Thailand: Public assembly law creates new hurdles for political protests

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 4, 2015 In the past decade, Thailand has seen fair share of political protests. As color-coded groups staged prolonged, large-scale street rallies, politics frequently more often took place outside than inside its usual institutions. Many of these protests went on for several weeks with varying degrees of impact on public life as major public areas (Rajaprasong Intersection in 2010 and 2014, Democracy Monument), numerous government buildings (even Government House itself in 2008) and even Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (also in 2008) have been occupied. And many protests have also sparked violent incidents (sometimes deliberately provoked), some resulting in deaths as protesters have clashed with security officials - or in the case of the red shirt protests of 2010 - the military.

The last major demonstrations we've seen were the anti-government protests of 2013-14, which lasted almost half a year and brought parts of the capital Bangkok to a grinding halt - not to mention halting political discourse, deliberately creating a deadlock in which the military could easily launch the coup of May 22, 2014.

Following that hostile takeover and the declaration of martial law, the military junta outlawed public gatherings of more than five people. But even after its recent revocation has effectively banned any protests, as the infamous Article 44 still gives the junta near-absolute power.

Then, the military government’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), passed a law on Friday that seeks to regulate future public protests:

People seeking to stage a public protest must inform authorities 24 hours in advance, and others who think they create public nuisance may petition the Administrative Court or courts of justice under the new public assembly law passed on Friday.

The law also prohibits public gatherings in the 150-metre radius of the royal places of Their Majesties, those of the royal family members, and residences of regents/royal guests. A public rally cannot be held on the premises of Parliament, Government House and courts unless authorities arrange a spot for it. (...) Other places deemed off-limits include embassies, consuls and international agencies.

The law requires a rally organisers to notify police officers supervising the area they would like to use as the rally venue at least 24 hours before the assembly. They must also tell authorities the purpose of the gathering and how long it will last.

New public assembly law passed”, Bangkok Post, May 1, 2015

The bill was in the works since August last year after a proposal by the Royal Thai Police was approved by the cabinet in late November. The draft bill passed its first reading in the NLA with an overwhelmingly unanimous 182-0 vote in late February. The core components, such as the 24-hours notification and no-go areas at key government buildings, were left untouched until the final vote by the NLA. Other restrictions include a ban on loudspeakers between midnight and 6am, a requirement of protesters to stay at the site between 6pm and 6am and (obviously understandable) a ban on weapons at the rallies (a more detailed list can be found here).

Any violation of these restrictions is enough for the police officer charged with overseeing the protest (in most cases the commander of the police station which has been asked for permission) to declare the protest "illegal" and seek an order to disperse at the civil or provincial courts.

Protesters that refuse to leave despite being ordered by the police could face up to a year in jail and/or a maximum fine of 20,000 Baht (about $600). Other punishments include up to 6 months prison and/or 10,000 baht (about $300) for protesting without police permission, also up to six months for the rally organizers for any stage-related violation (loudspeakers after midnight, "inciting" speeches) and up to 10 years imprisonment for carrying weapons, trespassing and damage, making threats and causing harm to others and any disruption of public service and utilities (e.g. water and electricity).

That's a lot of obstacles for future protests. Furthermore, declaring most key government buildings such as Government House and Parliament off limits is understandable given that these sites have been besieged and occupied before, but it also prevents some protesters - the smaller, non-obstructive kind - from certain symbolic acts, such as handing petitions to politicians. That is if they even get this far.

The first hurdle that organizers have now to face is asking the police for permission, which could look like this in practice:

If the police station chief says no, we have the right to appeal to his boss. And if the boss says no too, his judgement will be deemed final. But we can still appeal to the court against the ban.

By then, I expect many affected groups which want to have their voices heard through protest will become frustrated and may scrap their planned expression of discontent. Another scenario is that a planned protest will lose steam because instead of protesting, the people involved will be forced to waste their time in courtroom battles.

Also, which police station chief - who will likely be of police colonel rank - will say yes to a protest in his area of jurisdiction at the risk of being reprimanded by his boss? So, there is a likelihood that rejection will be the norm.

"Harsh laws on public gatherings a blow to democracy", Bangkok Post, May 4, 2015

As usual with laws and regulations in Thailand, it's not the exact wording that is the problem but the motivation that it was written with. A certain fatigue of political protests regularly descending into chaos is understandable, however one should take the circumstances of the bill's creation into consideration. There has been absolutely no input by the public and the draft was waved through with few to no changes.

One must also not forget the military junta's general disdain to any display of public dissent, including rallies concerning environmental issues. The new law could give future governments - and possible extra-parliamentary forces - a handy tool to curtail political protests.

Thais in Milan rally for and against junta leader's visit

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 17, 2014 Exiled Thai activist Junya "Lek" Yimprasert (center) holding a sign denouncing Thai junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a rally in Milan, Italy, which hosts the Asia-Europe Meeting. (Photo by Eugenio Morongiu)

The attendance of Thailand's junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan has promted Thais to take action to either protest against his arrival or to display support for him as the political polarization among Thais extends abroad, writes Saksith Saiyasombut.

