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:


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?

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.")

Some personal thoughts: Thai amnesty bill's wrongs do not make one right

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 4, 2013 It all happened much quicker than anybody thought. What was anticipated to last right into the weekend was done in a day and a night, and we all are still nurturing a massive political hangover.

Parliament rushed the Amnesty Bill through the second and third readings with 310 votes and an absent opposition, and now awaits confirmation in the Senate - all that amidst a flood of outcry and criticism from all sides for very different reasons. As this political crisis in Thailand has dragged on for the best part of a decade now, the political landscape has become deeply polarized.

However, the arguments of both sides show that no matter how many wrongs you make, hardly any of them make it a right.

While the ruling Pheu Thai Party initially tabled the most agreeable version of the Amnesty Bill by their MP Worachai Hema, it then did an audacious bait-and-switch as it retroactively added in the more controversial sections that ultimately transforms it into a blanket amnesty, which would cover not only political protesters, but also their leaders and other people that have been convicted .

The hubris the party showed - all that in absence of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - with this move is reminiscent of the man that is most likely to profit from it: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra lives in self-imposed exile since 2008, following a conviction and 2-year jail sentence for abuse of power handed down by a post-coup court that was arguably biased against him. Ever since then, he has been more than a shadow if the governments of his party's incarnations, including the current one of his sister Yingluck. While it is understandable that he is longing to return to Thailand, it can be argued that he is more effective abroad than at home, given the mountain of old and new problems he would have to face on his return.

With the blanket amnesty also absolving those responsible for the bloody crackdown on the 2010 anti-government protests, the party is betraying its loyal supporter base. The red shirts are split on this matter, as seen when 4 red shirt leaders abstained (Natthawut Saikau and Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, plus "Seh Daeng"'s daughter Khattiya and MP Worachai Hema, the bill's original sponsor), while all others followed the party line - something red shirt leader and MP Korkaew Pikulthong used to try to explain his political schizophrenia.

There have been protests against the bill before by a red shirt splinter group and they will do so again on November 10, while on the same day other red shirts will rally in favor of the bill. The red shirt movement is (once again) at a junction and has to reflect on what it actually stands for: as a force for genuine political reform - even if it means breaking away from Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party - or forever be branded as Thaksin's mob. The crucial question is, whether the majority of the base and the leaders are capable of the former?

While conservative anti-government protesters (mainly consisting of supporters of the opposition Democrat Party) rally against the impunity that Thaksin could get away with, it is also a sign of frustration from the opposition in and outside parliament in their failed attempt to get rid what they see as "Thaksinism" from Thai politics - even if it comes at the cost of democracy.

One of their main arguments is endorsing the 2006 military coup as "patriotic" to protect the country from the "evil" Thaksin and his politics. Their vehement defense of the coup and their denial of all its consequences displays the self-righteousness in their crusade for the "good people" and their lack of self-reflection.

The decision now lies with the Senate, but it can also be expected to be challenged at the Constitutional Court - two bodies that have played their own part in the political mess that Thailand is today. It is exactly the mindset of self-serving self-righteousness and a dangerous black-and-white thinking among those political institutions and groups that are not meant to be politicized but are politicized ever since the military coup and the meddling of non-parliamentary groups.

That is also why the culture of impunity of the darkest days in Thai history (1973197619922006 etc.) still prevails and will repeat over and over again until we start to realize that it needs more than just a simple electoral majority, more than an amnesty, more than the crucifiction of a political enemy and more than just the reversal to times that once were or never were at all - all those would be the first things to make things right.

Thai gov't faces backlash from all sides over amnesty bill

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 29, 2013 Last week, we reported on the attempts by MPs of the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) to amend the amnesty bill draft to include those affected by groups or organizations set up after the military coup of 2006. The original draft by PT MP Wocharai Hema pardons protesters involved in the numerous political protests in recent years, but not their leaders and authorities involved in clashes during these events.

Now with the planned rewrite - spearheaded by PT MP Prayuth Siripanich, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary vetting committee of the bill - it could mean that a number of politicians and officials under investigation or already convicted could be acquitted, including former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The outcry by the opposition Democrat Party and anti-government protesters over a feared whitewash of their political enemy was to be expected. However, there's also opposition coming from PT's own supporter base: the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the umbrella organization of the red shirt movement,  who issued a statement voicing their disagreement with the draft rewrite since it also could potentially acquit those responsible for the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests in 2010:

(...) The United front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) would like to release this following statements:

1. The UDD are standing by its commitment to support the original format of MP Worachai Hema’s amnesty bill that will grant pardon to political prisoners of all colours only. (...)

