coup

ConstitutionNet: Thailand’s next post-coup constitution: The dictatorship of the ‘good people’?

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on May 29, 2015

There is a persistent theme in Thailand’s ongoing political crisis often touted by one side of the spectrum: the call for the “good people” or barami in Thai. Barami, a Buddhist term for “charismatic power” or “meritorious prestige,” has historically been linked to the Thai concepts of power. In an increasingly polarized Thai political and societal reality, frustration with unstable and often scandalous governments has led to a popular political rhetoric that centred on the need for “good people,” implying that the democratically elected leaders of the country fall short of basic moral standards.

The crisis that started in the mid-2000s and the protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to the revival of barami. PM Thaksin was as popular among the electorate in the rural North and Northeast mostly due to his populist policies, as he was loathed by the upper-middle class and the political establishment in Bangkok for his illiberal tendencies. The latter ultra-nationalist group, commonly known as the “yellow shirts” saw Thaksin as a perversion of electoral democracy and desired a leader, who is “morally clean” above anything else.

The next decade saw many, at times undemocratic, changes of governments. Thaksin is now in self-exile, but he still wields considerable influence. After several street protests, two military coups, and clashes between political stakeholders, those calling for a takeover by the “good people” got what they asked for with the coupof May 2014 - or so they thought. The military that sees itself as part of the “good people” took firm control of the political discourse by outlawing public gatherings, detaining dissenting opponents, and enforcing a high degree of media censorship.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC). The limited political freedom the packed CDC enjoyed while drafting the new constitution became even more obvious last week, when the NRC proposed a striking 129 revisions to the draft the Committee presented in April. Nevertheless, the CDC is confident that it can incorporate all amendments and forward the final draft to the NRC for approval by July 29.

The new constitution is supposedly designed to re-balance the lopsided party landscape, introduce more checks and balances, and crack down harder on corrupt politicians. However, the underlying political motivation appears to be to curtail the power of elected officials and to transfer power to unelected ones. All junta actions seem to point in the direction of diminishing the electoral strength of Thaksin-associated political parties, which have won all national elections since 2001, and of fueling people’s contempt about electoral democracy in general.

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One year on: Future looks grim under Thailand's ruling junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 22, 2015 When Pink Floyd’s vocalist and bassist Roger Waters wrote the 1979 rock classic 'Another Brick in The Wall', he was thinking about the authoritarian teaching and rote learning he encountered in his school days that would produce, in his opinion, more proverbial bricks in the wall of mental detachment.

I recently came across somebody online pointing out the difference between a teacher and a professor: a teacher makes sure that students learn, a professor on the other hand (ideally) only points them to the general direction and leaves it up to them once they encountered the ”fountain of knowledge”. He then went on to say that a government should be similar to the professor’s job, which creates a free environment where discussions can be held and ideas can flourish. The current Thai government is more like the teacher that not only decides what we have to learn, but also when and how.

And boy, what a teacher we have right now!

It’s been exactly a year since Thailand’s military has launched the country’s 12th successful coup, toppling what was left of the embattled and besieged government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was the end of over half a year of anti-government protests that eventually morphed into anti-democracy rallies, but it was just the beginning of Thailand under martial law and military rule. On that day, we saw the death of Thai democracy as we knew it.

While martial law was revoked earlier this year (with the now already infamous Section 44 in its place instead), the military junta still has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and is busy re-writing and revamping almost everything about it.

The blueprint of the country’s political future is being drafted in the next constitution. But all signs show that this charter does nothing but constitutionally enshrine the steady regression of democracy by massively curtailing the powers of elected governments or otherwise leave the door open for extra-parliamentary interventions. Amidst these legislative changes, The Economist has aptly called it a "baby sitter’s-charter”.

Perhaps this is a better way to describe how the Thai military junta government rules over the country: Not only is it like a bad teacher that expects its students only to obediently memorize the stuff, but also like an overbearing nanny overlooking us on every step.

And no other person exemplifies this "teacher-nanny-in-chief"-dom than junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Driven by what I once described as "compulsive loquaciousness", Gen. Prayuth sees himself forced and challenged to say something about everything, no matter how ill-advised or confrontational it comes across. Same goes for his weekly TV addresses every Friday night (in a total of 40 hours of airtime since last year).

But it’s not only the former army chief himself who has delayed his retirement. Several other military officers have become either junta members, cabinet ministers, or more often than not both - mostly old men who may or may not have been good at commanding troops, but so far have failed to command the country to their liking.