"Dittatore NON sei benvenuto!" - The message in Italian makes it clear in no uncertain terms that somebody isn't welcome and judging by the face on the image it is also very clear who it is directed at: A drawing of the trademark stern look of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. A few of these stickers (in different languages) have been put in the northern Italian city of Milan.

One such sticker was put on a lamppost, when Mrs. Wiyada discovered it. She immediately put up her own sign on the post (and took it down again after snapping the picture): a portrait of a proud-looking General Prayuth in front of an Italian flag above silhouettes of a crowd waving Thai flags with the slogan "Welcome Thai PM to Italy."

It comes to no surprise that the recently retired army chief is causing such an uproar: in May 2014, he launched a military coup - the second within 8 years and the 12th in total since 1932 - and his military junta has appointed a quasi-parliament dominated by military officers, who in return have appointed General Prayuth as prime minister. Furthermore, his military government intends to "reform" to political system in a self-proclaimed crusade against "corruption" that may eventually results in fresh elections some time in late 2015 - or not. Also, not to mention the countless summons, detentions and trials against dissidents critical of the coup and severe media censorship, especially online.

Contrary to general impressions and most appearances in recent months, the Thai junta seems not to be completely tone-deaf of the opposition it has suppressed in recent months, as the Foreign Ministry anticipated that there'll be protests against General Prayuth's visit to ASEM in Milan in order to explain the political situation to leaders of the European Union heads of states from Europe and Asia from their point of view.

(READ MORE: Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’)

Junya "Lek" Yimprasert is one of the people protesting against Prayuth in Milan. A veteran labor and political activist, she is forced to live in exile after being charged last year with lèse majesté for writing a 2010 essay critical of Thailand's monarchy, for which she could face a jail sentence of up to 15 years. Now she lives in Finland and has traveled to Milan a week before the ASEM to attend the associated Asia-Europe People's Forum to explain her opposition against Prayuth at a panel discussion on Thailand under military rule. (Disclaimer: This author was one of the other panelists at this forum, following an invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation)

"The ASEM must not allow a military dictator to come to Europe and collect stamps of approval," said Junya in a rapid-fire manner during the three hours panel talk. Her demand would be later echoed in the final declaration (PDF) of the bi-annual and bi-continental meeting of NGOs and social movements, adding that "democratic governments to grant asylum to all citizens who have been put under pressure and have been prosecuted in Thailand."

The other part of her plan to protest against Prayuth is to mobilize local activists, as she and her group of other concerned Thai citizens have met with Milan-based groups to jointly organize a rally on Thursday, when the leaders from Europe and Asia arrive at ASEM. "It is an act of international solidarity," Junya would say later.

Meanwhile, the other side was also preparing to convene in Milan. Mrs. Wiyada (full name withheld), a 38-year old resident of Cervia (roughly 3 hours away from Milan) who has called Italy her home for 9 years now, is charge of PR for several groups "all across Europe in 18 countries" that are aligned with the group that have held prolonged anti-government protests from autumn last year and whose actions have paved the way for the military coup in May 2014.

Talking to Asian Correspondent, Mrs. Wiyada says that initially she only planed to greet General Prayuth with a small group of Thais. "But when we heard that the other side (referring to Junya Yimprasert) were coming, we decided to meet up," she said, claiming that  Thais from "all over Italy and some from Switzerland" will join to show their support to the Thai junta leader - all on their own initiative and nobody the background paying them.

While she admits that the current military government "isn't a democracy," she claims that the toppled government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra "wasn't democratic either," reiterating the claims that her and previous affiliated administrations may have won at the polls, but weren't acting in the interest of the country.

It is not known where exactly the political allegiances are among the roughly 5000 Thais living in Italy, but like in the rest of the continent, political groups from both sides of the spectrum exist and regular meet to discuss the state of Kingdom. However, Mrs. Wiyada claims that "the other side doesn't have the support from most Thais here in Italy. That's the difference!"

On Thursday, Wiyada's group - roughly two dozen - are waving Thai flags and holding signs at the hotel where General Prayuth stays in the morning and later in the afternoon (see HERE), and then waiting for him at the famous Duomo cathedral in the evening, cheering to him whenever the group saw him.

In a different part of town, at least 200 to 300 protesters are rallying through the streets of Milan - the overwhelming majority being Italian students. Nevertheless, Junya and other Thais are to be seen front row holding anti-Prayuth signs, joined by other students as well. Junya was also holding the picture of Fabio Polgenhi, the Italian photojournalist killed in the deadly crackdown by the Thai military on anti-government red shirt protesters in 2010. The investigation of his death have dragged on and may never be fully concluded.

While some local Italian media outlets would later refer these protest merely as a student rally against the Italian far-right party Lega Nord and racism in general, other media outlets specifically point out the opposition to the Thai junta as well. Regardless that may appear for some that the anti-Prayuth angle was an afterthought, the pictures of Mrs. Junya leading a large rally protesting the leader of Thailand's military junta have effectively framed her cause.

