Military

Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short 'boring' Friday night rants

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 1, 2015

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking... and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government's media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta's efforts to "Return Happiness" to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuouslyintimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People" ("คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ").

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the "lakorns", the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable - so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program - which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen - Gen. Prayuth discusses the week's progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he's joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme [...]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: "I do and I feel bored."

"Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show", The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of "wisdom" - it could be possible that the majority actually doesn't watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved "lakorns". And TV executives aren't really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

"It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it's been a year now, it has lost its appeal," Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (...)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

"Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut 'Returning Happiness to the People'", The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government's daily TV show "Thailand Moves Forward", also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.

Thai junta allows constitution referendum, delays elections even further

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 20, 2015

Thailand’s military government has said it will hold a referendum on its draft constitution. However, it’s not without a catch  - or several for that matter.

The issue of whether or not letting the Thai people decide on the draft for the country’s 20th constitution has resulted in some clearly drawn battles lines among Thailand's governing bodies.

On one hand, members of the civic society, the sidelined political parties (likely afraid for their own professional future), the military junta’s National Reform Council (NRC) and even the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) have all been vocally in favor of a referendum.

On the other hand, the military government itself has been hesitant about the idea and even scolded the pro-referendum groups. It also insisted that the power to call for a referendum ultimately lies with the junta and the cabinet - both of which happened to be headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

(READ previous coverage: Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say?)

This back-and-forth came to an end on Tuesday:

Thailand's military junta has decided to hold a referendum on the draft of its new post-coup charter, although details of the ballot's options remain unclear. 

The decision was reached in the joint meeting between the junta and the Cabinet at the Government House today.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who chairs both the junta and the Cabinet, said his government will ask the interim parliament he appointed to amend the current constitution to allow for a referendum, which is not mentioned in the charter's present form.

"Once the constitutional amendment is done, we will immediately proceed with the referendum," Gen. Prayuth told reporters today. "Our duty is to make the law that allows for the procedure. As for the procedures themselves, they will be left to relevant agencies. The referendum will be the duty of the Election Commission."

Junta Approves Charter Referendum, Leaving Details for Later”, Khaosod English, May 19, 2015

So, it sounds pretty straight-forward so far: Section 46 of the current interim constitution needs to be amended to mention the possibility for a referendum on the next constitution and has to be approved by the junta’s ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

The decision whether or not to hold a referendum has to be made before the draft constitution is approved in August by the National Reform Council (NRC) - however, if the NRC rejects it, the whole process would start anew again and the issue becomes irrelevant until a new draft has been drawn up (as illustrated here).

However, there’s this potential catch though:

"The NLA all agrees that a referendum should be held," deputy president Peerasak Porchit said yesterday. "A public referendum should not be focused on whether to adopt or reject the whole constitution, as it may prevent good elements [from being implemented]. 

"However, voting on articles that are crucial would not be too difficult for the general public to understand," he said.

Referendum should 'focus on key charter points’”, The Nation, May 5, 2015

It is not known at this point if people can vote on the whole constitution draft or just on certain sections, which we don’t know at this point either.

There’s another catch:

"The referendum will take three months to put together. It will likely delay the roadmap," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told journalists. The junta, which came to power in a coup last May, was initially due to approve the new constitution and organize elections in early 2016.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam explained that a referendum in January would need another several months "to amend various laws," promising that elections would be held "not more than 90 days after."

"At the earliest it will take place around August or in September," he added.

Thailand constitutional referendum to delay polls until August 2016”, Deutsche Welle, May 19, 2015

That’s another delay of elections after the military junta initially aimed for late 2015, before the time window was moved to sometime ”early 2016” - which shouldn’t have surprised anybody back then and shouldn’t surprise anybody now.

And then there’s - you guessed it - yet another catch:

General Prayut Chan-o-cha said Tuesday he would stay in power to oversee a new drafting process if the draft constitution was rejected by the public.

He said a new process would automatically begin if the current draft was rejected, either through a referendum or by other means, including by the international community.

Prayut vows to stay if draft charter rejected”, The Nation, May 12, 2015

A cynic might say that the military junta is holding the next elections to ransom in exchange for a 'yes' vote in the constitutional referendum - and they wouldn’t be wrong to think that. It is evident again that the military government has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and can move the goal posts (in this case until the next elections) as much as it wants to.

Thailand's post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say?

