Thai Elections 2014

Thailand in 2014: Some personal thoughts

Originally published on Siam Voices on December 30, 2014 Looking back in the past 12 months in Thailand I’m reminded of the 'The Fire Raisers' ('Biedermann und die Brandstifter'). The play written by Swiss author Max Frisch in 1953 is set in a town regularly attacked by arsonists who talk their way into their victims’ homes to set off the fires.

The central character is a moralistic businessman who pledges not to be taken in by them, only to have the very same arsonists coercing themselves into his home and filling his attic with oil drums. Refusing to believe until the very end that his ”guests” are actually the arsonists - despite being always openly blunt about their intentions - the businessman in the end even gives them the matches to set the fire, actively becoming an accomplice to the crime and the demise of himself and the entire town.

So, in the parable that was Thailand in the year 2014, who were the fire raisers and who the arsonists?

The anti-government protests that ended 2013 continued and gathered pace in 2014. Be it their prolonged blockades of the streets of Bangkok, the harassment or open assault on members of the media or the obstruction of fellow Thais from exercising their democratic right to vote in the February 2 elections, with each passing week it became more clearer the the people behind the protests didn't want more democracy, but less of it.

The protesters themselves - spectating in the thousands, blowing whistles in the ten of thousands and taking selfies in the millions - may not be the villains, yet they were dangerously confusing naive idealism for misplaced fear of the political forces they were protesting against, while missing the bigger threat looming in the shadows.

And they even helped measuring the fuse, not (willingly) knowing for what.

Nevertheless, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban and almost the entire former leadership of the absolutely misnamed ”Democrat” Party, the daily delusions of grandeur, the political weaponization of the Thai flag and the spurious claims of righteousness and a self-proclaimed moral high ground enabled the complete disruption of any reasonable political discourse.

And the attic was stacked to the brim with petrol drums.

The so-called "independent" agencies also did their part  - such as the reluctant Election Commission and the Constitutional Court - annulling the successfully sabotaged February 2 elections and eventually chasing then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office. With the man-made political impasse in place, Thailand’s military was free to launch the coup of May 22, 2014.

We have already extensively discussed in our week-long special last month about what has happened to Thailand under the military junta after the 12th coup in Thailand's history and will continue to do so going forward.

But it still bears repeating: The rule of the military junta led by former army chief and now-Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha is both tight- and ham-fisted in its sovereignty, both overzealous and insecure in its confidence, and both clear and vague in its intentions. The deep re-imagineering of the country, its political system, its teaching and its "myths" will irreconcilably scar Thailand for years to come and an end is not in sight, as the junta can conveniently move its goal posts (i.e. until new elections) indefinitely.

If this year were a play then we’ve been in the afterpiece for quite some time and still don’t know when it will end. But the afterpiece also reflects on what has been before.

A year ago, both The Nation and the Bangkok Post crowned the anti-government protesters as 'People of the Year' - only then to see that they were in fact anti-democracy protests. It was political blindness to a possible transformation, complacency to adapt to another reality and sheer intellectual failure to face a new tomorrow. It was that well-maintained ignorance that eventually culminated in the death of Thai democracy as we know it.

And they handed them the matches in blind faith.

With martial law still in effect and critics and dissidents being silenced, the whistle mob of last year has gone quiet, either silently enjoying their ”victory” - Suthep, who has admitted that it was planned all along, is now practically in political refuge as a monk - or slowly realizing that the cost of said "victory" was too high.

2014 was a bad year for Thailand and hardly anything points to any improvement in 2015. Is that assessment bleak? Absolutely. A little bit too cynical? Perhaps. But what the protests, the coup and the rule of the military junta shows is that a change is in progress in Thailand, it has just been halted yet again by a few not able to see that yet - or as one of the arsonists in 'The Fire Raisers' put it:

Jest is the third best disguise. The second best: sentimentality. (...) But the best and most safe disguise is still the blunt and naked truth. Oddly enough. Nobody believes that!

Thailand junta reactivates 'cyber scout' program to curb online dissent

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2014 In late 2010, the Thai Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) launched the so-called 'cyber scout' program aimed to recruit students and young people to monitor online content that could be deemed potentially offensive, especially to Thailand's monarchy. Now, the military junta is re-introducing the project.

Its originally stated objectives were:

Objectives of the project

1. To create a Cyber Scout volunteer network [...] that observes [...] [online] behavior that is deemed a threat to national security and to defend and protect the royal institution.