Talking after the rally to Asian Correspondent, Junya Yimprasert thinks it was "a success" and emphasized the cooperation with Italian activists. When asked about whether the participation of mostly Italian students in a protest about a Thai issue would diminish her campaign, she counters that "Italians also have a right to discuss issues in Thailand. The case with Thailand is an international problem (...) and it is time for the world to tell Thailand that enough is enough!"

While Thais were protesting for and against him, General Prayuth himself was shaking hands with leaders from Japan, China, Singapore and many other heads of states from Europe and Asia. According to the junta, these pictures of the encounters will be spun as a sign of acceptance by the international community of Prayuth and the military government - regardless of what was actually said.

Thus it is astonishing but unsurprising that a junta spokesman in Thailand claims that there have been no protests against Prayuth in Milan - Thursday's events evidently rebuke that assessment, showing that the junta cannot control the complete narrative. Both the rallies for and against Thailand's junta prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha prove that not only does the political polarization exists among Thais abroad, but also that he not necessarily welcome everywhere.

Thai court dismisses murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 29, 2014 Thailand's Criminal Court has dismissed murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-Deputy pPM Suthep Thuagsuban for their roles in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2010. Over 90 people were killed and thousands injured (both protesters and security officers) when the military dispersed the red shirt protesters after weeks of rallies in central Bangkok. The protesters were calling for the resignation of Abhisit's government and a new election.

The Criminal Court's decision on Thursday seems to stem from a technicality:

The court said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the two men held public office at the time of the protest.

"The court has no jurisdiction to consider the case because the two were a prime minister and deputy prime minister," a judge said on Thursday. "The charges relate to political office holders. The criminal court therefore dismisses the charges."

"Thai court dismisses murder charges against former PM, deputy", Reuters, August 28, 2014

The charge against Abhisit and Suthep was filed in late 2012 by police, prosecutors and the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) on the latter's recommendation and followed a growing number of court rulings saying that protesters were killed by bullets fired by soldiers.

Suthep, who was in charge of national security and thus tasked with overseeing the security situation during the protests as director of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), authorized security forces to disperse the protests back in 2010 (including the use of deadly force) and has since then repeatedly rejected any responsibility or blame for the deaths of the protesters. At one point he even suggetsed that they "ran into the bullets". In late 2013, he quit Abhisit's Democrat Party and became an unlikely protest leader against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (who the red shirts support).

The nearly half year of prolonged rallies and sabotaging created the political impasse the military used a pretext to carry out a coup on May 22 - Suthep claims this to be planned since 2010. Ever since the coup and a very brief detainment by the junta, Suthep has entered Buddhist monkhood and is essentially under political asylum.

Thursday's dismissal means that any accountability on the army's part is very unlikely, especially under the military junta. Its leader, army chief and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was deputy commander-in-chief during the 2010 crackdown and since becoming army chief a year later he has actively interfered in the DSI's investigation:

On August 16, 2012, Prayuth told the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation to stop accusing soldiers of killing demonstrators during the government’s crackdown on the “Red Shirt” protest in 2010 and not to report publicly on the progress of its investigations. Prayuth has denied any army abuses during the violence in which at least 98 people died and more than 2,000 were injured, despite numerous accounts by witnesses and other evidence.

Prayuth is also using Thailand’s archaic criminal defamation law to deter public criticism, Human Rights Watch said. On August 17, Prayuth ordered an army legal officer to file a criminal defamation complaint against Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Amsterdam’s translator. At a UDD rally on May 19, Amsterdam gave a speech in which he alleged that the army committed brutality against demonstrators for which it should be held accountable.

"Thailand: Army Chief Interfering in Investigations", Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2012

The DSI chief Tharit Pengdit, who reportedly apologized to Prayuth for the accusations back then, was removed from his post shortly following the military coup.

While the main charge of premeditated murder has been dropped by the Criminal Court for now, it doesn't mean the end of legal challenges for Abhisit and Suthep, as other avenues have already been explored:

Since a petition has also been filed against Mr Abhisit and Mr Suthep with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is responsible for handling criminal cases against politicians, the court also ruled that if the NACC finds the petition against them has sufficient grounds, the graft agency is duty-bound to forward the case to the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Posts for further consideration.

"Abhisit, Suthep murder case rejected", Bangkok Post, August 28, 2014

Given Thursday's dismissal by the Criminal Court, the generally slow pace of the investigations and the current ruling military junta, it will be now even less than likely that anybody from the past Abhisit administration - let alone the army - be held accountable for the deaths during the 2010 protests, as prolonged impunity adds to the growing pile of reasons for the political conflict, no matter who is calling the shots right now.

