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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?

Thailand: Tensions rise ahead of amnesty bill showdown, protests (UPDATE)

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 31, 2013 UPDATE (November 1, 8.00am): After an 18-hour marathon session ending at 4.20 am, parliament punched the Amnesty Bill through the second and third reading with 310 votes, while 4 MPs abstained: the red shirt leaders Natthawut Saikaur and Weng Tojirakarn, original bill sponsor Worachai Hema and Khattiya Sawasdipol, and the daughter of Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol aka "Seh Daeng", the rogue general who supported the red shirt movement and was killed while giving an interview with The New York Times at the beginning of the 2010 crackdown. The opposition Democrat Party staged a walkout. The bill is now in the Senate for approval.

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The political atmosphere in Thailand is seeing rising tensions again after a period of relative calm and could see a major showdown this morning (Thursday) as the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) is submitting the controversial and rewritten Amnesty Bill for deliberation in parliament while the opposition is preparing to take to the streets and is trying to mobilize protests against it.

The so-called Amnesty Bill was originally intended to benefit only those involved in political protests since 2006, but not their leaders or any officials involved in violent clashes. However, a 35-member parliamentary vetting committee (dominated by Pheu Thai MPs) retroactively amended the bill, extending it to "persons accused of wrongdoing by a group of people or an organisation set up after the military coup of September 19, 2006."

This would include all officials and military officers responsible for the deadly crackdown on the 2010 anti-government red shirts protests as well as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 after was convicted for abuse of power and sentenced to two years in jail.

The Pheu Thai Party has faced a backlash over the amendment, not only from the opposition Democrat Party but also from within their own ranks as the red shirt supporter base are objecting the possibility that those responsible for the victims of the 2010 crackdown could walk away scot-free. A red shirt splinter group and families of the victims held separate rallies against the bill over the past week.

Parliament announced on Tuesday that the deliberation for the second reading will begin this morning, before the third and final reading will take place on November 2 - technical and procedural hurdles notwithstanding. What also emerged is that the party ordered all its MPs to attend and also to vote in favor of the bill. All signs clearly show that the Pheu Thai Party is really now pushing to pass it through parliament, where it has a comfortable majority coalition.

On the other political side, the opposition Democrat Party are also now preparing their counter-measures, focussing outside of parliament:

The Democrat Party, which is planning to hold a mass rally at Samsen train station in Bangkok this evening to voice opposition to the blanket amnesty bill, should abide by the law, Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnog said yesterday. (...)

Four deputy Democrat Party leaders - Korn Chatikavanij, Thaworn Senneam, Issara Somchai, Siriwan Prassachaksattru , and party executive Satit Wongnongtaey - stepped down from their positions as board members. Though the five will continue as MPs, they say their reason for quitting the board was to pre-empt any moves to dissolve the part based on their role in the protest.

"Protesting Democrats told not to break law", The Nation, October 31, 2013

While the planned rally and fierce attitude on display by the Democrat Party has limited impact on what is going inside parliament, it will come down to how many people it can muster. In recent months they have regularly staged rallies (with conflicting reports on attendance numbers) while other anti-government groups, such as the "People's Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism" (PEFOT, what a moutful!) or the short-lived white masks could gather only a couple of hundreds.

However, given the focus on a feared Thaksin whitewash and return to Thailand, the Democrat Party is in a rare situation where it could assemble a broader anti-Thaksin coalition (including whatever is left of the ultra-nationalist yellow shirts). Even though it is unlikely that they will literally rally for days, a 'strong' first showing could give at least some temporary momentum - Democrats have optimistically estimated it can rally 10,000, though half that would be considered a success.

The big questions are at what point Pheu Thai will pull back (if at all) and how the red shirts' grassroots base will react to the Amnesty Bill? Whatever happens in the next few days, this is the result of a certain hubris in the Pheu Thai Party on this issue. In the past, the ruling party would dip its toe to test the political waters with each new piece of critical legislation (as seen with the constitutional amendments). Now it seems that they are just short of dive bombing into hot water.

The danger for the ruling party does not come so much from the opposition, in or outside the parliament, but rather from within, especially the red shirts, even though the mainstream United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship - despite its declaration to abstain a few MPs - is likely to follow the party line and not create a mutiny should the bill pass. Nevertheless, the party should not underestimate the potential for dissent and resentment among its supporters for what is essentially the betrayal of a key campaign promise.

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.

Thailand fails to find closure on Bangkok massacre

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 16, 2013 Over three years after the deadly military crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests, battling narratives on what happened that day are still defining the current political climate - even more so with the debate on the government-sponsored amnesty bills and the release of an official inquiry report that fundamentally contradicts with recent court rulings.