2. To collect the work of the Cyber Scout volunteers.

3. To set up a network of Cyber Scout volunteers to contact.

4. To promote the moral and ethics with the help of the volunteers, to ensure the correct behavior, build reconciliation and awareness towards the use of information with regard to morality and safety of individuals in society.

5. To promote and support to various sectors of society to careful and responsible usage of information technology. [...]

Taken from: "Cyber Scout Seminar Schedule, December 20-21", Ministry of Justice Thailand, ca. December 2010

That year, the government of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva blocked a record 45,357 URLs under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, according to a study by Thammasat University. Of these, 39,115 were blocked because they were deemed offensive to the monarchy - lèse majesté - a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This marked a significant crackdown on alleged anti-monarchy dissent, especially after the bloody dispersal of the anti-government red shirt protests earlier in 2010.

A couple of months later, we got to see a glimpse of the inner workings of the project when one 'cyber scout' spoke to AFP:

He explained that if he finds comments deemed offensive to the king he plans to contact the person who posted them to first to warn them and give them a chance to change their views, before informing officials. “Not many people know about the project. They may think they’re talking to a friend because I don’t tell them I’m a cyber scout,” he said. “I feel I am doing an important job. I can give back to the country.”

Thai ‘cyber scouts’ patrol web for royal insults“, Agence France-Presse, May 11, 2011

It was clear that the government back then was trying to introduce an online society of snitchers against a perceived threat - not unlike the namesake Village Scouts back in the 1970s that were battling against communist threats, both real and perceived. Eventually, the 'cyber scout'-project vanished into obscurity.

Fast forward four years, a change of government, a few protests, one major (enforced) political deadlock and a military coup later. The military junta is now reviving the 'cyber scout'-initiative, according to the Thai government news outlet:

กระทรวงไอซีที เตรียมลงนามความร่วมมือสถานศึกษา 200 แห่ง สร้างแกนนำลูกเสือไซเบอร์ให้กับเด็กนักเรียน อาจารย์และบุคคลากรในสถานศึกษา ช่วยกันสอดส่องดูแลภัยอันตรายและเฝ้าระวังข้อมูลข่าวสารที่เป็นภัยออนไลน์ทุกประเภท

The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology is making preparation for a cooperation with 200 schools in order to create 'Tiger Cyber Scouts' so that students, teachers and school personnel help monitor all kinds of dangerous information online.

นาง เมธินี เทพมณี ปลัดกระทรวง เทคโนโลยีสารสนเทศและการสื่อสาร เปิดเผยว่า วันที่ 26 – 29 สิงหาคมนี้ กระทรวงไอซีทีจะลงนามบันทึกข้อตกลงความร่วมมือกับสถานศึกษาทั่วประเทศ (...) เพื่อทำหน้าที่สร้างความรู้ ความเข้าใจ และความตระหนักในการใช้ ICT อย่างสร้างสรรค์ มีคุณธรรมจริยธรรม มีวิจารณญาน (...)

Ms. Manthinee Thepmanee, permanent secretary at the MICT said that between August 26 - 29, the MICT will sign cooperations with 200 schools nationwide (...) in order to build knowledge, understanding and raise awareness of using information and communication technology constructively, with moral and ethical judgement (...)

เพื่อที่จะช่วยกันสอดส่องดูแลภัยอันตราย และเฝ้าระวังข้อมูลข่าวสารที่เป็นภัยต่อสถาบัน รวมถึงความมั่นคงของประเทศ (...) และใช้งานข้อมูลข่าวสารบนโลกออนไลน์อย่างเหมาะสม และสร้างสรรค์ตั้งแต่รุ่นเยาวชน ตลอดจนเพื่อเป็นเครือข่ายขยายผลการใช้งานเทคโนโลยีอย่างถูกวิธี

[The objectives are] to jointly observe threats and monitor informations that are dangerous to the [monarchy] institution [and] national security, (...) to handle online information appropriately, as well as to incite to youth [with that knowledge] so that they will use technology the right way.