Thailand's political crisis exacerbates: Welcome to Quagmire Country

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 16, 2014 Welcome to Quagmire Country. Last week Thailand's acting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted after a Constitutional Court ruling ruled that she has illegally transferred the head of National Security Council. This was followed by an indictment by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for negligence of duty in the rice-pledging scheme, which could result in her impeachment and banishing from politics for five years. She was replaced by interim Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, a Thaksin confidante and former executive in his various companies.

Embolden by the news, the anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thuagsuban stepped up their rallies again, harassing and coercing TV stations to broadcast their speeches and not the government security official's announcements. Earlier this week, they moved out of Lumphini Park and moved back to Ratchadamnoen Road where they started their campaign over six months ago.

Meanwhile, the Senate convened initially only to confirm a new executive for the NACC, as dictated by a royal decree - but also decided to elect a new Senate speaker. The vote went to Surachai Liengboonlertchai, an appointed senator and the former deputy speaker - and the preferred choice of the anti-government protesters. But that vote may or may not have overreached what the decree dictated and may be legally challenged, while Surachai awaits royal confirmation.

This highlights the current importance of the Senate - the half-elected, half-appointed upper chamber - in this current political stalemate. For instance, 90 (or three fifths) of the 150-strong Senate are needed in order to impeach former PM Yingluck. Also, as currently the only representative body left in Thailand, calls by the protesters for it to appoint a 'neutral' caretaker government are getting louder and has been considered aloud by some senators in informal sessions and secret backdoor meetings, raising more questions and doubt than actual solutions and confidence.

The new Prime Minister Niwatthamrong had to hit the ground running and pushed for the proposed July 20 elections to go ahead. For that he met with the Election Commission (EC) on Thursday, but that was cut short when a mob led by Suthep bursted onto the compound and forced Niwatthamrong to flee - despite a change of location due to security concerns. The EC then swiftly declared that July 20 elections are "unlikely" in the same reluctant manner we saw before the earlier attempt on February 2.

It was yet another symbolic blow for the remaining Cabinet, as Suthep & co. have already occupied a building of the besieged Government House and made it their center of operations. The EC and earlier this week the Senate speaker-elect have welcomed Suthep and his co-leaders openly to discuss the protesters' solution, giving them the sort of legitimacy Suthep is seeking after months of bullying.

One has to wonder whether or not the EC and the Senate are openly chaperoning Suthep and his demands for an appointed caretaker government, since the protesters claim that there's a 'political vacuum' now after Yingluck's ouster and PM Niwatthamrong has very limited powers. In fact, the Senate speaker-elect Surachai has threatened to go ahead with the 'neutral' PM and stated the importance of not letting "laws impede ability to solve Thai crisis". The thin veneer of impartiality of many (especially appointed) senators is yet another casualty along a long line of politicized institutions and government agencies that are supposed to be neutral.

With the red shirts rallying outside Bangkok, but staying put for now and yet another deadly attack killing 3 protesters on Wednesday night,  the so far gun-shy military issued its sharpest statement yet. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha threatened to "launch a full-scale effort to end the violence, in order to maintain order", if such violent incidents do not stop.

Thailand is now entering a crucial junction where tensions could exacerbate even more depending on what the Senate will do next. The immediate fate and future of the country is being decided (yet again) by a few behind closed doors whose 'reform' ideas are nebulous at best at this moment. Should Suthep's demands be met by an accommodating Senate and other government agencies, the caretaker government be toppled and a replacement to be appointed, the country is inching from a sustained political crisis towards a fully destructive impasse, under which a compromise is becoming even more difficult than it already is. Then Thailand really becomes the Quagmire Country.

Thai PM Yingluck challenged to live TV debate by protest leader Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 28, 2014 During the campaign for the 2011 general elections, then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party proposed a televised debate with his challenger Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, in the hope that the well-skilled public speaker could score some points against an at that time inexperienced and unproven politician - who ultimately declined. Since then, Pheu Thai assumed the rule, Yingluck became prime minister and Abhisit lost his manners. Furthermore, the Democrat Party has entirely given up on elections, many of its senior figures have now taken to the streets, bringing the entire political discourse to a halt.

For four months, anti-government protesters in Bangkok have done a lot - most of all disrupting the February 2 elections - in order to topple the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in their ongoing "crusade" to "eradicate" Yingluck's brother Thaksin's strong influence on Thai politics. In his regular nightly (and rabble-rousing) speeches, protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban reflects the group's uncompromising attitude and has consistently refused to negotiate with the caretaker government whatsoever (as seen here, here, here and just as recently as last Tuesday - links via Bangkok Pundit).

This stance, however, changed on Thursday:

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has challenged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to one-on-one talks broadcast live on television in a bid to end the political deadlock. (...)

"If Khun Yingluck really wants to find a solution through talks, I ask her to make an appointment for a one-on-one meeting with me in an open setting," Suthep told reporters. "The talks should be broadcast live on TV so that the people know what is going on."

