai government, Election Commission clash over catch-up poll dates

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 12, 2014

The outcome of the February 2 general election in Thailand remains in legal limbo as the Election Commission (EC) has announced the catch-up dates for the constituencies where voting was disrupted by anti-government and anti-election protesters:

The Election Commission is to hold second chance advance voting in 83 constituencies on April 20, followed by general election re-runs at 10,284 polling stations on April 27. (...)

[Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn] explained that the new dates were set for April because the meeting had concluded that voting disruption was likely to escalate during the Senate elections, the first day of candidacy registration for which is scheduled on March 4. Voting for senators is set to begin on March 30.

Regarding the 28 southern constituencies which are still without candidates for the general election, Mr Somchai said the EC wants the caretaker government to issue a royal decree to fix a new election date for the 28 constituencies. The EC will write a formal request to be submitted to officials tomorrow, he added.

"General election re-runs set for April", Bangkok Post, February 11, 2014

Advance voting on January 26 saw widespread blockades in Bangkok and many parts in the South, preventing 2 million people from voting. On election day 10,284 polling stations in 18 provinces (again mostly in the South and in Bangkok) were forced to shut down or didn't open at all due to disruptions by anti-government protesters. Official figures show that over 20.5 million people did cast their ballot, a low turnout of 47.2 per cent.

The Election Commission already announced before the polling stations opened (at least those that could) that there would be no official results on that day, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of issues unresolved. Twenty-eight districts in the South are without any candidates - they were prevented from registering - meaning the mandatory quorum of 95 per cent to form parliament cannot be fulfilled.

Since the election, the EC and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have clashed on what should happen next and when the catch-up polls can be held in the aforementioned districts. In essence, the government argues that the EC has to hold by-elections as soon as possible and has to ensure that it they go smoothly, since that is its duty. On the other hand the EC is reluctant to hold them, citing legal reasons but also safety concerns as many election officials in the South are still being hindered. It should be noted that the Election Commission also displayed some unwillingness to go through with the February 2 elections.

EC officials justified the late catch-up election date with the hope that the political tensions may have calmed down by then, as anti-government protesters are still rallying in central parts of Bangkok, albeit with almost non-existent attendance at their rally stages during the day.

In the interim, elected senators will have completed their term on March 1 and new ones have to be elected on the March 30. That is eight days after the ongoing state of emergency for Bangkok and some surrounding areas is scheduled to be lifted (March 22) - but it would still cover the senate candidate registry on March 4, which is likely to be disrupted by anti-election mobs, as feared by the EC. Should the protests prolong until the scheduled April election dates, the catch-up polls could still be targeted.

As mentioned, 28 districts in the south were not even able to file candidates for the February 2 elections due to blockades in late December and the EC did not extend the registration period. Instead, the commission still proposes that the caretaker government should issue a new royal decree in order to start the entire election process for the affected constituencies. The government, however, has rejected that idea in the past and according to a legal expert of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it wouldn't be legally possible since the royal decree process dictates that after the dissolution of parliament the subsequent election day "must be the same throughout the Kingdom" (see Article 108 of the Constitution). Also, a second royal decree could void the original parliament dissolution decree and thus render the February 2 elections nullified and meaningless.

In a related development, that is exactly what the opposition Democrat Party - which boycotted these elections - is trying to achieve as they have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the whole election since it wasn't held in one day and it would violate Article 68 of the Constitution with the clear intention to get the interim prime minister Yingluck and the ruling Pheu Thai Party banned. But...

Legally, it is difficult to understand this argument. The election could not be held on one day largely because of the actions of a protest movement to which the Democrat party gives thinly-disguised support.

The use of section 68 is even more baffling. This section outlaws any actions that could threaten the existing democratic system, with the King as head of state. The Democrat argument appears to be that in calling the election at a time of turmoil, and against the advice of the Election Commission, the government put the political system in jeopardy.

"The constitution gives a clear and flexible mechanism to re-run the election where it has been obstructed," says lawyer Verapat Pariyawong. "It is ironic that the Democrats are citing section 68, as this really ought to be used to deal with the disruptions of the protesters rather than the actions of the government. There are no legal grounds I can see for annulling the election."