เนื่องจาก ภัยคุกคามจากเทคโนโลยีสารสนเทศและการสื่อในปัจจุบัน โดยเฉพาะอินเทอร์เน็ต ทั้งการให้หรือรับข้อมูลข่าวสารที่บิดเบือน การเผยแพร่ และเข้าถึงข้อมูลที่มีลักษณะหมิ่นเหม่ต่อการหมิ่นสถาบันเบื้องสูง การเผยแพร่ภาพลามก อนาจาร ถือเป็นเรื่องสำคัญที่ผู้ใช้งาน และสังคมออนไลน์จำเป็นจะต้องให้ความสำคัญในการคัดกรองหรือเลือกที่จะเข้าถึง

Apart from the dangers coming from information technology and media today - especially from the internet - that receives or transmits information that distorts, circulates and gives access to information of defaming character to the higher [royal] institution, the circulation of pornography is another important issue that our staff and the online community should be monitoring and regulating access [more].

"ไอซีที เตรียมลงนามความร่วมมือสถานศึกษา 200 แห่ง สร้างแกนนำลูกเสือไซเบอร์ให้ช่วยกันสอดส่องดูแลภัยอันตรายและเฝ้าระวังข้อมูลข่าวสารที่เป็นภัยออนไลน์ทุกประเภท", National News Bureau of Thailand, August 6, 2014 - translation by me

This reads almost like carbon copy of the original 'cyber scout'-project from four years ago - with the notable difference that there is a military junta now in charge of Thailand and it has repeatedly shown in the past months that it will not tolerate criticism or dissent, as it has imposed strict censorship measures on the media and warned social media users against posting or sharing anti-coup messages.  Reportedly over 200 websites have been blocked since the coup and recently the junta has bizarrely banned the sale of a computer game where you can play the role of a military junta.

Previously, the Royal Thai National Police offered 500 Baht ($15) to anyone providing information on anti-coup protesters and now, more worryingly, the military junta is reinstating state-sponsored cyber vigilantism, especially towards lèse majesté-related cases, while teaching school children early on what the junta thinks is right or wrong.

Analysis: Déjà vu in Thailand as court annuls elections

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 22, 2014 The Constitutional Court's ruling to annul the February 2 elections Friday rewards those that attempted to stop the polls from taking place and marks a dangerous development in the ongoing political crisis - something that we have witnessed before.

Activists have wrapped Democracy Monument in black cloth after the Constitutional Court's ruling to annul the February 2 elections. The text says "20 million [voters] + 3 < 6 [judges] RIP".

Ever since the anti-government protesters downsized their rallies and relocated to Lumphini Park earlier this month, the political battlefield has shifted its focus to the judiciary. Whether it's the crippling of the emergency decree (which has now been lifted) or the ruling against the 2 trillion Baht ($62bn) transport plan, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced strong opposition and was handed a series of defeats at the hands of the courts.

On Friday, it suffered another setback:

The judges on Friday voted 6-3 to declare the Feb. 2 vote unconstitutional because elections were not held in 28 constituencies, where anti-government protesters had prevented candidates from registering. The constitution says the election must be held on the same day nationwide.

The court ordered that new elections take place.

"Thailand’s court rules elections invalid", Associated Press, March 21, 2014

The reasoning that the elections were not held on the same day is at best contentious thanks to a one-sided interpretation of the law*. Here's what fellow blogger Bangkok Pundit wrote before the ruling:

It is important to note that [Section 108 of the Constitution] doesn’t explicitly state the the election must be the same day, it is the election date must be fixed (or set) as the same date. These are slightly different things (...) if the election date is set nationwide for February 2 and then we have a natural disaster or political protests and elections in one more constituencies cannot take place, is this unconstitutional? Essentially, this will be the question considered by the Court, but then when it likely rules it was unconstitutional, the Court should make clear on specifically the extent of the problem.

"Thai court nullifies February election", Bangkok Pundit, March 21, 2014

*(Read Bangkok Pundit's in-depth analysis and legal expert Verapat Pariyawong's comment for more details.)

That is exactly what the Constitutional Court did NOT do! It did not acknowledge the circumstances that left the elections incomplete. The court didn't take into account that the Election Commission - especially commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn - has been all too vocal in its reluctance to hold an election and has also been very hesitant scheduling the catch-up voting dates; it has only held re-runs in five provinces, moving the rest to April.

But the more severe implication of the court's ruling is that it rewards the anti-democratic behavior of the anti-government protests, since it was them that blocked voting stations in Bangkok and large parts in the South on election day and disrupted the candidacy registration back in December. To add further insult to injury for the caretaker government, the court dismissed its petition to outlaw the protests back in February, effectively endorsing the antics of the main protest group and its affiliates.

