Abhisit

Thai court dismisses murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 29, 2014 Thailand's Criminal Court has dismissed murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-Deputy pPM Suthep Thuagsuban for their roles in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2010. Over 90 people were killed and thousands injured (both protesters and security officers) when the military dispersed the red shirt protesters after weeks of rallies in central Bangkok. The protesters were calling for the resignation of Abhisit's government and a new election.

The Criminal Court's decision on Thursday seems to stem from a technicality:

The court said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the two men held public office at the time of the protest.

"The court has no jurisdiction to consider the case because the two were a prime minister and deputy prime minister," a judge said on Thursday. "The charges relate to political office holders. The criminal court therefore dismisses the charges."

"Thai court dismisses murder charges against former PM, deputy", Reuters, August 28, 2014

The charge against Abhisit and Suthep was filed in late 2012 by police, prosecutors and the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) on the latter's recommendation and followed a growing number of court rulings saying that protesters were killed by bullets fired by soldiers.

Suthep, who was in charge of national security and thus tasked with overseeing the security situation during the protests as director of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), authorized security forces to disperse the protests back in 2010 (including the use of deadly force) and has since then repeatedly rejected any responsibility or blame for the deaths of the protesters. At one point he even suggetsed that they "ran into the bullets". In late 2013, he quit Abhisit's Democrat Party and became an unlikely protest leader against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (who the red shirts support).

The nearly half year of prolonged rallies and sabotaging created the political impasse the military used a pretext to carry out a coup on May 22 - Suthep claims this to be planned since 2010. Ever since the coup and a very brief detainment by the junta, Suthep has entered Buddhist monkhood and is essentially under political asylum.

Thursday's dismissal means that any accountability on the army's part is very unlikely, especially under the military junta. Its leader, army chief and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was deputy commander-in-chief during the 2010 crackdown and since becoming army chief a year later he has actively interfered in the DSI's investigation:

On August 16, 2012, Prayuth told the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation to stop accusing soldiers of killing demonstrators during the government’s crackdown on the “Red Shirt” protest in 2010 and not to report publicly on the progress of its investigations. Prayuth has denied any army abuses during the violence in which at least 98 people died and more than 2,000 were injured, despite numerous accounts by witnesses and other evidence.

Prayuth is also using Thailand’s archaic criminal defamation law to deter public criticism, Human Rights Watch said. On August 17, Prayuth ordered an army legal officer to file a criminal defamation complaint against Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Amsterdam’s translator. At a UDD rally on May 19, Amsterdam gave a speech in which he alleged that the army committed brutality against demonstrators for which it should be held accountable.

"Thailand: Army Chief Interfering in Investigations", Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2012

The DSI chief Tharit Pengdit, who reportedly apologized to Prayuth for the accusations back then, was removed from his post shortly following the military coup.

While the main charge of premeditated murder has been dropped by the Criminal Court for now, it doesn't mean the end of legal challenges for Abhisit and Suthep, as other avenues have already been explored:

Since a petition has also been filed against Mr Abhisit and Mr Suthep with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is responsible for handling criminal cases against politicians, the court also ruled that if the NACC finds the petition against them has sufficient grounds, the graft agency is duty-bound to forward the case to the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Posts for further consideration.

"Abhisit, Suthep murder case rejected", Bangkok Post, August 28, 2014

Given Thursday's dismissal by the Criminal Court, the generally slow pace of the investigations and the current ruling military junta, it will be now even less than likely that anybody from the past Abhisit administration - let alone the army - be held accountable for the deaths during the 2010 protests, as prolonged impunity adds to the growing pile of reasons for the political conflict, no matter who is calling the shots right now.

Opinion: Abhisit’s ‘reform proposal’ a losing bet

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 6, 2014 The reform proposal tabled by opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has left many asking not only about its probability, but how serious he was with it, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

There's no blame for trying, but there's no reward for poor execution.

In the past two weeks, Abhisit Vejjajiva made headlines again by re-imagining himself as a mediator in an increasingly dangerous political stalemate, pledging to talk to all sides and come up with a plan for a way out of the crisis within 10 days (we reported).

"I understand that my proposals cannot satisfy the wishes and demands of all sides, not even within the Democrat Party, or those seen to be on my side. But I believe that this is the correct direction in order for our country to move forward," he said at the beginning of his quest.

There was no question that it was going to be an ambitious undertaking to foster a consensus for the immediate political future among the caretaker government, the anti-government protesters and other power brokers, formal and informal alike. Over half a year has gone by where the political discourse in Thailand has come to a grinding halt.

What was presented by the leader of the opposition Democrat Party last Saturday in a Bangkok hotel ballroom, however, was nothing but a complete and utter flop.

Abhisit proposed that the planned elections on July 20 to be postponed for "5 or 6 months", so that an appointed committee can draw up "reforms" to be put to a referendum, while the country is ruled by a "neutral" caretaker government with "limited powers" for a year. He additionally demanded that the caretaker government of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down in order to make way for his proposal.

In many points Abhisit's proposal emulated those non-democratic calls for a "People's Assembly" by the anti-government protesters, who also demand "reform before elections." Nobody has detailed what the reforms actually should look like.

That alone would have drawn heavy skepticism from the Yingluck cabinet and its supporters. However, there were many more points in Abhisit's proposal that raised more questions than answers, never mind its possible legal problems.

For instance, he suggested that these barely mentioned reforms should be drawn up in part by the (until now) largely unknown "Reform Now Network," the impartiality of which has to be questioned. Furthermore, he has completely shut out the pro-government red shirts while elevating the anti-government protesters to the position of equal political stakeholder, if not even more.