"Suthep calls for live TV talks with Yingluck", The Nation, February 28, 2014

The last time a Thai government openly held talks with anti-government protesters was in 2010 when then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with the pro-Thaksin red shirts. While the talks were televised for everyone to see, the two-day negotiations ended in no result. But that was just three weeks into the protests and way before things really escalated. These current protests are entering their fifth month.

The timing of this apparent turnaround is noteworthy: the overall situation deteriorated with last week's attempts by the authorities to reclaim some protest sites escalating into a gunfight with protesters, killing six. Last weekend then saw attacks on rally sites in Bangkok and Trat that killed five people - four children were among the victims. Also since then, there have been reports of almost nightly gunfire and explosions near rally sites.

Politically the caretaker government is under pressure. It suffered a defeat at the hands of the judiciary last week when the Constitutional Court rejected its petition to outlaw the protests, showing remarkable indifference to the protesters' actions. Following that decision the Civil Court restricted the authorities' powers to deal with the protesters, effectively banning the dispersal of the rallies.

Caretaker-PM Yingluck herself is facing charges by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for allegedly neglecting her duty in her implementation of the government's populist rice-pledging scheme. She did not personally show up to hear the charges and the red shirts - taking a page from the anti-government protesters' playbook - have chained up the anti-corruption agency.

PM Yingluck's reply to Suthep's live TV debate proposal:

Prime Minister Yingluck agrees to engage in a peaceful negotiation with Mr. Suthep. (...) Prime Minister asked Mr. Suthep whether he is ready to have the negotiation under the principle of the present Constitution and whether he is ready to end the protest to pave the way for the election (...) Though there is no basic principle for the negotiation process to be successful, there should at least be a common goal that both sides would initially like to attain through negotiation. If both sides continue to hold different view on the process, it would be difficult to find a common ground. (...) If each party does not show any sign of flexibility, in the end, we would not be able to find a common ground.

"Unofficial Translation of PM Yingluck’s reaction to Mr.Suthep’s announcement that is is ready to negotiate as reported in the Thai press." via Suranand Vejjajiva, February 27, 2014

Her statement is neither a flat-out rejection nor a full agreement: The protesters would have to end their rally and any proposal that is not "under the principle of the constitution" (e.g. Yingluck replaced by a 'neutral' caretaker-PM) would not be accepted by the government. And then there's the format itself:

"The talks have to have a framework though I am not sure what that framework would look like," she told reporters in the town of Chiang Mai in the north, a Thaksin stronghold. "But many parties have to be involved because I alone cannot answer on behalf of the Thai people."

"Thai PM faces negligence charges as protest leader broaches talks", Reuters, February 27, 2014

Leaving aside the previous remarks from the anti-government camp that she's incapable of making her own decisions without consulting her brother Thaksin, it appears unlikely that Yingluck would verbally go head-to-head with Suthep, who has constantly hardened his rhetoric against her - often below the belt.

But on the other hand, months of street protests resulting in 21 deaths and hundreds of injured have possibly worn out the early enthusiasm of the anti-government protesters, as seen in the shrinking attendance numbers. Suthep, who previously had an interest in escalating the protests, might be looking now at an exit strategy in these talks.

P.S.: Suthep has also challenged Chalerm Yubamrung, the labor minister who's also overseeing the security situation, to a fistfight...!

Thai court renders emergency decree meaningless, limits officials' powers

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 20, 2014 The Thai Civil Court yesterday ruled to sharply limit the authorities' powers to deal with the ongoing anti-government protests, while maintaining the state of emergency which was declared last month amidst increasing violent incidents.

The case was filed to the court by Mr. Thaworn Senniam, a core leader of the People′s Committee for Absolute Democracy With the King As Head of State (PCAD) [sic!], who argued that the State of Emergency enacted by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra violates the rights to free assembly guaranteed by the 2007 Constitution. (...)

At 15.00 today the majority of the judges ruled that the government will not need to repeal the State of Emergency, but the verdict also prohibits the authorities from exercising many powers prescribed in the emergency decree.

According to the verdict, the security forces cannot launch a crackdown on anti-government protesters, seize any chemicals from the protesters, dismantle any barricades erected by the protesters, prevent individuals from entering any building at their own will, close down traffic, evacuate or seal off protest areas.

Most notably, the authorities are also prohibited from banning political gathering - the crucial aspect of the emergency decree.

"Court Strips Govt Of Various Emergency Powers", Khaosod English, February 19, 2014

The ruling comes a day after deadly violence erupted between security authorities and protesters on Tuesday at Phan Fah Bridge as the police attempted to reclaim some rally sites occupying public roads. One policeman and four protesters were killed by gunshots with 68 reported injured. It appears that both the police, but also men among the protesters, were heavily armed and exchanged gunfire, in addition to a widely circulated online video showing a grenade attack on police officers (WARNING: graphic content!).

Nevertheless though...

The court, however, found that the protests were being carried out “peacefully without weapons,” and ordered that the demonstrators’ rights and freedoms “be protected according to the Constitution.” The decision bars the government from using force or weapons to crack down on the demonstrators.