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 12, 2015 Thailand’s draft for the next constitution is still subject to heated debate. But  the hottest issue at the moment is whether the Thai people will actually have a say in the next charter via a referendum.

It’s been almost a month now since the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) presented the fruits of their labor with the new draft that will become Thailand’s 20th constitution (download the draft and English translation here, more analysis in the coming weeks) - that is, if it actually survives the coming weeks and months.

Since a military coup ousted the popularly elected but embattled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra almost exactly a year ago, Thailand’s military junta government is trying its absolute best to ensure that this draft, and with it its singular vision about the country’s political power structure, is written into law with minimal changes.

After the previous military coup of 2006 that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra the Constitution of 1997 was scrapped. Instead of what was widely regarded as the "People’s Constitution" that pushed Thailand towards democracy, the interim government drew up the 2007 Constitution. It included stipulations like a two-term limit for the prime minister, a half-appointed senate and easier processes to impeach the government.

Curiously, and specified in the 2006 interim constitution, the then-military junta put this draft to a referendum and launched a far-reaching PR-campaign (knowing well that it controlled the airwaves, see more examples herehere, and here) calling on the people to vote in favor of it. Eventually, the referendum in August 2007 went in favor of the constitution with 58 to 42 per cent (turnout: 57 per cent) and elections were held later that year in December - only for another Thaksin-associated party to come to power (and later repeated in 2011 with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck).

Now, with the 2007 version thrown into the bin again, another Shinawatra government toppled, and the military tightening its grip on power, a new draft has been drawn up by the junta’s all-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee and the question many are asking is if there will be a referendum again?

There were signs as early as one month after the coup that the military is against a referendum this time. Then later in October - with the country still under martial law - National Reform Council (NRC) member Chai-Anan Samudavanija had this rather singular take on the issue:

Once the constitution had been drafted, he saw no need for a national referendum, because there weren’t any clearly conflicting issues.

“Usually, a referendum is required when opinions are split between alternative options; whether society wants A or B. However in the current situation, those alternative options aren’t apparent, therefore, a referendum is not necessary.”

“Public endorsement of the constitution can, instead, be demonstrated through the absence of public dissent,” he pointed out.

'Fewer MPs would mean less corruption’”, The Nation, October 13, 2015 - via Bangkok Pundit

The referendum issue flared up again in March when the sidelined political parties from both sides of the spectrum (the ousted, Thaksin-associated Pheu Thai Party and the opposition, ‘Democrat’ Party) started to become more vocal:

In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Pheu Thai legal experts, led by Pongthep Thepkanchana and secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, insist a referendum must be carried out — and the public should be given a choice of an alternative if they don't like the one currently being written.

Asking the public to simply accept or reject the new charter is not enough, they say. The voters should be given options and allowed to pick a version of a charter — for example the 1997 version — if they disagree with the coup-sponsored draft.

The experts' suggestion is in line with what the Democrat Party has proposed, but the Democrats called for the 2007 version (…) to be one of the choices. (…) [Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva] outlined his support for a referendum in a previous interview with the Bangkok Post, saying it will not only ensure the legitimacy of the new charter, but it will also help quell any suspicions the charter has been designed to allow the coup-makers and other bodies set up after the coup to prolong their hold on power.

Pheu Thai backs charter referendum”, Bangkok Post, March 16, 2015

These calls were repeated by both parties and have been echoed in the most unlikeliest of places, as both NRC member Alongkorn Polabutr and even the CDC’s chairman Borwornsak Uwanno voiced their support for a vote by the people.

However, the military junta government is still staunchly against this and put some people back in their place:

"The CDC needs not say anything because a public referendum is neither the matter nor duty of the drafting panel," Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngarm said. "It is the matter for the cabinet and the National Council for Peace and Order to decide." (…) "The CDC's job was finished once it completed drafting the new constitution," Mr Wissanu said.

Govt lashes out at CDC, NRC for referendum remarks”, Bangkok Post, April 30, 2015

However, junta leader and Prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on the same day that it’s not up to him but the CDC and NRC to decide whether or not to hold a referendum. The question here if he was either referring to himself as the prime minister or the leader of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta is officially called, since both positions are occupied by him - in the same way many positions are in the NCPO and in the cabinet.

Meanwhile, civil society groups are speaking up on this matter, while academics, activists, students, NGOs and alternative media organizations have launched their pro-referendum campaign with the unveiling of the website prachamati.org (the Thai word for referendum), providing a forum where users can debate and vote on crucial parts of the draft constitution - because that’s exactly what’s currently not happening in the real world.

