red shirts

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.

Red shirt activist accuses Thai military of 'torture' during detainment

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 4, 2014

A young Thai activist for the red shirt movement, who was detained by the military junta shortly after the coup under suspicious circumstances and released after much public attention about her whereabouts, has accused that she was physically assaulted and mentally abused during her detention.

A spokesman for the military junta dismissed Kritsuda Khunasen's claim Sunday, insisting that all detainees are treated "with respect to human rights and with politeness".

Kritsuda Khunasen was best known for providing legal and other aid to fellow red shirts and their families, especially those affected after the anti-government protests of 2010 and the deadly military crackdown.

She was arrested on May 28 - days after the military coup of May 22 - in Chonburi province under martial law and vanished for a several weeks, raising serious concerns about her whereabouts and wellbeing.

The military has denied any knowledge of her whereabouts despite television footage showing that she was arrested and taken away by soldiers from the 14th Military Circle. (...)

Since Kritsuda’s arrest, her family and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have tried unsuccessfully to locate her. Human Rights Watch has publicly raised concerns about Kritsuda’s safety and other secret military detentions.

Kritsuda has already been held two weeks longer than the seven-day period of administrative detention permitted under the 1949 Martial Law Act, which the military invoked after carrying out its coup on May 22, 2014.

"Thailand: Account for ‘Disappeared’ Political Activist", Human Rights Watch, June 18, 2014

With the army being tight-lipped about Kritsuda's fate, public and international pressure intensified, as did the rumors with some fearing the worst. Faced with such strong accusations, the army then showed that the 27-year old was still very much alive in a TV report on the military-owned Channel 5. What was shown then was rather bizarre:

Kritsuda Khunasen, (....), saying that she was satisfied with her living conditions and “happier than words can say.” (...)

The news section revealed a smiling Kritsuda giving an interview and having a meal with her boyfriend who was also detained after the coup. She said she was satisfied with what the military has provided her, whether food, accommodation, or any other request.

It also reported Kritsuda as saying that detention made her feel “calm by spending more time by herself.” She said she wanted the political conflict to start over by having all sides talk, according to the report.

She also dismissed a viral video clip done by a person claiming to be her brother, saying that she was tortured. She said that was false information.

"Missing activist appears on Army TV, saying she’s “happier than words can say”", Prachatai, June 24, 2014

Following that TV appearance, Kritsuda was released the following day.

On Saturday, exiled Thai journalist Jom Petchpradab posted a half-hour long interview with Kritsuda on YouTube, who has meanwhile fled with her boyfriend (who was also arrested) to an undisclosed location somewhere in Europe. In the video, she gave an entirely different account of her detention by the junta:

In the interview via Skype, Kritsuda said she was blindfolded and her hands were bound on the first seven days of the detention. During this period, a female officer would help her when eating, taking a bath, and when she wanted to go to the toilet. She said while she was naked during taking bath, she heard a male voice. “I consider this sexual harassment.”

(...) She said she was beaten several times during the interrogation. She was also suffocated when a plastic bag and a piece of fabric was placed over her head until she lost consciousness.

The embattled red-shirt activist said the focus of the interrogation was to link former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with her boss “May E.U.,” and the militant wing of the red shirt camp.

Mananchaya Ketkaew, aka "May E.U.", is a low-profile red-shirt figure who represents the pro-Thaksin “Red E.U.” of red shirts in Europe. (...) There has been a rumor that the group is financially supported by the former Prime Minister. Kritsuda said Thaksin had never supported the group and that the donations were from May and red shirts in Europe.

She added that on 15 June she was forced to sign a paper stating that she had asked the military to allow her to continue staying in the camp for longer than the period allowed under martial law for pre-charge detention, and she had to also state that she felt safer inside the camp. “I had to write that statement because I wanted to survive.”

"Kritsuda reveals military tortured her to link Thaksin to hard-core red shirts", Prachathai, August 2, 2014

The video was widely shared on social media before it was apparently taken down by Jom himself with no further explanation, although other uploads of the interview have popped up elsewhere. Additionally, the online report by Prachatai English we have cited above was also reportedly blocked in Thailand, but an alternative link was provided.

Speaking Sunday, a spokesman for the junta emphasized how "naturally happy" she was during the TV appearance in June. The spokesman added that she was "cooperative" and concludes that she was "worried and felt unsafe about the repercussions [from the red shirts] from giving helpful information to the authorities."

Considering the tightening grip of the military junta, the mass summons and temporary detentions of hundreds of politically active Thais (among them politicians, academics and activists) in its early weeks, the widespread censorship in media and online - it will be near impossible to find out what really happened, especially with the junta claiming to respect human rights, but not allowing dissident voices claiming the contrary. The moves by the junta during the entirety of Kritsuda's ordeal (e.g. the bizarre TV appearance, the censorship of the latest accusations) shows that they have had to deal with more public attention that they would prefer.

