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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While martial law was revoked earlier this year (with the now already infamous Section 44 in its place instead), the military junta still has a tight grip on the whole political discourse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.

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.

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.

Op-Ed: A 'truth' for the sake of Thailand's reconciliation does little

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 30, 2012 Last week, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) presented its final report of their investigations of the violent clashes between the authorities and the red shirts during the 2010 anti-government protests. At least 92 people were killed and thousands injured. The overall outcome was that they find faults at both sides. However, it does very little to move the country forward to the much-yearned for national reconciliation.

Right from the outset the commission was met with skepticism and rejection, especially from the red shirts, since it was established shortly after the protests during the Abhisit administration and the fear of bias was strong. Even if an investigation would have been set up by the succeeding Yingluck government, any inquiry that would be set up by any government would be regarded as partisan in this current political climate.

The real problem of this panel is not what is being pointed out by the report or whether or what the motives of the nine commissioners were, but rather the toothless nature of the panel. It was given virtually no powers and access to forensic and official information in order to conduct proper investigations regarding the violent clash of April 10, 2010, and the bloody crackdown that ended on May 19, 2010.

And so the actual report was criticized and rejected by both sides, neither fully acknowledging the claims by the TRCT that there were mistakes done by them in order to prevent violence. However, the emphasis of the alleged link of a black-clad militia group to the red shirt leaders, especially to the late rogue Major General Khattiya"Seh Daeng" Sawatdiphol - who denied any involvement with them, but confirmed their role during the April 10 clashes shortly before he was assassinated from a sniper who the TRCT concluded must have shot from a building under control of the army - all without proper evidence, which begs the question where the priorities of the commission lie.

The personal opinion of TRCT chairman Khanit na Nakhon (which has been wrongly reported as an official statement of the commission by a few outlets) that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra should "sacrifice himself" and keep out of politics underlines one major misunderstanding and the ultimate blind spot of many political actors: the notion that Thaksin is the root of all evil problems ignores the long-term effects of his (in no way altruistic or goodie-goodie) policies that lead to the political awakening of the population outside of Bangkok.

On the other hand, there were many solid and legitimate findings and recommendations made by the TRCT report, such as the call for amendment of the draconian lèse majesté law and the call to the armed forces to restrain themselves from taking political sides. But those are just non-binding recommendations and it has to be seen if anyone would take these to heart and implement actual change. Furthermore, this report does not give more clarity for the victim's families, which is unfortunately more the rule than the exception in Thailand, as political events that have turned violent in the past have never been properly investigated.

This country has a very long history of impunity where the state perpetrators have never been held accountable for their decisions and their consequences - many of them resulting in deaths. Whether it was the attacks on democracy activists on October 14, 1973, the Thammasat University massacre of October 6, 1976, the Black May of 1992 or the recent military coup of 2006, the events of modern Thai history have left gaping wounds in the nation's fabric and those responsible have never been brought to justice. Instead, for the sake of national 'reconciliation,' the anger has been attempted to be quelled with the ever-repeating mantra of forgiving and forgetting - only for the next tragedy to strike and many to ask how it could happen again.

Reconciliation cannot happen without understanding or even be ready to acknowledge what brought us here to the first place, that competing narratives and opinions about our past, present and future exist, that 'unity' should not require surrender of differences and that the 'truth' can no longer be claimed by just a few. That is the main point of this column: it's not so much what the 'truth' is here presented by the TRCT, what is crucial for this country is how the 'truth' is being handled and implemented by the stakeholders and by the common citizen in order to move Thailand beyond the current power gridlock.

The full TRCT report in Thai can be downloaded in PDF form here and the English-language press release here.

Thailand: 2 years after the May 19 crackdown - some personal (and very short) thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 21, 2012 On Saturday, thousands of red shirts gathered at Ratchaprasong Intersection in Bangkok to commemorate the second anniversary of the violent crackdown against the anti-government protests on May 19, 2010 by the military. Ninety-one people have lost their lives and thousands were wounded in the clashes - protesters, soldiers, civilians and journalists (notably Fabio Polenghi) are among the casualties. In the past two years there has been hardly any justice and impunity still prevails.

There seems to be a growing discontent among some red shirts over the people they initially supported. Key issues such as lèse majesté have still seen no action from the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Many see this as a promise from the government in exchange for a shaky détente with the military that allows it to stay in power. Yingluck's brother, the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, made his regular phone-in to his supporters on Saturday, asking the crowd to put aside calls for solving social inequalities and injustice for the sake (yet again) for national reconciliation - potentially alienating the progressive, pro-democracy wing of the red shirt movement.

In contrast to 2010 and 2011, I have decided not to write a long column on the state of the nation. However, I tweeted a few concise thoughts on Saturday that have gained some response and I thought they would be worth sharing here:

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.