"No grand bargain amid Thailand political crisis", by Jonathan Head, BBC News, February 10, 2014

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to decide whether or not to accept the petition today (Wednesday). UPDATE: The court rejected.

So the February 2 election remains in limbo for at least another two-and-a-half months, while the caretaker government is facing more and more problems, most recently with rice farmers waiting to be paid subsidies and a related anti-corruption investigation and another one for proposed constitutional amendments. Thailand's political crisis continues with no clear answers on where it will go and how it will all end.

Tongue-Thai’ed!: Whistle blown on Abhisit's spurious pleas for reform

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 9, 2014 This is part XXIV of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, amusing, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

Ever since deciding not to compete in the upcoming snap-elections on February 2 after a lot of meandering, the implosion of the opposition Democrat Party has left Thailand's political party in a bit of an existential downward spiral as it tries to echo the anti-election protesters' mantra of "reform before elections", while still grasp at the last bits of political relevancy the party has. In an effort to maintain that, the Democrat Party has launched its non-election campaign to discourage convince people to follow their boycott.

Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva held a speech at a party event called "Eradicate Corruption, Committed In Reforms" in Bangkok on Tuesday, when this happened:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BstwVBOvYM

Here's a description of what happened:

[...] an unidentified man stood up in the audience and blew his whistle. The audience mistook him as a supporter of Mr. Abhisit, since whistle-blowing has been a trademark of the anti-government protesters, and no one restrained him until he held up a sign which read - in English - "Respect My Vote!".

The heckler then shouted at Mr. Abhisit, "If you cannot even reform yourself, how can you reform the country?". Mr. Abhisit was visibly surprised by the incident, but the former leader tried to manage the confrontation by thanking the man for his remarks.

However, the heckler went on to shout, "When you were the government, why didn't you do it? Stop the discourse about anti-corruption. You have intimidated other people, so can they not intimidate you as well?".

"Heckler Tells Abhisit To 'Respect My Vote'", Khaosod English, January 7, 2014

The heckler was later identified to be a 34-year-old Bangkok businessman referred under his Facebook handle "Ake Auttagorn" who told Prachatai that he staged the one-man protest "out of frustration" at the political discourse now and that "Thailand already had this lesson many times before" with the Democrat Party "always at the center of it".

And this is how Abhisit reacted to the heckler...

"This is an example of reasons why we need reforms," Mr. Abhisit told the audience, "This is the form of Democrat Party′s rivals", to which the heckler shot back, "I am not your rival, I am the people!"

Security guards later surrounded the man and led him out of the room. After the heckler has been removed, Mr. Abhisit told the crowd that such harassment is a reason why the upcoming election on 2 February 2014 would not be a fair one.

"Heckler Tells Abhisit To 'Respect My Vote'", Khaosod English, January 7, 2014

While he at least didn't snap back at the heckler (and could have said something like, you know, "stupid bitch"), Abhisit failed to ackowledge that the need for reform is not because of a heckler disrupting him, but rather because of an uncompromising deliberate escalation by the political opposition and the anti-election protesters originating from a long-held contempt for electoral democracy, those who vote for their political rivals and the failure of the opposition to effectively present itself as a viable political alternative. The Democrat Party has chosen to be part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, no matter how loud the whistle is being blown on them.

Thailand's NACC ruling: Why it happened and what it means

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 8, 2014 Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) will charge 308 lawmakers, most from interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party, for proposed amendments to the country's constitution adding more uncertainty over its candidates for the upcoming federal election on February 2.

The proposed changes would have changed the Senate into a fully-elected chamber with 200 members, whereas currently only 76 elected and 74 appointed senators make up the 150-strong upper House (Article 111 of the Constitution). The amendments would have also affected passages that bar direct relatives of MPs, political party members and recently retired MPs to run for Senate (Articles 115.5, 115.6 and 115.7, respectively) and would have done away the one-term limit of six years (Article 117). The draft passed both the House and the Senate in all three readings.