"Thai Court Limits Crackdown on Protesters", New York Times, February 19, 2014

The Civil Court echoes a decision last week made by the Constitutional Court to reject a petition by the ruling Pheu Thai Party to outlaw the protests, similarly stating that the actions by the protesters - including the seizing of government buildings, threats against members of the media and most of all the obstructions on election day - are covered by the constitutional right to protest and should be challenged under the criminal law instead, if at all.

It has to be noted that during the anti-government red shirt protests of 2010, the Civil Court upheld the authorities' right to disperse protesters since they have "caused hardships and hurt people’s freedom and [authorities] have full rights to reclaim the area."

The reactions from the government side have been rather tame: interim deputy-prime minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the ruling will "complicate" the work of the security officials, while the man in charge of overseeing the protests, Chalerm Yubamrung, remained unconcerned, since they had "no plans to disperse the protesters anyways for now" and even thanked the Civil Court for not outlawing the state of emergency, which is still scheduled to end on March 22.

However, other observers see this as another wrench being thrown into the caretaker government's works in its dealing with the protesters. Human Right Watch's Sunai Pasuk sums it up:

Prominent legal analyst Verapat Pariyawong, who earlier called the Constitutional Court "indifferent to the flagrant abuse" by the protesters, goes even so far saying:

The Thai civil court's order today is one step closer to full scale judicial coup. (...)

2. The constitutional court's ruling only binds the civil court legally but not factually. That means the civil court is bound by legal interpretation but there is no judicial basis for the civil court to rely on factual determination by the constitutional court. The constitutional court determined the facts at one point in time but facts change by minute, therefore it is judicially impossible and legally illogical for the civil court to disregard the current situation and conveniently rely on the constitutional court's ruling.

In sum, the civil court basically teamed up with the constitutional court in attempts to intervene in the executive domain, where the court has no accountability, and pave ways for the protestors to claim pseudo-legitimacy to overthrow the government.

Facebook post by Verapat Pariyawong, February 19, 2014

The Civil Court's ruling has effectively cut off the emergency decree at its knees and the powers of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's caretaker government are seemingly being more and more marginalized - than it already is by law - by the judiciary and (supposedly) neutral government agencies.

The Election Commission has changed its plans again to complete February 2 elections (more background here), while the National Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating against PM Yingluck herself for "neglect of duty" in the government's increasingly disastrous rice-pledging scheme.

These developments will also very likely embolden the protesters to further up the ante in their disruptive crusade to bring down the government by - judging by past actions - any means necessary.

Thai govt declares state of emergency as political crisis deepens

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 22, 2014 The political standoff took a new twist Tuesday when the Thai government's declared state of emergency to counter the ongoing anti-election protests. With additional developments in the background, the wheels in this political crisis are about to spin faster.

With the mass anti-election protesters' campaign to "shutdown" the capital Bangkok entering its second week, the Thai caretaker cabinet decided to declare a state of emergency (SoE) on Tuesday evening as a response to the continuous targeting of government offices and banks by the protesters. The move also comes after explosions on Friday and on Sunday injured over 60 demonstrator and killed one. The suspects are still at large and police have set a 500,000 baht bounty on the perpetrator of Sunday's blast.

The 60-day state of emergency, starting on Wednesday, will last until March 22 and covers Bangkok and in parts its surrounding provinces Nonthaburi, Thonburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakarn. While the emergency decree is significant in principle - potentially  expanding the power of security forces to include searches, arrests and detentions people with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight and also censor media coverage - details of which regulations are being issued had yet to emerge as of publishing.

The announcement also includes a restructuring of the government organization tasked with handling the demonstrations. It now officially called the "Center for Maintaining Peace and Order" (CMPO) or "ศูนย์รักษาความสงบ" (ศรส.) in Thai.

Tuesday's announcement brought a familiar face in Thai politics back to the front line with the Pheu Thai MP Chalerm Yubamrung, who announced the CoE, assuming the position as CMPO director, while police chief-general Adul Saengsingkaew and defence ministry's permanent-secretary Nipat Thonglek acting as operating directors.

Chalerm is a veteran politician known for his bullish appearance and his reputation of being a blowhard, to put it mildly. When he was reappointed from deputy prime minister overlooking national security to labor minister in a reshuffle last year, he bemoaned his apparent political downfall. But when the current protests kicked off last November, somehow Chalerm managed to wrestle his way back into the headlines when he seemingly single-handedly took charge of monitoring the rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban - practically his political counterpart and arch-nemisis. Weeks later, Chalerm even boastfully and colorfully announced that he's "****ing back!"

The CMPO declared that the rallies by Suthep - who in April 2010 as deputy PM issued the last SoE declared in Thailand during the red shirt protests - have "constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working.” But at the same time they insist there are no plans to crack down on the protesters and are hoping that Suthep will surrender himself to the authorities. A notable sight during the televised announcement was the toned down presence by military officers, normally front and center at such announcements, even though many hold positions in the CMPO.

