Prayuth

Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2015 As the hunt for the main suspect in the Bangkok bomb attacks continues, Thai authorities are increasingly contradicting each other about the possible perpetrators. That's par for the course, says Saksith Saiyasombut.

"He doesn't really look Thai," a woman was heard saying Tuesday, looking at the grainy CCTV footage showing the main suspect in Monday's bomb attack at Bangkok's popular Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 people and injured about 120. Authorities are looking for a young man who was wearing a yellow t-shirt, dark shorts and dropped a suspicious backpack at the shrine before leaving the scene. On Wednesday, police released a composite sketch of the suspect, based on eyewitness reports, and announced a bounty of 1 million Baht ($28,000).

That about sums up what the Thai authorities can agree on so far. After the initial uncharacteristic hesitant response by Thai officials on who could be behind the unprecedented attack (and the subsequent failed bomb attack on Tuesday), the police and the military government seem to be slowly but steadily getting back to their usual "we said, they said"-thing, complete with open, unsubstantiated speculations, making the overall investigation seem less credible as it is being observed by a wider international audience.

Four days after the attack, officials are still in the dark about the possible motives and perpetrators, with the usual suspects getting a mention and wilder theories popping up. This hasn't stopped Thai authorities from pressing forward with their own findings and opinions - regardless of any contradictions among themselves.

With the release of the sketch, reports cited an motocycle taxi driver who is believed to have given the suspect a lift away from the scene of the blast, who he described as somebody who didn't "seem to be Thai" and spoke "an unfamiliar language" on his phone. Police spokesman Prawuth Thawornsiri wouldn't confirm the description, saying that: “If the suspect disguised himself, wore a wig, put on fake nose and spoke Arabic, we wouldn’t know if he’s really [a foreigner] anyway.” Nevertheless, the arrest warrant issued a few hours later was for an unnamed "foreigner", which is based on the sketch.

The contradictory statements started then to pile up on Thursday, starting with the National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmuang's assessment that "at least 10 people" of a "big network" were involved in preparing it "at least one month in advance". How he knows this, despite still not knowing who's behind the attack, is not known.

(ANALYSIS: Transparency is essential in Bangkok bombings probe)

Regardless of the amount of suspects and the ambiguous nationality and ethnicity of the main suspect, the military junta has ruled out that the attack was carried out by an international terrorism network, which kinda makes sense since Thailand is rarely targeted by any international terrorist group, except for a few instances but never against Thais (we reported). Junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree then suggested an "organized crime" connection, without giving any clear motive.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Thai police requested assistance from Interpol, as confirmed by deputy national police spokesman Kissana Phathancharoen first to Reuters, whereas Thai military junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha - who appeared comparatively measured in the first two days after the attack - was quoted saying in his usual manner:

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha bristled when asked if his government, which was installed after a military coup last year, was seeking outside help. "This incident happened in Thailand. It is Thailand. Why do we want other people to come in and investigate?" the former general told reporters on Wednesday.

"Thai police grapple for firm clues to Bangkok bomb suspects", Reuters, August 19, 2015

He later went on to suggest to that police officers watch an American police procedure drama for inspiration. Whether he was being sardonic or serious is not known. That still didn't stop his military junta deputy PM and defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan asking the UK and US for assistance in the investigation - but only in form of equipment, not personnel. How the Thai officials are going to use the tools without any instruction and assistance and what tools were actually requested is not known.

With the hunt ongoing and the authorities continuing to chase any clue they can find, their senior officers aren't really sure if they're too late, as police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri openly wondered whether the main suspect is still in the country, while Major-General Werachon Sukondhapatipak, another military junta spokesman (mostly dealing with the foreign media), is certain that he's still in the country.

These few examples from Thursday alone show how contradictory the statements from the police and military government are, sometimes even coming from the same branch. The root cause for this problem can be regarded as a pathological phenomenon in Thai bureaucratic culture: the compulsive need to say something - no matter if it's substantial, truthful or none of that - in order to appear knowledgeable, proactive and in command. While in many Western countries, the police would have one or two daily press briefings, many Thai senior police officers are constantly give updates whenever they're asked. It also doesn't help that Thai police and military usually have a tense rivalry.

The shambolic investigation in the murder case of two British tourists on Koh Tao last year garnered a torrent of international criticism and now heightened international attention is observing the ongoing investigations of the bomb attack. The Thai authorities are collectively already guilty of one thing: being incapable of delivering a clear and consistent message.