In November, the Constitutional Court quashed the draft amendments and declared them unconstitutional, citing a violation of Article 68 of the Constitution stating that a fully-elected senate would “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State,”  and insisting that all these changes would enable "a domination of power" by both chambers. Additionally, the Court noted irregularities (some Pheu Thai MPs were caught using their colleagues' voting ID cards) and discrepancies (the original draft is not the same that was later submitted to parliament, mainly regarding Article 117) in the parliamentary process.

However, the Court stopped short of dissolving the Pheu Thai Party. Instead, the opposition Democrat Party (whose MPs and like-minded appointed senators had originally brought this case to Constitutional Court) asked the NACC to investigate the 383 MPs and senators - including Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the presidents of the House and the Senate - that have proposed and voted in favor of the amendments, seeking their impeachment.

The NACC announced on Tuesday that after a 7:2 decision it will press charges against 308 lawmakers - 293 of them have proposed and voted in favor in all three readings, while 15 did so in one of the readings. The key reason is this discrepancy:

"The NACC [at this point] based its decision on the Constitution Court's ruling which also covers the part about the falsified draft charter amendment, (...) Basically, the 308 MPs and senators were involved in proposing the draft, so they should be aware that the draft was fake and they should be responsible for their actions," [NACC member Vicha Mahakhun] said.

"NACC to charge 308 lawmakers", Bangkok Post, 8 January, 2014

They also decided to dismiss charges against 73 lawmakers, including interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, finding their part in the process to be "insufficient" and protected by Article 130 of the Constitution, which sets out an MPs' or senator's right "in giving statements of fact or opinions or in casting the vote by any member" to be "absolutely privileged".

65 of these lawmakers voted in favor in the third and final reading, while only eight did in the first and/or the second, but none of them actually proposed the amendments. Two other lawmakers have been dropped from the complaints.

Also, in a separate case, the NACC will charge Parliament President Somsak Kiatsuranont and his deputy, Senator Nikom Wiratpanij, for their roles in passing the proposed amendments, accusing both of abusing their power. Both men will hear their charges Friday.

The big questions now are what will happen next and what impact it could have for the upcoming elections on February 2, as many of the 308 lawmakers are running for office? As of now, the legislators are asked to testify to the NACC in the next two weeks and can remain in their positions until then. The NACC will then decide on their cases and whether or not the MPs and senators will face impeachment. In that case, Article 272 of Constitution applies here, which states that if the NACC finds "that the accusation has a prima facie case (evident to be true until proven otherwise)," the accused should "not perform his or her duties until the Senate has passed its resolution".

Amidst the ongoing anti-government and anti-election street protests (with protesters set to up the ante again on January 13 with a city-wide "shutdown" in the capital Bangkok) aimed at suspending electoral democracy indefinitely in favor of an appointed "People's Assembly", fears of a coup of some sort have increased. Comments by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha on a military coup (“Don’t be afraid of things that haven’t yet happened ... But if they happen, don’t be frightened. There are [coup] rumours like this every year.”) have done very little to calm things down.

A "judicial coup" has become a little more likely with the NACC's decision to press charges against hundreds of lawmakers from Pheu Thai,  Thailand's most electorally successful political party, and their fate will be decided in two weeks - just days before election day on February 2.

Opinion: Thai opposition boycott a slap in the face to voters

Orginally published at Siam Voices on December 22, 2013 Thailand's opposition Democrat Party is to boycott the February 2 elections, prolonging the current political crisis. But this move will hurt the country's oldest political party in the long-run, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

When Sukhumband Paribatra was reelected as Governor of Bangkok in March this year he did it with a record number of over 1.25m votes, maintaining the Democrat Party's stranglehold on Thailand's capital. However, the rival Pheu Thai Party was able to make ground, especially in the city's outskirts. In a city of roughly 12 million people, only 5 million are registered in Bangkok, while 4.2 million of them were eligible to vote. That means only about a third decided on the future of the other two-thirds. I commented back then that it was important for the Democrat Party to look beyond the city borders to the rest of the country since the next general election would likely be their "very last chance" to make a nationwide impact at the polls.

On Saturday, they slammed the door on that chance.