As the effects of the state of emergency declaration are yet to take effect, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken a proactive role after months of a hesitant, non-confrontational approach by police. Protest leader Suthep was unsurprisingly defiant, as he called the authorities to "come and get us" and still insists that his movement is "peaceful" despite riots and threats by its militant wing. Suthep says that the protests will continue with a view to stopping the February 2 election.

In related news, the Election Commission (EC) - still very reluctant to hold the February 2 polls - has asked the Constitutional Court to review the possibility of postponing the election. According to the constitution, a general election cannot be moved to another date, but by-elections can. However, with the SoE declaration affecting only Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the court may actually find a reason delay the vote because of these special circumstances. Moreover, candidacy registration has been disrupted by anti-election protesters in over 20 districts in the deep South.

With the state of emergency declaration the tense standoff between protesters and caretaker government goes to the next level and is less than likely being resolved anytime soon, since the government seemingly determined to hold the February 2 election and Suthep most likely now even more determined to stop it. Adding to that the EC's ongoing efforts to delay the February 2 elections, the National Anti-Corruption Commission's investigation against 308 mostly Pheu Thai lawmakers for their role in the proposed constitutional amendments and another probe directly targeting caretaker prime minister Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, the current political crisis in Thailand could be in very real danger of spinning out of control.

Organized chaos: Thai anti-election protesters' hardline faction

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 15, 2014 With the ongoing protests escalating again, anti-election protesters spread out across Bangkok this week in their much-touted "shutdown", further putting pressure on the caretaker government of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and to cancel the elections scheduled for February 2. Various factions inside the protest movement have also mobilised. One group in particular drew attention after this threat on Monday:

Protesters announced they will close the entrance of Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai) on Ngam Duplee road and also the Stock Exchange of Thailand on Ratchadapisek road if caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra refuses to resign before the deadline on Wednesday. Aerothai is in sole charge of all communications between aircraft and air traffic controllers in Thailand.

The blockade would be carried out by the Students and People Network for Thailand’s Reform (SPNTR). Uthai Yodmanee, a core leader of SPNTR, said Monday morning that if Ms Yingluck did not resign and leave the country by the given deadline, his supporters would close access to both sites.

He said the stock market has to sacrifice because Thai investors are still ignoring the situation and the protesters viewed the stock market as the “heart” of the Thaksin regime, because former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was still able to manage the capital markets from overseas.

"SET, air traffic control targeted", Bangkok Post, January 13, 2014

A similar threat was also made the night before by Nittikorn Lamlua, a senior advisor to the faction, adding that it would be solely under the responsibility of this group, not of the main protest leaders. A spokesman for the main protest leaders, in an attempt at damage control, almost immediately issued a denial that any protesters would target Thailand's air traffic control or any other public transport system. However, Uthai was seemingly unfazed by their main allies' apparent disapproval and reiterated his threats on Tuesday night:

(...) the hard-line movement Students and People Network for Thailand's Reform (STR) yesterday confirmed it planned to blockade the Stock Exchange of Thailand and the offices of Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (AeroThai) if caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra did not resign.

STR coordinator Uthai Yodmanee said the group would wait until 8pm tonight [Wednesday] - its deadline for Yingluck to step down. "If Yingluck does not resign by then, the STR will block the stock market and the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand office," he said, adding that STR leaders were designing a strategy on how to blockade the two places.

Any disruption of AeroThai's services could cause chaos for civilian aircraft, including domestic and international passenger flights, scheduled to land in Thailand, as well as those flying through Thai airspace, Uthai said.

"AeroThai and SET are in protesters' sights", The Nation, January 15, 2014 

It seems that the protest leadership is losing control over the most hardline and militant wing in their movement, which has previously already been at forefront of this protests' most volatile and chaotic actions.

The so-called "Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand" (NSPRT) - or in Thai กลุ่มเครือข่ายนักศึกษาประชาชนปฏิรูปประเทศไทย (คปท.) - is led by Uthai Yodmanee, a student union leader at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok. The 32-year-old's political activity goes back as far as 2006, when he was involved in anti-government protests led by the "People's Alliance for Democracy" (PAD), also known as the yellow shirts, demanded the ouster of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (source). In May 2007 (after the military coup of '06), he reportedly laid flowers at the Constitutional Tribunal, thanking them for dissolving Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party (source).

He also joined the rubber farmer protests last year, which in part turned violent. The anti-Thaksin stance would become a constant in Uthai's political activism. It is reported that he has close ties to fellow southerner Thaworn Senniam, who resigned as deputy leader of the opposition Democrat Party in order to lead the anti-government protests.

The NSPRT came on the scene last year when rallies led by the opposition Democrat Party and others targeted the government's amnesty bill drafts last August, but failed to gain momentum and were slowly fading in support, which led to one anti-government group's relocation of their rally site. That was when the NSPRT took over that stage and was seen as a political fringe group for the first time. With the rewritten amnesty bill draft passing parliament in late October, the anti-government protesters were reignited, which led to the anti-government rallies that are still going on until today.