We can expect a pretty clear schedule in the coming weeks: The cabinet and the junta (essentially the same people) submit their comments to the CDC by May 25. Then the CDC has until July 23 to amend the draft and send the final version to the NRC, which has two weeks to review and approve by August 6 - or not and then start the whole process all over again.

The issue of whether or not to let the Thai people vote on the new constitution is yet another thorny one for the military junta, which doesn't like leaving anything to chance (or rather choice in this case), most evidently illustrated by the junta’s threat in case of a referendum to delay the future election even further into 2016.

Pressing questions after human trafficking grave found in southern Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 5, 2015 Thailand's military government is facing new pressure following the discovery of a mass grave in the country's south, where dozens of bodies, presumably victims of human trafficking, were buried. Police have made several arrests linked to the crime and the Thai junta has vowed to take action.

The shallow graves containing 26 bodies were discovered by Thai authorities on Friday in Songkhla province, deep in the jungle near the Malaysian border and is believed to be part of a camp where up to 400 trafficked migrants were held for ransom and confined to 39 bamboo huts. Some survivors were found at or near the camp. On the possible cause of death, a Thai police officer stated:

"From initial forensic investigation at the site there are no marks on the bones or breakages that would suggest a violent death," Police Colonel Triwit Sriprapa, deputy commander of Songkhla Provincial Police, said. "It is likely that they died from disease and malnutrition."

"Bodies from mass grave in Thailand jungle camp 'didn't die violently'", South Chinese Morning Post, May 4, 2015

Thai police also have yet to confirm that the migrants were Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that have been denied citizenship in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and targeted in violent persecutions by extremist Buddhists over the past couple of years, resulting in hundreds being killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. This has driven thousands to flee the country, many via the Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia, but often illegally cross into Thai territory. These risky boat trips are mostly facilitated or intercepted by human traffickers, who then hold these refugees for ransom from their relatives or force into them into labor to pay off their debts.

That these cases have become so rampant and busts like the one last week are so rare is due to many factors: on one hand Thai authorities regard these migrants as illegal economic immigrants and not as refugees. Also they in some instances have failed to report such activities based on a technicality. Even worse, some Thai officials themselves were directly involved in human trafficking as well, with few consequences (see Siam Voices' coverage in 2013) - other than going after those reporting on these shortcomings.

This has partly contributed to Thailand's poor anti-human trafficking record, resulting in a downgrade by the U.S. Sate Department last year and more recently being put on a watch list by the European Union because of slaves on Thai fishing boats (see here, here and here) - which could result in a trade ban for Thai seafood products.

The methods of the traffickers have become more sophisticated, as fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade wrote:

[...] it’s worth remembering how [Thai] officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

"Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand", by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, May 1, 2015

Also, a survivor who managed to escape captivity told The Nation about the conditions in these camps, saying the 26 bodies may only be the tip of the iceberg:

(...) this survivor said he had heard that more than 500 victims were killed at various camps holding human-trafficking or kidnap victims along the Thai-Malaysian borders. "I've also heard that thousands of Rohingya migrants were at those camps waiting for promised jobs or for ransom to arrive," he said.

This survivor said he was lured out of Myanmar's Rakhine state six months ago by an offer to find him a job in Malaysia. He ended up in the same camp as Kazim, where between 700 and 800 migrants were held. "My mum had to sell our family's land to pay for my ransom. That's why I am still safe," he said. (...)

The survivor from the camp said that during his time there, between 17 and 20 people were killed. "They were either shot or clubbed to death," he said. He said victims whose relatives could not afford the ransom would be fatally attacked or left to die.

"Survivor believes more than 500 killed in camps", by Krissana Thiwatsirikul, Mary Bradley & Somjit Rungjamrasrassamee, The Nation, May 4, 2015

Thai authorities said on Monday that four suspects have been arrested in connection to the mass grave, among them a local administrative official, two police officers and a Burmese man. The latter is reportedly already known to the police as a human trafficker and his arrest is hailed as "huge", according to the provincial deputy police commander. Four other suspects are being sought.