With the reportedly "unanimous" decision not to file any MP candidates and effectively boycott the February 2 general election, the Democrat Party of Thailand, somewhat ironically, has turned its back on democratic discourse in Thailand. Instead, it has decided to heed the the vague but shrill calls of the anti-government protesters for "reform before elections" in the form of the appointed "People's Assembly", proposed by protest leader and former fellow senior party figure Suthep Thuagsuban and his motley crew of like-minded ultra-conservatives.

Granted, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Democrat Party. It hasn't won an election in two decades and would be unlikely to sway voters in less than two months. It is also undeniable that Thailand needs political (and social) reform on several fronts and the upcoming election won't solve all these problems. But by siding with the protesters and endorsing their demands, the Democrats have delivered a slap to the face of not only to the 47m eligible voters, but also the 11.5m people that voted for them in the last general elections 2011.

While Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party won that election easily, there were surely still a lot of people willing to give then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a second chance to initiate reforms he failed to put in place while in power from 2008-20011 and are bemoaning now to be missing today, such as the proposals by Suthep for police reform (despite being deputy-PM in charge of national security under Abhisit back then) or the sudden embrace for decentralization in form of election of all provincial governors (also not mentioned during the Abhisit premiership).

On Saturday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit lamented "the loss of trust in Thailand's political system, and respect for political parties and elections." He didn't, however, touch on the failure of the Democrat Party in the past decade to effectively adapt to the politics and policies of Thaksin Shinawatra's government(s) and the changing political landscape. The need for reform of the Democrat Party into a healthy, rational political opposition is evident. However, in the party meetings this past week, with the re-election of Abhisit and Alongkorn Ponlaboot - the party's most outspoken proponent for reform - effectively sidelined, it showed that the party is unwilling to change itself for now. The boycott decision also shows that it doesn't even acknowledge that it could have been part of the solution, but instead is becoming part of the problem. The Democrats did not "play the ball back" to caretaker-Prime Minister Yingluck, as Abhisit said. They took the ball and simply popped it.

Whatever their gambit is (most likely creating a political gridlock in order to provoke a military or "judicial" coup), it will hurt the Democrat Party in the long-run. A 2006-style impasse is not possible due to amendments in the election rules that doesn't require 20 per cent of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election round and also due to the fact that, unlike over seven years ago, other opposition parties have not decided on a boycott yet.

Last week, the new secretary-general Juti Krairiksh said that entering the elections would “kill” and a boycott “cripple” the party respectively. Thailand's Democrat Party chose this weekend to cripple itself and it is doubtful whether or not it can recover in its current form.

'It will hurt either way': Thai opposition still undecided on elections

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 18, 2013 In Southeast Asian Buddhist mythology, the goddess that is known in Thailand as Phra Mae Thorani (พระแม่ธรณี) was called upon by the Bodhisattva to help him fend off the demon Māra, who tried to distract him from seeking enlightenment. According to the myth, Thorani then twisted her very long hair and out came an enormous torrent of water that washed away Māra and his army, clearing the way for the Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment and to become the Buddha.

Thorani's image graces the seal of the opposition Democrat Party, which is currently at a crucial junction. The party is torn between entering the snap-elections on February 2, 2014 or boycotting them. The latter would show full support for the anti-government protesters who have paralyzed the country's politics since early November and have increased the pressure on caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down, while openly calling for the suspension of electoral democracy in order to "reform" Thailand. The protesters are led by former deputy prime minister and veteran Democrat Party bruiser - and now self-styled "people's champion" - Suthep Thuagsuban, joined by many other recently resigned party executives, including the former finance minister Korn Chatikavananij.

The tensions have receded for now, though protesters - albeit in significantly lower numbers - are still roaming around Democracy Monument and Government House. Over the weekend, both the protesters and the government held public and private forums in order to win public support for either the "reform first" drive by the protesters or the February 2 elections set by the caretaker government.

The lines between the protest movement - calling themselves (somewhat ironically) the "People’s Democratic Reform Committee" (PDRC)* - and the Democrat Party are (intentionally) blurry, not only because the mobilization of the rallies had been rehearsed long ago, but also because of the regular involvement of Democrat Party figures. The party itself was meandering in recent weeks until its MPs decided to resign from parliament earlier this month, effectively forcing Prime Minister Yingluck to dissolve parliament and call for new elections - something that the protesters are uncompromisingly rejecting and instead lobbying (especially the military) for their undemocratic, appointed "People's Assembly".