On May 19, 2010, after nine-and-a-half weeks of anti-government protests and street occupations by the red shirts, the military staged a bloody crackdown. With the previous clashes since April 2010, at least 90 people were killed and thousands injured, mostly civilians. The chaos and carnage has left a gaping wound in the nation's psyche that still hasn't healed. Not least because the questions surrounding  what exactly happened and who is responsible for the deaths are still the subject of intense argument across all political allegiances, mostly with little facts and much hyperbole.

Last year, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) released their final inquiry report into the events of May 19, 2010. The panel, set up during the administration of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva with virtually no powers or access, found faults on both sides and was promptly criticized and dismissed by both sides.

Last week, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released its own report in what they think happened in the crackdown:

The report, around 90 pages long, can be summed up in 2 points: that the security forces did commit several inappropriate actions - such as dropping teargas from the helicopters onto the crowd below and censoring a number of websites - but the bigger issue is that it was the Redshirts who "violated human rights" by engaging in unlawful protests and provoking the authorities.

The Redshirts under the leadership of the National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the report said, violated the laws by organising a protest at Ratchaprasong Intersection, the heart of Bangkok′s financial district. The move equals to provoking violence, according to NHRC. Therefore, the NHRC said, it is entirely lawful that Mr. Abhisit formed up the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) and declared emergency laws. (...)

The casualties during the crackdowns in April and May 2010 were results of clashes between the security forces and shadowy armed militants allegedly allied to the protesters, according the report. (...)

Even the deaths of 6 civilians at Wat Pathumwanararm Temple, declared as ′safe zone′ for fleeing protesters by the authorities, were described as a consequence of alleged gunfights between the militants and the soldiers near the temple - (...)

"NHRC Accused Of Whitewashing Authorities' Hands In 2010 Crackdown", Khao Sod English, August 10, 2013

The NHRC report fails to point the finger of blame at the military for the deaths, which Abhisit and his then-deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban are now facing murder charges by the DSI. Especially foggy are the circumstances, in which six civilians were killed inside Wat Pathumwan, that are described by the NHRC inquiry ("killed outside and then dragged inside the temple grounds"). In fact, they were disproved in a landmark court ruling just a few days earlier that explicitly found the military responsible for the deaths - which was instantly rejected by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, back then one of the key commanders of the crackdown.

Expectedly, the NHRC report was met with heavy criticism with accusations of whitewashing the crackdown, since it also seems to be reinforcing the same official line that has been touted by the authorities and the Abhisit government back then in 2010 and is still insisted upon today by the now-opposition Democrat Party and its supporters. Given the political affiliations the NHRC head Amara Pongsapich and the circumstances that led to her appointment, the report is hardly a surprise, but a disgrace to the National Human Rights Commission's task.

The May 19 crackdown was also a central issue of the parliamentary vote of the so-called amnesty bill last week. From the various draft bills that have been suggested (including one by families of the Wat Pathum victims strangely supported by Abhisit), the government led by the Pheu Thai Party (PT) submitted the draft of PT MP Wocharai Hema, that grants all political protesters amnesty - including the various yellow and red shirt protests since the 2006 military coup - but does not include the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdown. The bill was initially passed by the lower House, but has to vetted and submitted for vote again.

The heated exchanges during the debates saw both political sides occupying their narratives to the events of the violent clashes during the red shirt protests of 2010. One such moment included Democrat MP and former deputy PM Suthep insisted that no snipers were deployed in the dispersal, despite secret documents stating the contrary.

On Thursday, the Bangkok Post published a column by Democrat deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij voicing his opposition to the amnesty bill, accusing the government for a lack of "any genuine desire for reform or reconciliation" and points to the TRCT panel that was set up by then-PM Abhisit (but gave it virtually no powers whatsoever), cites the "objections from the UN human rights office" (although the UN OHCHR only cautioned and then clarified it didn't object the bill at all) and (mistakenly?) references the NHRC as "our own Human Rights Watch", while during the Abhisit government he and his government regularly blasted the findings by HRW and other international human rights organizations.

What all these events in the past week show is that the wounds of what is considerably the worst political violence in the Thailand's recent history still have not healed, because not only are competing truths evidence of an ongoing divided political discourse, but also the very likelihood of repeated impunity for the authorities and the military for the May 19 crackdown still prevails, something that has been practised too often in the country's history - 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006, just to name a few - in the short-sighted hope that all is forgotten and forgiven until the next tragedy.