Meanwhile, after inspecting the scene with the National Police chief over the weekend, Thai army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has pledged to "punish" local authorities if illegal smuggling of Rohingyas take place in their respective jurisdictions. This was followed later that day by an order to transfer local police officers to inactive posts, among them the police commander of Satun province, high ranking officers of the border town Padang Besar's police station, and the border patrol police.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and international inquiry. That is not very surprising, since it expresses skepticism towards the Thai authorities - given that they have been aware of human trafficking actions for years, but have failed to act upon it with some even enriching themselves with it - and their ability to completely clean up their own ranks.

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.

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

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on April 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand

Originally published on Siam Voices on April 15, 2015 After half a year of vacancy, the position of US Ambassador to Thailand looks like it will be filled soon. With the nomination of experienced career diplomat Glyn Davies, it offers a glimpse into the future United States' diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In an episode of the American TV drama 'The West Wing', a scene depicts how new ambassadors are welcomed in Washington, D.C.:  "I understand that you're a sports fan?" asks the fictional president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. "Yes sir, Mr. President. Golf!" replies the fictitious new Thai Ambassador Tada Sumatra (who came up with that name?), both men standing in the president's Oval Office with their respective aides. "Okay, well - golf's not a sport. It's fine, don't get me wrong, but let's not you and I get confused with things that men do," rebuffs the president before proceeding with the acceptance process.

It is doubtful whether such pleasantries will be exchanged during the acceptance of the next US Ambassador to Thailand, because the current relationship between the two countries is less than cordial.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, the Thai military junta has faced a series of condemnations, diplomatic downgrades and some sanctions by Western countries, just stopping short from ostracizing Thailand from the international community amid the risk of driving the still geo-strategically important country into the arms of both China and Russia.

One of the most vocal critics against Thailand's military rulers is the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying shortly after the takeover of power that it would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” later emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – in hindsight more a symbolic slap on the wrist compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself.

Furthermore, amidst calls to either completely cancel or move it to another country in the region, the annual long-running military "Cobra Gold" exercise was scaled down this year while the preparatory meeting for next year's drill have been indefinitely postponed.

Another sign of American discontent with the Thai junta that was widely (and incorrectly) speculated on is the ongoing lack of a US Ambassador in Bangkok. The position has been left vacant since Kristie Kenney left Thailand late last year after a tenure of nearly 3 years, during which, as Siam Voices contributor Daniel Maxwell noted back then, she managed to create a positive image as "a culturally sensitive ambassador" who was popular among a lot of Thais. This has often been attributed to her and her embassy's successful utilization of social media. The Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy has taken over duties ever since.

The wait for a new Ambassador to Thailand looks to be coming to an end, as US President Barack Obama this week nominated Glyn T. Davies for the post.

Davies is a distinguished career diplomat with 35 years of experience, most notably as US representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the Austrian capital Vienna, and from 2012 to 2014 as Special Representative of the U.S. Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, in which he managed the American position on the controversial nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, respectively. In other words, this man knows a lot about crisis diplomacy.

People close to Davies have apparently good things to say about him, as former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen said in a 2011 Associated Press report:

“He’s a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries,” Mr. Heinonen said. “He’s easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be.”

Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

"New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission", Associated Press, October 20, 2011

These personal traits should come in handy when Davies is dealing with the Thai military government. Relations between the two countries hit a low point in late January when US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel heavily criticized the authoritarian government during his visit to Thailand, provoking the junta - in a thinly-veiled case of hurt pride - to fiercely rebuke Russel's words, summoning... erm, "inviting" US charge d'affairs Murphy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and causing Prayuth to go on a week-long verbal rampage.

Davies' nomination could also be regarded as a sign that the United States has realized that it will be likely dealing with the military junta for a lot longer than initially anticipated, namely beyond the promised elections sometime in early 2016, while it still isn't known in what capacity the junta will exist after that.

But whether or not Glyn Davies will become the next US Ambassador to Thailand is less up to the Thai government but more dependent on the United States Senate. More specifically, the question is whether the perpetual political gridlock can be somehow resolved, which has caused dozens of nominations for ambassadors to be stuck in political limbo waiting for confirmation, leaving over 50 countries worldwide without an American ambassador.

In other words, it's most likely the political dysfunction in Washington D.C. that will delay the arrival of the next US Ambassador in Bangkok for his acceptance process, complete with handshakes and a little small talk - perhaps about golf?

Russian premier visits Thailand: More rubles rolling into Prayuth's regime?