Since Monday, the Democrat Party has been in meetings to determine what to do next as election day approaches. Apart from extending the numbers of executives to 35, the party also re-elected Abhisit Vejjajiva as its party leader.

One major casualty of the party meeting was Alongkorn Ponlaboot, until Tuesday deputy party leader before he was defeated by Satit Pitudecha by 63 to 30 per cent. An outspoken proponent for reform of the party, Alongkorn regularly insisted that the Democrats should stop blaming their electoral losses on "vote-buying, electoral fraud or populism" and instead "come up with better strategies" in order to eventually beat the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Alongkorn was also notably absent from the party's meeting that resulted in the MPs' mass resignation. After the vote, he simply tweeted "I lost" and asked the party in a following tweet to "continue to reform," since this is "the only way to regain trust in the Democrat Party".

This affirmation of Abhisit and the demotion of Alongkorn shows that Thailand's main opposition party is unwilling to make big changes, let alone reform itself, in order to halt the ongoing streak of elections defeats since 1992. And it has also (as of writing) deferred the decision whether or not to run in the February 2 elections, facing the dilemma of being beaten at the polls again by Pheu Thai - but then being shunned by the protesters - or losing (even more) political credit with a boycott. A repeat of the 2006 snap-elections - when the Democrat Party along with other opposition parties staged a boycott that created a political deadlock and a subsequent vacuum that led to the military coup that ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - is not possible thanks to an amendment that does away with the 20 per cent requirement of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election (more background on that at Bangkok Pundit). Also, all other parties have not yet publicly considered an election boycott. It is reported that the newly-elected executive board will decide on the question this Saturday.

According to reports, the party is almost evenly split on the election question. Newly elected secretary-general Juti Krairiksh was quoted as saying that entering the contest would "kill" and a boycott "cripple" the party respectively ("ส่งก็ตายไม่ส่งก็พิการ"), to which Abhisit responded that "it will hurt either way" ("มองว่าเจ็บทุกทาง"), adding...

"(...) หากทำให้ชาติไปสู่สิ่งที่ดีกว่าเราก็ต้องยอม เพราะประเทศสำคัญกว่าพรรค (...) ไม่ส่งก็เสียระบบหรือไม่ สิ่งสำคัญที่สุดคือการปฏิรูปประเทศโดยรักษาประชาธิปไตยไว้ แม้จะเป็นโจทย์ยาก (...)"

"(...) if it makes the country better than us, we have to accept that because the country is more important than the party (...). Whether or not a boycott would damage the [democratic] system, the important thing is reform [before elections?] while maintaining democracy, no matter how problematic (...)"

"ปชป.ชี้ขาด 21 ธ.ค.ส่งเลือกตั้ง 'มาร์ค'หนักใจส่ง-ไม่ส่งก็เจ็บ", Thai Rath Online, December 17, 2013 (translation by me)

Until the registration of MP candidates opens next week, Thailand's oldest existing opposition party has to decide whether it wants to be an enabler or an instigator: either the Democrat Party takes part in the February 2 elections, most likely lose against Pheu Thai (hopefully as graceful as possible), and maintain the shaky status quo or stage a boycott and completely lose any political legitimacy as a 'hilariously misnamed' husk of a party - and also comply with the PRDC's anti-democratic stance and protest leader Suthep's rabble-rousing and nightly delusions of grandeur, who has just announced yet another mass protest for Sunday.

Unlike the goddess Thorani, the Democrat Party did not manage to wash away the distractions in order to reform itself as a healthy democratic opposition. To adapt the motto in the party's logo - the Pali proverb "truth is indeed the undying word" ("สจฺจํ เว อมตา วาจา") - it will have to face the consequences of its actions - no matter how much it will hurt.

*Sidenote: Interestingly, the PDRC's English 'translation' doesn't fully reflect the original Thai name: "People's Committee for the Change Thailand's to Democracy with the King as Head of State" (Thai abbreviation: "กปปส.")