Thailand: Reconciliation games continue as amnesty bill goes to parliament

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 26, 2013 When Thailand's parliament reconvenes next week to continue the political season one of the most discussed and possibly the most controversial issue will be the passing of the so-called amnesty or reconciliation bill. Advertised as a means to overcome the ongoing political division by giving far-reaching amnesty to those convicted for taking part in the countless political protests - of both yellow and red shirts - since the military coup of 2006, opponents are accusing the government of white-washing the activities of the red shirt protesters and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Depending on which of the various drafts you read, the bill could issue an even more far-reaching amnesty that also includes the junta behind the military coup, the military and civilian authorities responsible for the violent crackdown of the 2010 anti-government red shirt protests (including then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thuagsuban), the various protest leaders, erasing the post-coup judiciary (a junta-appointed court which has dissolved deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party and banned 111 politicians from office in 2007) and - according to one draft - even absolve Thaksin himself from a 2008 court sentence for abuse of power in a land purchasing case.

The authors of the drafts nearly all come from the governing Pheu Thai Party (PT). Red shirt leader and current deputy commercial minister Natthawut Saikua and coup-leader and now-opposition politician Sonthi Boonyaratglin may come from opposite ends of the political devide, but have presented similar amnesty drafts, with the main difference that "those who commit terrorist acts and acts causing death" are excluded in Natthawut's bill proposal. The former deputy prime minister and now newly demoted named labor minister Chalerm Yubamrung also throws in a draft of his own in a typically eager attempt to leave a personal mark on this issue, in which almost everybody - including Abhisit and Thaksin - are absolved. None of the bills include those imprisoned under the lèse majesté law.

Last week, another proposal for a reconciliation bill was introduced by a group that has been often neglected in the political infighting but was arguably most affected in the political crisis:

Relatives of those killed in the April-May 2010 crackdown on red-shirt protesters are to submit a "Worachai-plus" amnesty bill as parliament prepares to consider six other amnesty bills next month. (...)

"People from all colours will be absolved of any offence they committed or had committed against against them, except for core leaders," Ms. Payao [Akkahad, the mother of 25-year-old Kamolkade Akkahad, a medical volunteer who was killed inside Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19, 2010] said of the victims' relatives' version of the bill.

The relatives will submit their five-page bill to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tomorrow, and to the parliament speaker on July 24, she said.

This bill, [Punsak Srithep, father of the 17-year-old Samapun Srithep, who was killed on May 15, 2010, on Ratchaprarop Road,] said, would allow judicial lawsuits to be pressed against persons or groups that killed people and/or damaged private property. The relatives' bill also does not prevent private entities whose properties were damaged in the unrest from launching civil suits against vandals or arsonists, he said.

"2010 victims' relatives push amnesty bill", Bangkok Post, July 15, 2013

The draft, coined by local media as the "People's Bill", has found in opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva an unlikely proponent. While he lauds it to be "the first amnesty bill that had been proposed with a reasonable and reconciliatory tone," parts of the proposal directly target him and his administration's role in the violent crackdown on the red shirt protesters in 2010 (both he and his former deputy Suthep are facing murder charges by the DSI on at least one count, if not even more). It comes as no surprise that his party supporters and other ultra-conservatives have criticized Abhisit for voicing his support, many questioning whether or not he actually read the entire thing. The opposition has not yet brought up a proposal on their own.

Meanwhile, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the mainstream red shirt umbrella organization, has voiced skepticism about the "People's Bill":

Prominent Pheu Thai politicians and Redshirts leaders, such as Mr. Weng Tojirakarn, Mr. Sombat Boon-ngarmanong, and Ms. Suda Rangupan, have accused Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak of trying to slow down the process to pass amnesty bill by picking a fight with the powerful military.

According to those opposed to the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill, the effort to free detained Redshirts protesters should be a priority over the need to prosecute the security forces. They expressed their fear that the military would never allow Ms. Yingluck′s government to pass such a bill, ruining the chance of any little gain there might be altogether, and might even launch a military coup in retaliation.

Some Redshirts also openly questioned the motives of Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak, indirectly accusing them of being collaborators with the rival Democrat Party which, strangely enough, had expressed its support for the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill.

"Fragmentation Among Redshirts Highlighted By Amnesty Debate", Khaosod Online, July 24, 2013

Instead, the UDD and the Pheu Thai Party are reportedly backing the draft by PT MP Worachai Hema, putting it top of the agenda for deliberation in parliament (even before the 2014 Budget Bill!) and ditching all other proposals - a move some observers say is to avoid uproar from the UDD, despite reports of dissatisfaction among certain groups within the fragmented movement. Under Worachai's bill, all political protestors will be granted amnesty - regardless of their political allegiance - while excluding the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdowns.

August rings in a new political season that could get very heated very quickly: on top of the 2014 Budget Bill, the 2.2 trillion Baht (US$ 730bn) loan for infrastructure investments and proposed constitutional amendments, the amnesty bill will spark months of legislative tugs of war and wars of words (and potentially worse antics by the opposition outside and inside parliament like last year) - once again revealing how big Thailand's political divisions really are and that even a far-reaching amnesty will not be enough to close the gap.