And thus, the worst case scenario could be what Thai scholar and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes:

At issue will be whether any party makes a credible claim of perpetration, or the authorities make a credible apprehension of the culprit. Without either, the latest blast may well fit the pattern of previous Bangkok-based explosions that ultimately fade into Thai oblivion due to a lack of forensic means and popular regard for the law.

"Terrorist attack in Bangkok turns up heat on Thailand", by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2015

With the Erawan Shrine already cleaned up and re-opened again within 72 hours after the blast, one can wonder if the work to find the callous attacker(s) behind Monday's bomb attack has been thorough enough. A BBC report suggests the contrary, with reporters still finding shrapnel and ball bearings at the scene. And when correspondent Jonathan Head attempted to hand them over at the National Police headquarters down the road, he was told that it was outside the office hours...

Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short 'boring' Friday night rants

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 1, 2015

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking... and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government's media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta's efforts to "Return Happiness" to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuouslyintimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People" ("คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ").

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the "lakorns", the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable - so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program - which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen - Gen. Prayuth discusses the week's progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he's joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme [...]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: "I do and I feel bored."

"Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show", The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of "wisdom" - it could be possible that the majority actually doesn't watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved "lakorns". And TV executives aren't really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

"It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it's been a year now, it has lost its appeal," Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (...)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

"Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut 'Returning Happiness to the People'", The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government's daily TV show "Thailand Moves Forward", also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.

Compulsive loquaciousness: Thai junta PM goes off script at media gala dinner

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 30, 2015 Thailand's Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's keynote speech at gala dinner in front of international media representatives is yet another example of the junta leader's unpredictable talkativeness, while his understanding of the media differs greatly from the international audience he was talking to.

Since seizing power almost a year ago, it appears that General Prayuth Chan-ocha is tirelessly working on something. Ever since the military coup of May 22, 2014, his authoritarian regime has micro-managed almost every aspect of Thai politics and more often than not also even beyond - and we're not even talking about the numerous detainments, media censorship, rampant online surveillance or the recent expansions of the junta's nigh-absolute powers. From the lottery system to World Cup television broadcasts to Songkran etiquette, the military junta seems to be eager to influence almost every aspect of everyday life in Thailand.

Junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth himself is mostly at the forefront of these actions and doesn't seem to be tired of talking about it, especially on his weekly TV address. Every Friday evening he reaches out to the nation via television to speak on average almost for an hour about his government's progress, achievements, future plans and whatever else is on his mind, mostly in a furiously fast-paced, relentlessly off-the-cuff manner (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him). These tirades are usually delivered in a patronizing "I can't believe I have to spell it out to you" tone.

This kind of rhetoric is only exacerbated under live conditions, for example at his daily press conferences, where he constantly displays his contempt towards reporters and the media by being borderline sardonically abusive, either verbally or physically. However, the biggest verbal escalation was in March where he, visibly annoyed by the barrage of questions, quipped about "executing" critical journalists.

With that in mind, let's turn our attention to Wednesday evening, where Gen. Prayuth, in his function as prime minister, was invited to be the headline speaker at the gala dinner of "Publish Asia 2015", a regional summit for the newspaper industry. Given what we know about Prayuth's fiery no-holds-barred rhetoric, the international audience was in for quite a ride...

It seems that the problems were just getting started here...

But that didn't deter junta leader Gen. Prayuth from staying on topic - or rather straying off topic...

On his weekly TV address and the apparently low viewership, he said:

And just when you thought it was over...

But the translators were not the only apparent 'casualties' of that evening...

Back to Prayuth himself, he then finally realized what audience he was talking to:

This remark is particularly interesting because "Peace TV", the satellite TV channel of the anti-junta red shirt movement has been permanently taken off the air by the authorities for "politically divisive" coverage that could "incite unrest".

And ending on a high note...

There's not much else to add here, other than: this is one of the rare times where Gen. Prayuth's compulsive loquaciousness has been exposed to an international audience, who got a taste of his singularly unique trail of thoughts. Some might argue that his speech might have missed its target audience, but it's not everyday that you get the wisdom of Uncle Knows Best - except for the Thai people that have been under his thumb for almost a year now.