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 10, 2015

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Thailand this week was a rare and convenient foreign policy opportunity for the junta, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

It’s been a while since the red carpet has been rolled out at Bangkok Government House for a foreign leader who isn’t from an Asian country. That hiatus ended mid-week with the visit of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday.

The timing couldn’t be better for Thailand’s military junta, still yearning for some international recognition. Relations with most Western countries cooled significantly (we reported) after last year's military takeover, led by then-army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has since installed himself as the country's prime minister.

Since the coup, foreign criticism has been met with petulant and indignant rebuttals by the junta - more often than not from Gen. Prayuth himself - as seen with the most recent backlash against the military government’s revoking of martial law and the subsequent invocation of Article 44, which gives junta leader Gen. Prayuth nigh-absolute power.  In the latest development, soldiers have been granted permission to effectively act as law enforcement officials.

So it comes to no surprise that the junta is looking for new (and/or) old friends elsewhere, so far finding them in neighboring Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar), and - more strangely - in North Korea. Most important, though, is Thailand's pivot towards China (we reported). Ties between the two countries - especially between its armies - have strengthened significantly with Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan traveling to Beijing for the second time since the coup this week, not only to deepen ties but also do some window shopping for military equipment.

Back in Bangkok at Medvedev’s visit, things seems to be going smoothly as well.

"When a friend is in trouble, moral support from allies is needed. Russia still chooses to be friends with Thailand today and we will ensure the bond of friendship remains tight," Gen Prayut said. He thanked Mr Medvedev for his understanding about Thai political developments and vowed he would strengthen ties between the two countries. (…)

The two leaders witnessed the signing of 10 MOUs at Government House. Five were signed between state agencies, including energy, tourism, cultural exchange, anti-narcotics and investment.

Thai and Russian private companies signed five MOUs to strengthen cooperation in machinery engineering, navigation technology, rail infrastructure, fibreglass production and educational exchange between Moscow State Regional University and Siam Technology College.

Prayut reaches out to Moscow”, Bangkok Post, April 9, 2015

While Russian-Thai relations go back to when Tsar Nicholas II welcomed King Chulalongkorn in 1897 (more can be read here and here), ties between the two countries have not been a priority for either party over the years, especially because of the Cold War and the United States being Thailand’s long-standing ally. And despite a rather turbulent episode with the extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the US, which left Russia fuming at the then-administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Russian ruble has been steadily rolling into Thailand since the fall of the Soviet Union.

That is mostly thanks to an influx of Russian tourists and expats, who are now ranked third as the country with the most tourists to Thailand, behind Malaysia and China. However, in 2014 the number has dropped to 1.6m tourists - a decrease of 8.6 per cent (source). But that has less to do with the Thai political crisis and more to do with Russia’s own economic woes and its tumbling ruble (partly as a consequence of international sanctions for its meddling in the Ukrainian conflict). The fall in Russian visitors has had a significant economic impact, especially in the Russian stronghold of Pattaya.

Nevertheless, both countries are optimistic about their economic outlooks, with a bilateral trade volume (officially) estimated at almost $4bn and about many potential lucrative deals: Russia could, as Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters, buy 80,000 tonnes of rubber from Thailand, thus alleviating one of the junta's biggest commodity headaches. Also, the prospect of a Russian-Thai free-trade agreement could fill void left by the suspended talks with the European Union, much to the disappointment of European trade lobbyists in Thailand.

But more importantly, the Russians also have this to offer:

"We are feeling out the interest on the Thai side to purchase military equipment," Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters in Bangkok on Wednesday. "Our friends from the Western part of the world are ignoring Thailand." (...) Talks on defence-related sales were focused on military aircraft and related training and services, Manturov said. He declined to give details of specific deals under discussion.

"Russia eyes military sales to Thailand, rubber deals", Reuters, April 8, 2015

Unlike its direct neighbors, Thailand's Air Force is mostly equipped with American F-16 and Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets. But in the current situation, Russia could bundle an attractive package for the Thai generals, which could also cover their long-held wish for submarines.

It should be by now obvious that a rapprochement between Russia and Thailand could - despite denials by both countries - be of geo-strategic benefit for them, given how the two are internationally spurned (albeit at completely different levels of severity and significance). The Thai military junta could always use a big country at its side for international legitimacy, that is also willing to do business and not ask pesky questions about democracy and human rights, while Russia can continue to develop its trade relations in Southeast Asia.

That said, Western countries won't be giving up on Thailand just yet. Not if if they don't want to leave the playing field to a geo-political rival.