Another central figure of the NSPRT is the faction's senior member Nititorn Lamlua, a "human rights lawyer" of the Lawyers Council of Thailand and previously attached to the PAD. His most recent activism before the protest targeted the government's 350bn Baht water management scheme ($10.6bn), which has been criticized for its non-transparent process among other complaints.

As the Thai academic Aim Sinpeng correctly observed, "nationalism, anti-mega projects and anti-corruption underlie some of the main motivations" for both men and the NSPRT.

What also distinguishes the hardcore faction are their extreme actions during the protests. Nititorn led a rally to the United States Embassy in mid-December after previously threatening to storm it. The US State Department statement earlier supported the "democratic process in Thailand," essentially endorsing the February 2 elections. At the embassy, Nititorn bizarrely suggested that the US ambassador Kristie Kenney should leave the country. "If she needs to leave the embassy, she'll have to go by helicopter because she has badmouthed the protesters," he was quoted as saying. The NSPRT also attacked the Election Commission's registration center in Bangkok in late December, where two people were killed in the clashes with police and have later temporarily seized the building.

With the deadline imposed by the NSPRT looming and the uncertainty over what will happen next in the "Bangkok shutdown", the questions are if this fringe group will actually launch an(other) attack designed to incite chaos - this time severely threatening to disrupt Thailand's air safety - and whether or not the main leaders have any control over their hardliners. As recent events have shown, there are small groups among the protesters that are prone to spark violent escalations and the NSPRT is one them.

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Opinion: Thai opposition boycott a slap in the face to voters

Orginally published at Siam Voices on December 22, 2013 Thailand's opposition Democrat Party is to boycott the February 2 elections, prolonging the current political crisis. But this move will hurt the country's oldest political party in the long-run, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

When Sukhumband Paribatra was reelected as Governor of Bangkok in March this year he did it with a record number of over 1.25m votes, maintaining the Democrat Party's stranglehold on Thailand's capital. However, the rival Pheu Thai Party was able to make ground, especially in the city's outskirts. In a city of roughly 12 million people, only 5 million are registered in Bangkok, while 4.2 million of them were eligible to vote. That means only about a third decided on the future of the other two-thirds. I commented back then that it was important for the Democrat Party to look beyond the city borders to the rest of the country since the next general election would likely be their "very last chance" to make a nationwide impact at the polls.

On Saturday, they slammed the door on that chance.

With the reportedly "unanimous" decision not to file any MP candidates and effectively boycott the February 2 general election, the Democrat Party of Thailand, somewhat ironically, has turned its back on democratic discourse in Thailand. Instead, it has decided to heed the the vague but shrill calls of the anti-government protesters for "reform before elections" in the form of the appointed "People's Assembly", proposed by protest leader and former fellow senior party figure Suthep Thuagsuban and his motley crew of like-minded ultra-conservatives.

Granted, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Democrat Party. It hasn't won an election in two decades and would be unlikely to sway voters in less than two months. It is also undeniable that Thailand needs political (and social) reform on several fronts and the upcoming election won't solve all these problems. But by siding with the protesters and endorsing their demands, the Democrats have delivered a slap to the face of not only to the 47m eligible voters, but also the 11.5m people that voted for them in the last general elections 2011.

While Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party won that election easily, there were surely still a lot of people willing to give then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a second chance to initiate reforms he failed to put in place while in power from 2008-20011 and are bemoaning now to be missing today, such as the proposals by Suthep for police reform (despite being deputy-PM in charge of national security under Abhisit back then) or the sudden embrace for decentralization in form of election of all provincial governors (also not mentioned during the Abhisit premiership).

On Saturday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit lamented "the loss of trust in Thailand's political system, and respect for political parties and elections." He didn't, however, touch on the failure of the Democrat Party in the past decade to effectively adapt to the politics and policies of Thaksin Shinawatra's government(s) and the changing political landscape. The need for reform of the Democrat Party into a healthy, rational political opposition is evident. However, in the party meetings this past week, with the re-election of Abhisit and Alongkorn Ponlaboot - the party's most outspoken proponent for reform - effectively sidelined, it showed that the party is unwilling to change itself for now. The boycott decision also shows that it doesn't even acknowledge that it could have been part of the solution, but instead is becoming part of the problem. The Democrats did not "play the ball back" to caretaker-Prime Minister Yingluck, as Abhisit said. They took the ball and simply popped it.

Whatever their gambit is (most likely creating a political gridlock in order to provoke a military or "judicial" coup), it will hurt the Democrat Party in the long-run. A 2006-style impasse is not possible due to amendments in the election rules that doesn't require 20 per cent of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election round and also due to the fact that, unlike over seven years ago, other opposition parties have not decided on a boycott yet.

Last week, the new secretary-general Juti Krairiksh said that entering the elections would “kill” and a boycott “cripple” the party respectively. Thailand's Democrat Party chose this weekend to cripple itself and it is doubtful whether or not it can recover in its current form.