P.S.: If you dare, here's the full video of Gen. Prayuth's speech sans translator.

After martial law in Thailand, there is Article 44 - and a backlash against the junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 2, 2015 The removal of martial law in Thailand has not been met with relief, but with more anxiety and criticism - not only from abroad - amid fears of a descent into a fully-fledged dictatorship under Article 44, which gives the junta near-absolute power.

Television viewers in Thailand saw their regular programs interrupted Wednesday evening for an official statement. First came a statement from the Royal Gazette declaring that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had approved the removal of martial law throughout* the country, effective immediately. This was widely expected, as Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha asked the King for permission earlier this week and it was just a matter of time for it to be granted.

Martial law was declared shortly before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago on May 22, 2014. It gave the junta far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship.

"There is no need to use martial law anymore,” said the royal announcement on the evening of April 1. Thankfully it wasn't an April Fool's joke, and what followed instead was no joke either.

On Tuesday before the announcement we already talked about Article 44 of the military-installed interim constitution that will be utilized from now on to "maintain peace and order". The section gives prime minister Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, very far-reaching powers to issue any order to maintain what he thinks is "national security" and "public unity" for an indefinite amount of time with no political or judicial oversight.

The TV announcement Wednesday also included "Order Number 3/2558", issued by Gen. Prayuth as head of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta formally calls itself.

The communique (which can be read in its entirety here and translated into English here) lists 14 regulations which stipulate that every military officer ranked Lieutenant or above is tasked to be a "Peace Keeping Officer” (sic!), authorized to summon and detain suspects without charge for up to seven days, seize and search properties without warrant, ban public gatherings of more than five people, and censor the media, among other actions, without any liability. (A detailed critical analysis can be read here.)

So why has martial law been lifted, when replacing it with Article 44 only strengthens the junta's grip on power? One main reason is that martial law has discouraged a lot of tourists and foreign investment to come to Thailand.

Another argument is that martial law has been one of the main points of contention by foreign governments, as they have repeatedly called for its repeal as a first step back to democratic civilian rule. But as reactions from abroad have shown, nobody’s buying the junta's alternative.

The European Union published a statement saying Wednesday’s orders ”does not bring Thailand closer to [a] democratic and accountable government.” A representative of the U.S. State Department expressed concern ”that moving to a security order (...) will not accomplish any of these objectives," while calling for ”a full restoration of civil liberties in Thailand.”

But the strongest response came from Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who wrote this borderline scathing statement:

Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law – and indeed strongly advocated for it to be lifted in Thailand, (…) But I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian (…) This clearly leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights. I appeal to the Government to ensure that these extraordinary powers, even if provided for by the Interim Constitution, will nevertheless not be exercised imprudently.” (…)

The NCPO Order issued on Wednesday also annihilates freedom of expression.

UN Human Rights Chief alarmed by Thai Government’s adoption of potentially unlimited and “draconian” powers”, United Nations Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, April 2, 2015

This is the second strongly worded statement by the UN this week alone after they criticized Gen. Prayuth's threat to execute reporters critical of the junta.

The Thai military government already anticipated such criticism from abroad, as for instance deputy prime minister Wissanu Kruea-ngam argued that Article 44 is "the best option" to regain international confidence while still maintaining national security. Meanwhile his colleague, deputy prime minister, former army chief and the junta's (nominal) number two General Prawit Wongsuwan lashed out against critics, saying that "no real Thai is afraid of Article 44", but only foreigners. His advisor Panitan Wattanayagorn urged the United Nations' officers to "study the text carefully." Gen. Prayuth himself on the other hand simply shrugged it off when asked by reporters.

One thing is for sure given the reactions: there’s hardly anybody that is being hoodwinked, anybody being bamboozled or anybody being led astray by this nominal change, as many see right through the junta’s gambit - if it ever was supposed to be one.

*Note: Martial law has been in effect in the provinces Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla at the South border since 2004 and is not being affected by the latest or any other previous NCPO order.

Assuming absolute control: Thai military junta revokes martial law, but...

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 1, 2015 UPDATE [April 1, 2015]: Martial law has been officially lifted, according to a Royal Gazette statement televised (full PDF in Thai) on Wednesday evening at around 9.40pm local Bangkok time. As widely expected, Article 44 of the interim constitution is being referred to instead along with orders for every military officer with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and above to "maintain peace" and those ranked below acting as their assistants, authorizing them to summon, detain suspects, confiscate and enter premises without a warrant. More details about Article 44 in the original story below and an English-language summary on the additional stipulations of the order can be read here by legal expert Verapat Pariyawong.