The economy is at best floundering. But the military junta and their supporters have not realized that they are not part of the solution but an essential part of the problem - a delusion that has befallen them for a year now.

This week also marked the 5th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protesters. Back then, at the very early beginning of my blogging career, I said that "the worst isn’t over - the mess has just begun". Unfortunately, it seems that I was right.

In the past decade, there has been no real sincere, lasting effort from both sides of the political divide to repair the gaping wounds in the nation’s fabric. Instead, it has been covered by exactly the same "blanket over the ever-increasing rift and [blind preachings of] ‘peace, love and unity’ until the next escalation" that I warned about in 2010 - and what we got since then were more escalations and more blankets. But at this point, the wounds are wider and deeper.

It is this political short-term memory loss and cognitive dissonance that has led Thai democracy astray, weakened and easy prey for those firmly not believing in it and adamantly opposing. It is quite sobering to see those in command of the 2010 crackdown now ruling the country.

The near-term future looks rather grim. The junta has recently approved a referendum on the country’s next constitution, but at the cost of delaying possible elections until September 2016 - and even that is not guaranteed, as Gen. Prayuth threatened to stay on if the charter is rejected.

The past 12 months have contributed truckloads of bricks in the mental wall that has been growing and growing in this political crisis, making it even more difficult and daunting to tear it down.

In May 2010, I expressed my doubts that a lasting change towards a more open, free and democratic Thailand will happen anytime soon.

Five years and a military coup later, I’m still waiting.

ConstitutionNet: Thailand’s next post-coup constitution: Uncharted territory to ‘true democracy’ or same old trodden path back to authoritarianism?

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on April 30, 2015

On the afternoon of 22 May 2014 Thailand’s military launched a coup in response to which even the most casual observers of Thai politics and history would have sighed an exasperated ‘not again!’. Indeed, this is the Kingdom’s 12th military takeover of power since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The most recent coup was the climax, toppling the besieged government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - or rather what was left of it following her ousting from power after the Constitutional Court found her guilty of an illegal personnel transfer.

The coup came after nearly half a year of political gridlock due to sustained street protests in the capital Bangkok, where opposition politicians instigated chaotic actions that at times have turned violent. Such gridlock is just the latest episode of a much longer crisis that has rocked the Thai political landscape. Since 2006, the clash of multiple issues and stakeholders often beyond the realm of stable democratic politics had led to colour-coded street protests and military coups. And yet again we have a military junta that has complete control over the political discourse. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, has outlawed public gatherings, detained dissenting opponents and enforced a high degree of media censorship.

In Thailand, military coups detats seem to follow a distinct pattern: after seizing power and declaring martial law, the first few orders dissolve parliament. Shortly after that, comes an order declaring that the current constitution has been suspended. The duration of this legal void until a new constitution is promulgated, differs from coup to coup. This time, it lasted about two months as the junta adopted a new interim constitution that whitewashes its own actions, declaring all its past and future acts legal and constitutional. Such convenient clauses are also included in the interim constitution of 2014, while the touted emphasis is on ‘reforming’Thailand’s political system to end the country’s long-running divisions. In other words, the military junta’s (official) plan is to ‘bring back reconciliation’ to Thai society and to rid politics of corruption - a catch-all justification to demonize elected politicians.

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Bizarre Hitler scene sneaks into Thai junta propaganda movie

A screenshot from the short film '30' shows students painting a picture of HItler. Pic: AP. A bizarre and brief scene depicting Thai students painting a picture of Adolf Hitler has made its way into a propaganda short film financed by the military government. "30" by director Kulp Kaljaruek is part of the "Thai Niyom" ("Thai Pride") movie aimed at promoting the "12 core values" drawn up by by junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the military coup of May 22, 2014.

These commandments "12 values" are essentially the junta's guide to becoming a "good" Thai citizen. It includes values like showing respect to superiors, resisting the temptation of "religious sins", upholding "Thai customs and traditions", and sacrificing oneself for the good of the country. School children (and sometimes even adults) are advised to recite them daily, and to further push their agenda the military junta has financed short films based on said values.