While Thailand is not likely to be welcoming many foreign leaders from the West, the red carpet at Government House may be rolled out for new guests more often - although at what cost?

After martial law in Thailand, there is Article 44 - and a backlash against the junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 2, 2015 The removal of martial law in Thailand has not been met with relief, but with more anxiety and criticism - not only from abroad - amid fears of a descent into a fully-fledged dictatorship under Article 44, which gives the junta near-absolute power.

Television viewers in Thailand saw their regular programs interrupted Wednesday evening for an official statement. First came a statement from the Royal Gazette declaring that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had approved the removal of martial law throughout* the country, effective immediately. This was widely expected, as Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha asked the King for permission earlier this week and it was just a matter of time for it to be granted.

Martial law was declared shortly before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago on May 22, 2014. It gave the junta far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship.

"There is no need to use martial law anymore,” said the royal announcement on the evening of April 1. Thankfully it wasn't an April Fool's joke, and what followed instead was no joke either.

On Tuesday before the announcement we already talked about Article 44 of the military-installed interim constitution that will be utilized from now on to "maintain peace and order". The section gives prime minister Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, very far-reaching powers to issue any order to maintain what he thinks is "national security" and "public unity" for an indefinite amount of time with no political or judicial oversight.

The TV announcement Wednesday also included "Order Number 3/2558", issued by Gen. Prayuth as head of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta formally calls itself.

The communique (which can be read in its entirety here and translated into English here) lists 14 regulations which stipulate that every military officer ranked Lieutenant or above is tasked to be a "Peace Keeping Officer” (sic!), authorized to summon and detain suspects without charge for up to seven days, seize and search properties without warrant, ban public gatherings of more than five people, and censor the media, among other actions, without any liability. (A detailed critical analysis can be read here.)

So why has martial law been lifted, when replacing it with Article 44 only strengthens the junta's grip on power? One main reason is that martial law has discouraged a lot of tourists and foreign investment to come to Thailand.

Another argument is that martial law has been one of the main points of contention by foreign governments, as they have repeatedly called for its repeal as a first step back to democratic civilian rule. But as reactions from abroad have shown, nobody’s buying the junta's alternative.

The European Union published a statement saying Wednesday’s orders ”does not bring Thailand closer to [a] democratic and accountable government.” A representative of the U.S. State Department expressed concern ”that moving to a security order (...) will not accomplish any of these objectives," while calling for ”a full restoration of civil liberties in Thailand.”

But the strongest response came from Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who wrote this borderline scathing statement:

Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law – and indeed strongly advocated for it to be lifted in Thailand, (…) But I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian (…) This clearly leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights. I appeal to the Government to ensure that these extraordinary powers, even if provided for by the Interim Constitution, will nevertheless not be exercised imprudently.” (…)

The NCPO Order issued on Wednesday also annihilates freedom of expression.

UN Human Rights Chief alarmed by Thai Government’s adoption of potentially unlimited and “draconian” powers”, United Nations Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, April 2, 2015

This is the second strongly worded statement by the UN this week alone after they criticized Gen. Prayuth's threat to execute reporters critical of the junta.

The Thai military government already anticipated such criticism from abroad, as for instance deputy prime minister Wissanu Kruea-ngam argued that Article 44 is "the best option" to regain international confidence while still maintaining national security. Meanwhile his colleague, deputy prime minister, former army chief and the junta's (nominal) number two General Prawit Wongsuwan lashed out against critics, saying that "no real Thai is afraid of Article 44", but only foreigners. His advisor Panitan Wattanayagorn urged the United Nations' officers to "study the text carefully." Gen. Prayuth himself on the other hand simply shrugged it off when asked by reporters.

One thing is for sure given the reactions: there’s hardly anybody that is being hoodwinked, anybody being bamboozled or anybody being led astray by this nominal change, as many see right through the junta’s gambit - if it ever was supposed to be one.

*Note: Martial law has been in effect in the provinces Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla at the South border since 2004 and is not being affected by the latest or any other previous NCPO order.

Assuming absolute control: Thai military junta revokes martial law, but...