This whole thing was nothing more than an attempt by Abhisit to bring himself and his Democrat Party back into the current political narrative after being sidelined and more often than not upstaged by the anti-government protests for the past six months - ironically led by former Democrat secretary-general Suthep Thuagsuban and carried by many former party executives in addition to a large, shared supporter base.

Thus, it was hardly a surprise that the interim cabinet flat-out rejected it. What Abhisit probably didn't expect though - despite all the concessions and perks he gave to them - was the rejection by the protesters as well, including their two militant wings.

This shows how politically marginalized he and his party are now. But that didn't happen overnight. It has been a self-inflicted slow decline, sfrom the 2011 election defeat and to the Democrat Party's boycott of the most recent election (partially botched thanks to mob blockades on election day associated with them).

While Abhisit has admitted for the first time that his party might have been "part of the problem" as well, their problems remain the same: the failure to acknowledge what got them to this place and why they haven't been able to win an election for 20 years.

It shouldn't even play that much of a role anymore now that the Democrats have threatened to again boycott the next election should Abhisit's proposal be rejected, since the caretaker government will carry on with the next attempt to have polls on July 20, which could likely be targeted by the anti-government protesters again.

We may never really know if Abhisit was really sincere with his proposal, but his willingness to step aside politically in exchange for it to be accepted would have been just a very small sacrifice considering his marginalized credibility in the current big picture that only further symbolizes the ongoing decline of the Democrat Party and the desperate need for a change of direction - and ultimately a new leadership.

Will Abhisit's 'middle man'-approach end Thailand's political impasse?

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 30, 2014 The efforts of Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to mediate in the ongoing political crisis is being welcomed by some and regarded with skepticism by others. What is the opposition leader's rationale after all these months, asks Saksith Saiyasombut

The past few days saw a man with his right arm in a sling, but also wearing his new ambitions on his sleeve. Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of Thailand and the leader of the opposition Democrat Party, is seeking a compromise across all political battle lines as fears of ongoing political tensions escalating into more violence grow.

For six months now the anti-government protests led by Abhisit's former deputy prime minister and former Democrat Party heavyweight Suthep Thuagsuban have taken Thailand's political discourse to dangerous extremes. Within that turmoil the opposition Democrat Party wasn't quite so sure where to position itself in all this, especially considering that many Democrat executives and supporters waged their battle outside parliament on the streets instead.

This dilemma grew bigger when the ruling Pheu Thai Party and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament in December and called for new elections. Since its chances at the polls were low as always and delusions confidence of the protesters at an high, the Democrat Party was left with the choice either to compete in the elections or to boycott them - or in their own words, either "killing" or "crippling" the party respectively, knowing that "it will hurt either way," as Abhisit noted then. Ultimately, the party decided to "cripple" itself and not to take part in the elections.

Despite the February 2 elections being successfully ruined by an obstructionist Election Commission and by mob blockades, and later annulled by the Constitutional Court, the Democrats still weren't quite sure where to position themselves other than beating the same "reform-before-elections" drum of Suthep's protesters. But with the mounting legal challenges against interim PM Yingluck at the Constitutional Court and at the National Anti-Corruption Commission taking longer than its rivals would have liked in order to oust her caretaker government, the political crisis steered closer and closer to an impasse. Meanwhile, the number of anti-government protesters has dwindled, with the hardcore  retreating to Bangkok's Lumphini Park.

Abhisit himself, while recovering from a broken collarbone after a fall at home last month, has now decided to re-position himself as the mediator between the warring factions.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has volunteered to spearhead efforts to break the current political deadlock by personally approaching key political figures to sell them on the ideas of reform. (...)

Appearing in a three-minute video clip posted on YouTube Thursday, Mr Abhisit said the only way to solve the political problems and move the country towards progress and stability is reform.

"I believe that the only way forward for the country is through reform, undertaken constitutionally and democratically with elections an integral part of the process,” he said. He did not elaborate on his reform ideas, saying he wanted to meet key individuals and groups to convince them in person. (...)

Mr Abhisit expects to complete the series of meetings within seven days.

However, he did not place the blame on any particular group. "Now is not the time to play the blame game because everyone is accountable for the situation our country is facing, including the Democrat Party and myself," he said.

"Abhisit offers to head efforts to end deadlock", Bangkok Post, April 25, 2014

Since his highly publicized pledge to bring everyone back to the table, Abhisit had a series of meetings with the military, the permanent secretary for justice and also intends to meet interim Yingluck, to name a few. However, there are no signals from her ruling Pheu Thai Party and their red shirt supporters, while the anti-government protesters have straight up slammed the door on Abhisit's mediator efforts and any talks whatsoever.

Abhisit's approach looks much more level-headed on the surface compared to the shrill and uncompromising calls for an unconstitutional power-grab by Suthep or others. Some might even say that Abhisit is distancing himself from the protesters and finally stepping up to be part of the political solution rather than being part of the problem, even though that might alienate a large section of the Democrat Party's Bangkok-based voters.

However, it is still unknown what exactly his "minor reforms" would look like and Abhisit remains vague in interviews after his personal meetings behind closed doors. He also has yet to reveal what the Democrat Party itself will do in order to move things forward, as it has yet to acknowledge the need for inner-party reform. Also, in a meeting with the Election Commission on Tuesday, which is currently aiming for a new election date some time this summer, Abhisit has hinted that might still be too early.

In fact, in all his public statements during the past week Abhisit has been very non-committal whether or not his party will be taking part in the next election. That might be indicative of the Democrat Party (and others) waiting for the outcome of the legal charges against the Yingluck caretaker government (see above). In other words: Abhisit could be waiting for the political playing field to be re-defined or entirely cleared out of their political rivals.

For now, we will have to wait until Abhisit wraps up his mediation tour to see if the intentions he's wearing on his sleeve are real, or if he's actually hiding another card up his sleeves.

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.

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?