And so we have the short film "30", about a spoiled brat young, wealthy and neatly-kempt Thai boy and his underachieving, goofy (and darker-skinned!) best friend in school (a private school, mind you!), learning about friendship and acceptance. This would all be as expected if it wasn't for that intro sequence stylized like a children's coloring book showing the different school activities,  one of which involves the protagonist standing in front of a  portrait of Adolf Hitler during art class, while winking suggestively at the camera (0:54 min. in video below).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFu5whDYq-Q]

The movie was uploaded to YouTube and was unsurprisingly removed from official channels after a sufficient amount of baffled outrage on social media at the odd inclusion the scene. As usual, bootleg copies have popped up elsewhere already. This not the first time that there has been outrage at the insensitive or just simply misplaced use of Nazi symbols and Adolf Hitler depictions. In the past unsuspecting school and university students (and certain Bangkok hipster shops) have been criticized for their trivial use of such images.

But was this just yet another lapse in judgment and a show of ignorance stemming from a rather dismal education system? Or - given the apparent winks and nods throughout the whole short film (e.g. rich, spoiled, overachieving boy living in mansion attending a private school) - is this part of an almost satirical subtext undercutting the whole "12 core values" and the military junta's re-imagineering of what makes a "good" Thai?

(MORE: Thailand’s junta brings its message to the silver screen)

Whatever the case may be, it must have somehow flown over the heads of the officials - Thai junta Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth and several other ministers are credited in the movie as sponsors before the actual cast and crew - and thus found its way to an astonished general public. Certainly not what the generals had in mind.

UPDATE [Dec 9]: The colleagues at Khaosod English have talked to "30" director Kulp Kaljaruek and he seemingly shows no regret or remorse or any deeper meaning at all:

"As for Hitler's portrait, I have seen so many people using it on T-Shirts everywhere. It's even considered a fashion. It doesn't mean I agree with it, but I didn't expect it to be an issue at all." [...]

When asked whether "30" was an attempt to poke fun at Gen. Prayuth's Twelve Values in a subversive way, Kulp insisted that he did not intend the film to be political at all.

"Director Defends 'Hitler Scene' in Thai Junta Film", Khaosod English, December 9, 2014

Just as much as Hitler is sometimes being treated as a pop cultural icon in Thailand (see above), his production company "Kantana Motion Pictures" (and part of one of the largest TV and film companies in Thailand) also seems to like some of the same motifs and color schemes...! The director continues:

"[Hitler] is the character of this child," Kulp explained, [...] "He's always been 'number one,' and he's selfish. Hitler is also a 'number one,' in a bad way," Kulp continued. "He was good at persuading a lot of people, but he refused to listen to the majority. He was always arrogant. That's why the war happened."

"Director Defends 'Hitler Scene' in Thai Junta Film", Khaosod English, December 9, 2014

Apart from incorrectly stating almost any historical fact about Hitler and the Third Reich (is he suggesting that Hitler started World War 2 out of arrogance and there was widespread opposition against him? Really?!), he has absolutely fumbled artistically justify that scene other than making a shrewd reference to the dangers of a charismatic evil swaying the population - which is further supplemented by a military junta spokesman:

Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd, spokesperson of the Office of Prime Minister, admitted that he has not had time to see the film, but offered a possible explanation of why the Hitler cameo was included. "If I were to make an uneducated guess, it may have been intended to say that democracy has good and bad sides," Col. Sansern said.

"Director Defends 'Hitler Scene' in Thai Junta Film", Khaosod English, December 9, 2014

Uneducated indeed, since Thai ultra-conservatives - including the anti-government protesters, whose actions this and last year have paved the way for the military coup - like to often play the "Hitler-also-came-from-elections"-card in order to denounce democracy as a whole, as we have previously discussed here, here and here.

UPDATE 2 [Dec 11]: The Prime Minister's Office Minister Pannada Diskul told Reuters, after apologizing for the understandably upset Israeli ambassador, that "The director had decided to make changes to the film even before it made news to ease everybody's concerns." That's rather surprising to hear since, as seen above, the director initially said that he  "didn't expect to be an issue at all"...!

Thailand's military junta to delay elections to 2016 - is anyone surprised?

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 28, 2014

In the immediate aftermath of the military coup of the May 22 earlier this year, there was some early hope by rather optimistic (but ultimately naive) observers that this hostile takeover of powers would be just a "speed bump" or a "slight setback" for Thailand's democracy. The hope was that, as with the previous coup in 2006, powers would be returned to a quasi-civilian government that would organize fresh democratic elections within a year.