ORGINAL STORY

The good news: the Thai military junta may soon lift martial law, which has been in place for nearly a year. The bad news: it will be replaced by something worse that could give junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha much more power.

You know there's a problem when even Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NRHC) makes a stand. The normally tepid and toothless paper tiger of a human rights watchdog criticized the military junta’s plans to replace the still ongoing martial law with something even worse.

Martial law was declared before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago, which gives them far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship. The interim constitution was put in place shortly thereafter in July 2014.

Needless to say, the military government’s handling - or rather mishandling - of civil liberties under martial law has drawn heavy criticism, especially from many foreign countries, who demand the repeal of it.

Developments this week suggest that martial law will likely be indeed revoked. However - and this is what has alarmed the NHRC, among others - the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta formally calls itself, plans to replace it with this:

Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay.

Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) - Unofficial translation

In layman’s terms, the head of the junta General Prayuth Chan-ocha can issue any order he thinks is appropriate to ensure what he thinks is "national security”, ”public unity and harmony” or ”public peace and order”, without any judicial and political oversight other than to immediately report to the fully-appointed, military-dominated ersatz-parliament (the National Legislative Assembly) and the Prime Minister - who happens to be General Prayuth Chan-ocha as well. A practical and handy carte blanche.

General Prayuth himself said on Tuesday that he has asked King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law. Though this is seen as something of a formality.

Ever since the hostile power takeover last May, the military government has been in tight control of nearly every aspect of the Thai political discourse (e.g. the junta’s constitutional drafters are wrapping up their work on a new full charter soon). So it is not surprising that they want to maintain that for the short and mid-term future, while at the same time trying to pacify the criticism against them by doing away one of the main issues.

The problem is that the same critics (including this blog) see right through this move and are now concerned that Article 44 gives Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, nigh absolute powers to do nearly everything and also for an indefinite amount of time, regardless of the junta’s much purported "reform roadmap" to return "true democracy" to Thailand sometime soon.

Many observers have drawn a comparison to Article 17 of the interim constitution of 1952, which contains some very uncanny parallels…

. . . whenever the Prime Minister deems it appropriate for the purpose of impressing or suppressing actions, whether of internal or external origin, which jeopardize the national security or the Throne or subvert or threaten law and order, the Prime Minister, by resolution of the Council of Ministers, is empowered to issue orders to take steps accordingly. Such orders or steps shall be considered legal.

—Article 17, Interim Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, 2502 B.E. [1952 C.E.]

From: ”Article 17, a Totalitarian Movement, and a Military Dictatorship”, by Tyrell Haberkorn, Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014

This section was created during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958–1963) and later used frequently during the equally ruthless rule of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963–1973), both of whom authorized a total of 76 executions based on this passage.

The junta is currently busy trying to convince people that history is not going to repeat itself. The chairman of the National Legislative Assembly Pornpetch Wichitcholchai has urged the Thai people to simply ”trust” Gen. Prayuth, while the deputy PM and effectively the junta’s number two, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, has assured that the law will only be used for protection against "ill-intended elements", and effectively told the NHRC to buzz off.

Meanwhile, his more cantankerous and (nominal) superior Gen. Prayuth had a hard time himself dispelling criticism and ended up chewing out yet another reporter at a press conference on Monday, singling out a Channel 7 journalist (an army-owned TV channel, no less) while insisting that he’s not angry - and that on heels of him quipping last week that he would "execute" critical reporters.

His promise to use the law "constructively" is to be met with skepticism, since civil liberties have taken a nosedive since the coup almost 11 months ago and Article 44 seems to be Gen. Prayuth’s catch-all solution to nearly all problems. He has already indicted that he will utilize it rather creatively, resolving issues concerning forest encroachment and apparent safety issues of Thailand-based airlines which have led several Asian countries to ban new flights after the International Civil Aviation Organisation raised concerns.

The question is not so much if Gen. Prayuth is going to (ab)use the power bestowed on him by Article 44 - the fact that he has these powers and he sees the need to still have them in the first place to cement his rule is more worrying.

To borrow a much-used phrase by a 19th-century English politician: ”Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”