Kritsuda Khunasen and her boyfriend are currently seeking asylum from an as of yet unnamed European country.

UPDATE: A new video was uploaded on Monday showing a new portion of the same interview with Kritsuda, in which she details the torture allegations of her and her boyfriend, and also explains why she has no visible bruises.

Thailand: Did Pheu Thai 'hire motorcycle taxis' during the 2010 protests?

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 8, 2014 Claudio Sopranzetti is an Italian post-doctorate student at Oxford University best known for his research on Bangkok's motorcycle taxis. This handy (and at times only) mode of transportation through the often jammed streets of the Thai capital is hard to miss thanks to the drivers' bright orange vests seen waiting at the end of almost every alley and street. Apart from bringing people from one point to another, they're also hired as couriers and for other errands. In short: without them, a lot of things would happen much slower in Bangkok.

Sopranzetti's research resulted in the PhD dissertation "The Owners of the Map - Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok" at Harvard University in which he draws up a fascinating ethnography of the riders, most of whom come from upcountry. He also credits them with a growing political participation and thus growing influence over the years, as evident most recently in the 2010 red shirt protests.

Here's an Al Jazeera English report from 2010 shortly after the protests with soundbites from Sopranzetti summarizing his findings:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwy6jGt5Aps&w=600&h=338]

Last Monday, he held a talk at Chulalongkorn University on the same topic and this is how The Nation summarized it:

Motorcycle taxis played a big part in the 2010 red-shirt protests, a Chulalongkorn University (CU) seminar was told Monday.

Claudio Sopranzetti, a post-doctorate student at Oxford University, said the Pheu Thai Party had hired the motorbike taxis because they knew about Bangkok streets and alley-ways and could easily transport people to different parts of the city. Sopranzetti also pointed out that this gave rise to a red-shirt motorbike taxis group.

-"Motorbike taxis played a big part in 2010", The Nation, July 7, 2014

[UPDATE,  July 9, 2014: It appears that The Nation has quietly removed the article, hence why the link above will lead you to their front page.]

Somehow the main conclusion of The Nation (that's pretty much the whole article) is the notion that the motorcycle taxis that supported the red shirts back then must have been bought by the then-opposition Pheu Thai Party, a persistent accusation until today. While there are overlapping interests among all three groups, it doesn't automatically mean they're one and the same as The Nation suggests here.

Unsurprisingly, Sopranzetti himself strongly disagrees with the report:

This is how news are made up in contemporary Thailand, I can understand censorship but this is something different. I have never said that "Phua Thai had hired the motorbike taxis" to join the Red Shirts. The drivers who supported the movement did it because of their own ideology, belief in democracy, and hate for double standard and inequality. The nation should be ashamed of calling itself a newspaper. They do not report news, they fabricate them.

-Facebook post by Claudio Sopranzetti, July 8, 2014

Indeed the political participation of the motorcycle taxis during the various political protests in the past isn't really because of financial reasons, other than for the provided services. On this issue Sopranzetti said in an interview with New Mandala in 2010:

Arnaud Dubus: It was said that some of them get a small amount of money to participate in the demonstration?

Claudio Sopranzetti: It is true for those working as guards. The issue of payment for demonstrations is a tricky one. This money is seen as used to pay for a service, in the sense that guards would be paid to be guards, for doing the job. But receiving money to join the demonstration, it seems really odd. 200 baht is probably less than their daily average income. A motorcycle taxi who is in a good spot is making 400-500 baht per day, which converts to 10,000 to 15,000 baht a month. It is a fair amount of money. A university professor told me: they make more money than I do.

-"Interview with Claudio Sopranzetti: The politics of motorcycle taxis", New Mandala, July 21, 2010

Talking to Asian Correspondent via email, Sopranzeitti also voiced his displeasure over The Nation's coverage of his seminar: "It is really an embarrassing bending of reality to fit a prejudice they have. I am just sad they [The Nation] used me for this."

In related news, the military junta has briefly toyed with the idea of changing the orange vests and instead hand out new ones colored green. Also, registration would opened up for all and done by the Department of Land Transportation, as opposed to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority in the past, who distributed a limited number of vests, but also for free.

The junta claims that this limitation is the reason is why the free vests are sold on by local mafia gangs for a large amount of money - something the original policy introduced in 2003 under prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was supposed to have solved. Nevertheless, unregistered motorcycle taxis run by local mafias would operate with these bought vests.

The new plan for unlimited registration of new taxis has raised some concerns about over-supply, to which a military official said that it would balance itself out. In the end, the junta decided to stick with orange for the new motorcycle vests, because the color is "more familiar." There are some things even the junta can't change that easily.

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?

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.