While the ruling also ordered for the whole election process to start over again, no time frame has been set yet by the Election Commission - that is, if we're actually going to get there in the first place. Not only has protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban already promised to derail any near-future elections (while not saying anything against the upcoming senate elections at the end of March - a crucial tool for a potential impeachment), but the caretaker government still has to endure further legal challenges against it.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission's (NACC) filed charges against Yingluck for alleged negligence of duty in the government's disastrous rice-pledging scheme and against 308 mostly government lawmakers for their role in constitutional amendments that would have changed the make-up of the senate - both cases could force them out of office.

Yesterday's decision by the Constitutional Court is a dangerous déjà vu that mirrors the events of 2006, where under similar beleaguered circumstances the government of then-PM and Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra called for snap elections, only to be boycotted by the opposition and to be annulled by the Constitutional Court. While a new election date was set, the military coup pre-empted it and exploited the power vacuum.

With similar circumstances today and the Yingluck government facing more legal torpedoes, the judiciary might have thrown do the gauntlet to pro-government red shirt supporters, which has recently seen a change at the helm: the promotion of Jatuporn Prompan as the leader of the umbrella organization United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) signals a readiness for confrontation should the government by toppled.

That and the utter disregard by the protesters, the opposition (the Democrat Party refused to take part and many of its members are rather at the rallies) and now by the judiciary for the democratic principle of elections makes this development much more dangerous, as the political polarization is getting closer and closer to breaking point.

Thai government, Election Commission clash over catch-up poll dates

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 12, 2014

The outcome of the February 2 general election in Thailand remains in legal limbo as the Election Commission (EC) has announced the catch-up dates for the constituencies where voting was disrupted by anti-government and anti-election protesters:

The Election Commission is to hold second chance advance voting in 83 constituencies on April 20, followed by general election re-runs at 10,284 polling stations on April 27. (...)

[Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn] explained that the new dates were set for April because the meeting had concluded that voting disruption was likely to escalate during the Senate elections, the first day of candidacy registration for which is scheduled on March 4. Voting for senators is set to begin on March 30.

Regarding the 28 southern constituencies which are still without candidates for the general election, Mr Somchai said the EC wants the caretaker government to issue a royal decree to fix a new election date for the 28 constituencies. The EC will write a formal request to be submitted to officials tomorrow, he added.

"General election re-runs set for April", Bangkok Post, February 11, 2014

Advance voting on January 26 saw widespread blockades in Bangkok and many parts in the South, preventing 2 million people from voting. On election day 10,284 polling stations in 18 provinces (again mostly in the South and in Bangkok) were forced to shut down or didn't open at all due to disruptions by anti-government protesters. Official figures show that over 20.5 million people did cast their ballot, a low turnout of 47.2 per cent.

The Election Commission already announced before the polling stations opened (at least those that could) that there would be no official results on that day, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of issues unresolved. Twenty-eight districts in the South are without any candidates - they were prevented from registering - meaning the mandatory quorum of 95 per cent to form parliament cannot be fulfilled.

Since the election, the EC and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have clashed on what should happen next and when the catch-up polls can be held in the aforementioned districts. In essence, the government argues that the EC has to hold by-elections as soon as possible and has to ensure that it they go smoothly, since that is its duty. On the other hand the EC is reluctant to hold them, citing legal reasons but also safety concerns as many election officials in the South are still being hindered. It should be noted that the Election Commission also displayed some unwillingness to go through with the February 2 elections.

EC officials justified the late catch-up election date with the hope that the political tensions may have calmed down by then, as anti-government protesters are still rallying in central parts of Bangkok, albeit with almost non-existent attendance at their rally stages during the day.

In the interim, elected senators will have completed their term on March 1 and new ones have to be elected on the March 30. That is eight days after the ongoing state of emergency for Bangkok and some surrounding areas is scheduled to be lifted (March 22) - but it would still cover the senate candidate registry on March 4, which is likely to be disrupted by anti-election mobs, as feared by the EC. Should the protests prolong until the scheduled April election dates, the catch-up polls could still be targeted.

As mentioned, 28 districts in the south were not even able to file candidates for the February 2 elections due to blockades in late December and the EC did not extend the registration period. Instead, the commission still proposes that the caretaker government should issue a new royal decree in order to start the entire election process for the affected constituencies. The government, however, has rejected that idea in the past and according to a legal expert of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it wouldn't be legally possible since the royal decree process dictates that after the dissolution of parliament the subsequent election day "must be the same throughout the Kingdom" (see Article 108 of the Constitution). Also, a second royal decree could void the original parliament dissolution decree and thus render the February 2 elections nullified and meaningless.