3. The differences in solutions to the problem derived from the dissimilarity of opinions. Some MPs believe that amnesty bill should be priority after the formation of the government but the UDD believe that constitutional amendments and the eradication of coup consequences should be the primacy. However, since three years have passed and thousand remain convicted, the amnesty for political prisoners of all colours became the immediate policy of the UDD which resulted in the organization’s proposal for the amnesty bill that was later transformed into the original version of MP Worachai Hema’s bill.

4. One of the core problems is the group of people who will receive amnesty. In the case of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra who was victimised by the consequences of coup d’état, he should be granted justice through the elimination of coup consequences, not via amnesty bill. The amendment of article 309 is the right way to help Thaksin and it should be abolished.

"UDD Statement on the Revision of MP Worachai’s Amnesty Bill", October 25, 2013

In essence, the UDD opposes the notion of a rewritten amnesty bill that would see political and military officials not punished for the events of 2010, while at the same time suggesting an alternative route to undo the conviction of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra via constitutional amendments, which are another hot issue the government is currently facing heavy flak from the opposition and especially Section 309 seems to be very protected by the Democrat Party.

In the aforementioned Section 309 of the 2007 Constitution, the coup makers are essentially granted an amnesty since their actions and their consequences are declared constitutional, including the set-up of government agencies. One of them was the Assets Examination Committee, whose investigations led to a conviction of Thaksin in 2008 for abuse of power in a land purchase by his former wife and his self-imposed exile to avoid a 2-year prison sentence. The same conviction would be overturned by the rewritten amnesty bill.

On Sunday, around 300 red shirts of the Red Sunday Group of activist Sombat Boongam-anong (which is considered as a more progressive splinter group) returned to Rajaprasong intersection in the center of Bangkok - where most of the 2010 protests took place - to show their disappointment in the proposal, with Sombat accusing the Pheu Thai Party and Thaksin of failing their followers. Prior to that, the families of the 2010 protest victims have also voiced their opposition to it.

Despite the apparent controversy the ruling Pheu Thai Party has created among their own ranks, it is very doubtful that this could result in a backlash that is sizable and influential enough to revert it or even a "mutiny" as the Bangkok Post suggests, since the red shirts have already stated not to protest against the government should the bill pass in this form.

It is obvious the ruling Pheu Thai Party is willing to bank on a big political gamble that (while maintaining a comfortable majority in parliament) could alienate those parts of the supporter base that want to see justice for the deaths of the 2010 protests, one of the campaign promises that brought them to power in the first place.

UPDATE (Tuesday, 8.00pm): In a decisive push forward, parliament will meet on Thursday, October 31, to deliberate the amnesty bill in its second reading according to several media reports. What also emerged that the Pheu Thai Party passed a resolution that all its MPs, including the red shirts, are required to attend and all should vote in favor of the bill. The vote on the third deliberation is planned to take place on November 2.

Tongue-Thai’ed!: Democrat poster boy Abhisit loses his manners

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 10, 2013 This is part XXII 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.

Former Thai prime minister and leader of the opposition Democrat Party Abhisit Vejjajiva was and still is by some regarded as a well-mannered politician who would never lose his temper or resort to the use of direct derogatory language towards political opponents or critics. We wouldn't expect anything less with his oft-mentioned Oxford-educated (English language) eloquence and general high-brow public image.

Abhisit Vejjajiva

However, with the increasing frustration of being in the opposition against a government that is seemingly unbeatable at the polls, the Democrat Party recently started to imitate the governing Pheu Thai Party's political rallies and has taken to the streets to get their message across and mobilize their supporters. Freed from the restraints of parliamentary debates and press conferences, party members can unabashedly slam the government, its policies and everything else related to it.

At one such event in Bangkok on Saturday, Abhisit took the stage and among many other points in his speech, he criticized Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's regular absence in parliament and regular foreign trips, and her failure to tackle the problems back home while launching trivial projects like the upcoming reality TV show "Smart Lady Thailand" to advertise the Thai Women Empowerment Fund.