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 1, 2015 UPDATE [April 1, 2015]: Martial law has been officially lifted, according to a Royal Gazette statement televised (full PDF in Thai) on Wednesday evening at around 9.40pm local Bangkok time. As widely expected, Article 44 of the interim constitution is being referred to instead along with orders for every military officer with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and above to "maintain peace" and those ranked below acting as their assistants, authorizing them to summon, detain suspects, confiscate and enter premises without a warrant. More details about Article 44 in the original story below and an English-language summary on the additional stipulations of the order can be read here by legal expert Verapat Pariyawong.

ORGINAL STORY

The good news: the Thai military junta may soon lift martial law, which has been in place for nearly a year. The bad news: it will be replaced by something worse that could give junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha much more power.

You know there's a problem when even Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NRHC) makes a stand. The normally tepid and toothless paper tiger of a human rights watchdog criticized the military junta’s plans to replace the still ongoing martial law with something even worse.

Martial law was declared before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago, which gives them far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship. The interim constitution was put in place shortly thereafter in July 2014.

Needless to say, the military government’s handling - or rather mishandling - of civil liberties under martial law has drawn heavy criticism, especially from many foreign countries, who demand the repeal of it.

Developments this week suggest that martial law will likely be indeed revoked. However - and this is what has alarmed the NHRC, among others - the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta formally calls itself, plans to replace it with this:

Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay.

Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) - Unofficial translation

In layman’s terms, the head of the junta General Prayuth Chan-ocha can issue any order he thinks is appropriate to ensure what he thinks is "national security”, ”public unity and harmony” or ”public peace and order”, without any judicial and political oversight other than to immediately report to the fully-appointed, military-dominated ersatz-parliament (the National Legislative Assembly) and the Prime Minister - who happens to be General Prayuth Chan-ocha as well. A practical and handy carte blanche.

General Prayuth himself said on Tuesday that he has asked King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law. Though this is seen as something of a formality.

Ever since the hostile power takeover last May, the military government has been in tight control of nearly every aspect of the Thai political discourse (e.g. the junta’s constitutional drafters are wrapping up their work on a new full charter soon). So it is not surprising that they want to maintain that for the short and mid-term future, while at the same time trying to pacify the criticism against them by doing away one of the main issues.

The problem is that the same critics (including this blog) see right through this move and are now concerned that Article 44 gives Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, nigh absolute powers to do nearly everything and also for an indefinite amount of time, regardless of the junta’s much purported "reform roadmap" to return "true democracy" to Thailand sometime soon.

Many observers have drawn a comparison to Article 17 of the interim constitution of 1952, which contains some very uncanny parallels…

. . . whenever the Prime Minister deems it appropriate for the purpose of impressing or suppressing actions, whether of internal or external origin, which jeopardize the national security or the Throne or subvert or threaten law and order, the Prime Minister, by resolution of the Council of Ministers, is empowered to issue orders to take steps accordingly. Such orders or steps shall be considered legal.

—Article 17, Interim Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, 2502 B.E. [1952 C.E.]

From: ”Article 17, a Totalitarian Movement, and a Military Dictatorship”, by Tyrell Haberkorn, Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014

This section was created during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958–1963) and later used frequently during the equally ruthless rule of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963–1973), both of whom authorized a total of 76 executions based on this passage.

The junta is currently busy trying to convince people that history is not going to repeat itself. The chairman of the National Legislative Assembly Pornpetch Wichitcholchai has urged the Thai people to simply ”trust” Gen. Prayuth, while the deputy PM and effectively the junta’s number two, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, has assured that the law will only be used for protection against "ill-intended elements", and effectively told the NHRC to buzz off.

Meanwhile, his more cantankerous and (nominal) superior Gen. Prayuth had a hard time himself dispelling criticism and ended up chewing out yet another reporter at a press conference on Monday, singling out a Channel 7 journalist (an army-owned TV channel, no less) while insisting that he’s not angry - and that on heels of him quipping last week that he would "execute" critical reporters.

His promise to use the law "constructively" is to be met with skepticism, since civil liberties have taken a nosedive since the coup almost 11 months ago and Article 44 seems to be Gen. Prayuth’s catch-all solution to nearly all problems. He has already indicted that he will utilize it rather creatively, resolving issues concerning forest encroachment and apparent safety issues of Thailand-based airlines which have led several Asian countries to ban new flights after the International Civil Aviation Organisation raised concerns.

The question is not so much if Gen. Prayuth is going to (ab)use the power bestowed on him by Article 44 - the fact that he has these powers and he sees the need to still have them in the first place to cement his rule is more worrying.

To borrow a much-used phrase by a 19th-century English politician: ”Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”