In a related development, that is exactly what the opposition Democrat Party - which boycotted these elections - is trying to achieve as they have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the whole election since it wasn't held in one day and it would violate Article 68 of the Constitution with the clear intention to get the interim prime minister Yingluck and the ruling Pheu Thai Party banned. But...

Legally, it is difficult to understand this argument. The election could not be held on one day largely because of the actions of a protest movement to which the Democrat party gives thinly-disguised support.

The use of section 68 is even more baffling. This section outlaws any actions that could threaten the existing democratic system, with the King as head of state. The Democrat argument appears to be that in calling the election at a time of turmoil, and against the advice of the Election Commission, the government put the political system in jeopardy.

"The constitution gives a clear and flexible mechanism to re-run the election where it has been obstructed," says lawyer Verapat Pariyawong. "It is ironic that the Democrats are citing section 68, as this really ought to be used to deal with the disruptions of the protesters rather than the actions of the government. There are no legal grounds I can see for annulling the election."

"No grand bargain amid Thailand political crisis", by Jonathan Head, BBC News, February 10, 2014

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to decide whether or not to accept the petition today (Wednesday). UPDATE: The court rejected.

So the February 2 election remains in limbo for at least another two-and-a-half months, while the caretaker government is facing more and more problems, most recently with rice farmers waiting to be paid subsidies and a related anti-corruption investigation and another one for proposed constitutional amendments. Thailand's political crisis continues with no clear answers on where it will go and how it will all end.

Tongue-Thai’ed!: Whistle blown on Abhisit's spurious pleas for reform

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 9, 2014 This is part XXIV of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, amusing, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

Ever since deciding not to compete in the upcoming snap-elections on February 2 after a lot of meandering, the implosion of the opposition Democrat Party has left Thailand's political party in a bit of an existential downward spiral as it tries to echo the anti-election protesters' mantra of "reform before elections", while still grasp at the last bits of political relevancy the party has. In an effort to maintain that, the Democrat Party has launched its non-election campaign to discourage convince people to follow their boycott.

Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva held a speech at a party event called "Eradicate Corruption, Committed In Reforms" in Bangkok on Tuesday, when this happened:

Here's a description of what happened:

[...] an unidentified man stood up in the audience and blew his whistle. The audience mistook him as a supporter of Mr. Abhisit, since whistle-blowing has been a trademark of the anti-government protesters, and no one restrained him until he held up a sign which read - in English - "Respect My Vote!".

The heckler then shouted at Mr. Abhisit, "If you cannot even reform yourself, how can you reform the country?". Mr. Abhisit was visibly surprised by the incident, but the former leader tried to manage the confrontation by thanking the man for his remarks.

However, the heckler went on to shout, "When you were the government, why didn't you do it? Stop the discourse about anti-corruption. You have intimidated other people, so can they not intimidate you as well?".

"Heckler Tells Abhisit To 'Respect My Vote'", Khaosod English, January 7, 2014

The heckler was later identified to be a 34-year-old Bangkok businessman referred under his Facebook handle "Ake Auttagorn" who told Prachatai that he staged the one-man protest "out of frustration" at the political discourse now and that "Thailand already had this lesson many times before" with the Democrat Party "always at the center of it".

And this is how Abhisit reacted to the heckler...

"This is an example of reasons why we need reforms," Mr. Abhisit told the audience, "This is the form of Democrat Party′s rivals", to which the heckler shot back, "I am not your rival, I am the people!"

Security guards later surrounded the man and led him out of the room. After the heckler has been removed, Mr. Abhisit told the crowd that such harassment is a reason why the upcoming election on 2 February 2014 would not be a fair one.

"Heckler Tells Abhisit To 'Respect My Vote'", Khaosod English, January 7, 2014

While he at least didn't snap back at the heckler (and could have said something like, you know, "stupid bitch"), Abhisit failed to ackowledge that the need for reform is not because of a heckler disrupting him, but rather because of an uncompromising deliberate escalation by the political opposition and the anti-election protesters originating from a long-held contempt for electoral democracy, those who vote for their political rivals and the failure of the opposition to effectively present itself as a viable political alternative. The Democrat Party has chosen to be part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, no matter how loud the whistle is being blown on them.