And here is when things went downhill for Abhisit:


นายกรัฐมนตรีก็หลบเลี่ยงปัญหาเหล่านี้ ผมก็ดูไม่ออกครับว่าที่อยู่ในประเทศมา 1 อาทิตย์ที่ผ่านมา ไปทำอะไรบ้าง เมื่อเช้าเห็นแว้บๆ มีข่าวไปทำอะไร โครงการอะไร Smart Lady แปลว่าอะไร ผมก็ไม่ค่อยเข้าใจทั้งหมดหรอกครับ เหมือนกับว่าจะประกวดใช่มั้ย หา Smart Lady แปลว่าอะไร Smart lady นี่ผมถามอภิมงคลแล้ว แปลว่าผู้หญิงฉลาด แต่นี่ผมก็ถามว่า อ้าว แล้วถ้าทำโครงการนี้เนี่ย ทำไมต้องทำ ทำไมต้องหาผู้หญิงฉลาด ทำไมต้องประกวดผู้หญิงฉลาด เพราะว่าเขาบอกว่า ถ้าแข่งขันหาอีโง่ ไม่มีใครไปแข่งได้ 

The Prime Minister is dodging these problems. I don't know what she was up to in the past week in the country. This morning I spotted what project she was doing - "Smart Lady". What does that mean? I didn't fully get that. It's like a competition, right? What does it mean to find a "Smart Lady"? So I asked Apimongkol [Sonakul, Democrat MP] and he said it means 'smart lady'. But I ask why do they do this project, why do they have to find a smart lady, why do they make a competition out of this? Because if they are looking for a stupid bitch, there would be no competition!

"คำต่อคำ นายอภิสิทธิ์ หน.ปชป.ในการปราศรัยเวทีประชาชน เดินหน้าผ่าความจริง วัดดอกไม้ ยานนาวา", Democrat Party Thailand, September 7, 2013 - translation by me

Now, อีโง่ (pronounced "ee-ngo") is not very easy to directly translate into English. However, the prefix อี ("ee") is only used to address somebody in a very rude manner - think of it like "that ..." in a very condescending tone. Since โง่ ("ngo") means 'stupid' or 'the stupid one' and Abhisit was talking about the female prime minister, it is safe to assume that not only he made a derogatory remark about her intelligence, but also specifically about her gender.

(READ MORE: What was Abhisit thinking when he made his stupid “bitch” remark?)

Unsurprisingly, a lot of negative reactions followed these remarks from Pheu Thai Party members and government personnel. Also unsurprising was the repeated silence of the country's prominent feminists, as previously seen here and here - despite the fact that prime minister at times faces nasty sexist remarks. Meanwhile, Yingluck herself is currently (somehow ironically yet again) on a foreign trip to Europe.

On Monday, Abhisit was seemingly unfazed by the controversial gaffe he created:

Mr. Abhisit did not apologise for his now-notorious remark when reporters questioned him at the Democrat Party headquarters earlier today. He claimed that he did not refer to Ms. Yingluck specifically when he said those words on the stage. "I was merely following what I saw on Google," Mr. Abhisit insisted (typing "stupid bitch" in Thai on Google search would bring up images of Ms. Yingluck). [and there's also a dedicated Facebook page for it]

"I don't know which newspaper has reported the news in such negative manner," Mr. Abhisit told the reporters, "I suppose it's the same old one that likes to distort [my words]. And if it's Khaosod, I would not know what to say about it because that newspaper is beyond any remedy". Asked by a reporter what he has to say to the people who are offended by his remark, the visibly irritated Mr. Abhisit shot back: "Offended about what?"

"Abhisit Unapologetic For 'Stupid Bitch' Remark", Khao Sod English, September 6, 2013 

The media is definitely now reporting on it, as seen by the Bangkok Post and The Nation - both having considerably softened the translation to "stupid woman".

A colloquial and at times rowdy beer tent-esque atmosphere is to be expected at such political rallies from all parties. However, with harsh rhetoric provoking vulgar crowd reactions (again, something other parties are not discouraging either) and erratic displays of antics in parliament - just last week a Democrat MP was throwing chairs - the Democrat Party are increasingly descending into gutter politics and will stop at nothing to damage the government, even at the cost of any political progress.

Some of his supporters would welcome that Abhisit Vejjajiva is 'finally' not pulling any more punches (as in the past that was left to e.g. his former deputy Suthep as extensively documented here, here and here), but while it is one thing to appear folksy and aggressive, it is an entirely another unacceptable thing to resort a misogynistic remark. There's no doubt that Abhisit Vejjajiva is no more Mr. Nice Guy.