However, the 2006 military takeover failed to purge the political forces of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his sister Yingluck taking power in 2011, only to be ousted earlier this year. This time the military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been particularly cagey (as mentioned here) about the near- and mid-term future of Thailand's political discourse - particularly about when elections will take place - so much so that the piercing questions by the media at one press conference provoked a walk-out by the junta leader.

In the weeks following that the junta set the agenda: the so-called "roadmap" sees "reconciliation" by the "reform process" as a main pretext before democratic elections can be eventually held. Now six months after the coup, with the establishment of a fully junta-appointed ersatz-parliament called the "National Legislative Assembly" (more than half stacked with active and retired military officers), a fully junta-appointed "National Reform Council" tasked with making reform recommendations, and the rather exclusive "Constitutional Drafting Committee", the institutional bodies for the junta's political groundwork have been set, joined by a cabinet of ministers that is largely the same as the military junta at the top.

The junta said that, all going to plan, elections could be possible in late 2015. However, that prospect is now very unlikely:

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also defense minister, said elections will take place in 2016, citing groups opposed to the junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, as it is formally known, as one reason for the delay.

"We will be able to organize elections around the start of 2016 once the constitution is drafted," Prawit told reporters. "Right now there are elements opposed to the National Council for Peace and Order."

"Thai election pushed back to 2016: deputy PM", Reuters, November 27, 2014

This should come as NO surprise to even the casual observer. There have been quite a few times already that a delay of elections has been hinted at. Here they are in reverse chronological order:

Speaking to the BBC's chief business correspondent Linda Yueh, [Thai finance minister Sommai] Phasee said that from his conversations with Gen Prayuth "I think it may take, maybe, a year and a half" for elections to be held.

He said both he and the prime minister wanted to see an end to martial law, but that it was still needed now "as his tool to deal with security".

"Thailand elections 'could be delayed until 2016'", BBC News, November 27, 2014

[สัมภาษณ์กับนายเทียนฉาย กีระนันทน์ ประธานสภาปฏิรูปแห่งชาติ (สปช.)]

"กฎหมายลูกที่ต้องร่างเพิ่มเติมภายหลังได้รัฐธรรมนูญจะใช้เวลาเท่าไร บอกไม่ได้ ตอบได้เพียงว่าไม่นาน รวมเวลาการทำหน้าที่ของสปช.ทั้งหมดน่าจะห้อยไปถึงปี '59"

[Interview except with Thienchay Keeranan, President of the National Reform Council]

"How much time it will take to amend the constitution [for a referendum] once this is set - I cannot say. I can only say that it won't take long, the work of the National Reform Council will be done by 2016."

"แนวทางปฏิรูป-กรอบร่างรัฐธรรมนูญ - สัมภาษณ์พิเศษ", Khao Sod, October 27, 2014

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (...) said on Wednesday that elections planned for 2015 will depend on whether wide-ranging national reforms can be completed within a year.

"I outlined a roadmap. The election must come with a new constitution and eleven reform areas," said Prayuth. "Everything depends on the roadmap so we must see first if the roadmap can be completed. Elections take time to organize," he added, giving no further details.

"Leader of Thai junta hints at delay in return to elections", Reuters, October 15, 2014

The actual reasons for the delay are pretty simple: the so-called "reform" plans by the junta - aimed at marginalizing the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra's political forces even at the cost of disenfranchising nearly half the electorate - are apparently taking longer than initially believed, despite all the government institutions being dominated by its political allies.

Furthermore, martial law is still in place in order to quash any form of opposition, seen this past week (read here and here). It is these public displays of dissent that the junta will use as a pretense to claim that "reconciliation" hasn't been achieved yet and thus an election cannot be held under the present circumstances. At risk of sounding like  broken record, the real problem isn't the fact that there is opposition to the military junta, it is rather that the opposition is banned from expressing it publicly  - if at all, it should be done silently, says the junta.

The junta's attitude to its commitment to the "roadmap" (and a lot of other things) can be summed up by what junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister (and largely assumed main backer of the coup) General Prawit Wongsuwan said earlier this month at a press conference after a case of junta interference in the media (we reported):

I would like to remind the media that the government, the NCPO are currently in the process to achieve reconciliation in this country. Everything that is an obstacle to reconciliation… everything that will create divisions – we won’t let that happen! Let it rest, wait for now. [...] so wait… for a year! We have our roadmap, the government, the NCPO are following it, they’re following their promise. So why the hurry?!

Why the hurry indeed when you cannot be actually held accountable for missing the deadline...?