Analysis: US to play the long game with Thai military junta, but not forever

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 18, 2015 ”YOU always meet twice in your life,” is a saying Germans used to tell each other, which can either be a simple figure of speech when two people say goodbye - or it can also be a reminder that no matter on what terms you part ways, you might have to settle your issues in the future.

When news broke that for the fifth Thailand-United States Strategic Dialogue a certain Daniel Russel would return to Bangkok, certain people within the Thai military government might have been seething at the announcement. The last time the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was in town, he left a particularly sour taste among the generals.

In January earlier this year - not quite a year after Thailand’s military seized power in the coup of May 2014 and half a year since junta leader Gen. Prayuth Cha-cha was made prime minister - Mr. Russel visited Southeast Asia, meeting with then-Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn and those political stakeholders that have been largely sidelined since the coup, namely toppled former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, Russel also gave a speech at Chulalongkorn University, in which he said in no uncertain terms that the military junta’s crackdown on dissenting opponents under (at that time still active) martial law and the apparent unwillingness to foster an inclusive political discourse is putting a dent in the long-running relationship between the two countries. And indeed the United States sent early signals of initial disapproval of the coup, suspending $3.5m in military aid (which is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn) and scaling down the annual joint-military exercise ”Cobra Gold”.

These critical remarks led the Thai military government to throw a week-long overzealous, yet insecure temper tantrum, with Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth verbally retaliating by declaring himself to be a ”soldier with a democratic heart,” while being well aware that his ”government came from a [non-democratic] seizure of power,” but still telling that ”the United States doesn’t understand” what’s going on, only then to let his frustrations out by scolding Thai reporters again. At the same time, US Chargé d’affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned ”invited” by the Thai Foreign Ministry to receive a high-level earful and insisting to relabel the coup was a ”revolution to install stability”.

Eleven months later, Glyn T. Davies, an experienced diplomat, took over as ambassador, ending a 10-month vacancy that was less a snub against the Thai junta and more due to domestic political squabbles back in the States. However, his decisive criticism of the notorious lèse majesté law during his introduction at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) has drawn the wrath of ultra-nationalists, protesting at the US Embassy (and apparently the only ones allowed to do so) and even going so far as to file a lèse majesté complaint against Ambassador Davies - and even more amazingly, the police actually launched an inquiry.

With that in mind, the strategic talks earlier this week already came with some baggage - which might explain why the joint statement (which can be read in full here) after the six hours-talk has been rather nuanced in expressing what it agrees on, such as public health, disaster relief and combating human trafficking. Nevertheless, Mr. Russel himself made sure during a personal meeting with Prayuth that while the United States wishes to ”restore full engagement with Thailand,” it would only happen when it ”restores a civilian-led and democratic government,” and he also raised concerns on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation. Gen. Prayuth responded by explaining the junta’s ”reforms” to the political system before there’ll be any elections (if at all).

The current approach by the United States could hint at a few things: While the US maintains consistent concern over the dire human rights situation in Thailand, it also understands that things are not going to change politically anytime soon. Thus, the confirmation of Ambassador Davies was already an early sign that it needs an experienced diplomat to engage with a mostly uncompromising Thai military government that is going to stay longer than anybody initially anticipated - and his dealings with the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea before certainly could come in handy. Nevertheless, most Western countries have still stopped short from branding Thailand a pariah state, most likely to prevent from completely driving the country into the arms of both China and Russia.

But the U.S.'s patience isn't infinite, as lawmakers back in Washington have already expressed their frustration at the lack of progress (or rather the reversal of any progress). In a rapidly changing  region (with one neighbor in particular) that comes with new geo-political challenges and economic potential, it requires multi-lateral cooperation from consistently reliable partners. One such 'incentive' could be brining Thailand into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional U.S.-led trade agreement that already has Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru on board - that is IF Thailand actually meets the requirements and the military government can convince their otherwise FTA-critical political supporters, who have been largely mum on this matter so far.

The visiting U.S. diplomat Daniel Russel went on record after the bilateral strategic talks, stating he got a "full and respectful hearing" by the Thai military government, a slight contrast in tone compared to his last visit in Bangkok. That should not be mistaken as a softened stance though. The U.S. is prepared to play the long game with the Thai junta, which is persistently solidifying its authoritarian rule. And that probably will lead to more chances to meet again in future - the question will be on what terms?

Rajabhakti Park: The corruption case the Thai junta doesn’t want you to talk about

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 17, 2015 The statues of seven past Thai kings in Rajabhakti Park, a military-sponsored project embroiled in corruption allegations. (Photo: Khaosod English)

The ongoing controversy over alleged corruption at a military-sponsored park and other events to honor Thailand’s monarchy is becoming a big headache for the military government, as it struggles to uphold its own pledge of a ”clean” rule and instead cracks down on criticism.

IT was supposed to be a monument to honor the past: seven giant bronze statutes of seven past Thai kings - from the Sukhothai period (1238 - 1583) to the current ruling Chakri dynasty (since 1782) - were erected in a newly built park near the royal resort town of Hua Hin.

Rajabhakti Park is a project sponsored by the Thai military in another very public display of its loyalty to Thailand’s monarchy, of which it regards itself to be its ultimate protector amid growing concerns over the health of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 88 years old earlier this month.

But one year after the project's initial announcement and with the construction of the park pretty much completed, the Thai military junta is being besieged by allegations of corruption and has so far not been able to convincingly refute them.

The first rumors surfaced in early November as irregularities in the financing of the tall bronze statues were called into question. Specifically the high costs of reportedly 43 to 45.5 million Baht ($1.19 to $1.26 million) each, with payouts to middlemen, including an army colonel and several amulet traders, of roughly 10 percent "commission”called into question.

Right from the beginning of the case, the military government has denied any irregularities or involvement of any army officers, while deputy prime minister, defense minister and former army chief General Prawit Wongsuwan repeatedly insisted that this is ”not a government matter, it’s the army’s” - suddenly distinguishing the junta and the military as two separate, independent entities.

The royal park project was initiated and supervised by General Udomdej Sitabutr, army chief from October 2014 to September 2015 - exactly the same time it took for the completion of the park. An internal investigation in late November, led by his successor and current army chief General Teerachai Nakwanich (reportedly a protege of Gen. Prawit), declared ”there is no corruption” in the case and ”everything was transparent”, while not giving any details about the inquiry itself and at the same time telling off the media from further digging into the matter.

Just days after the military declared the case closed, Gen. Prawit announced the launch of a new investigation led by defense permanent-secretary General Preecha Chan-ocha - who also happens to be the brother of junta leader, prime minister and also former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The probe is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Another investigation by the Office of the Auditor General, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission found out that 63 million Baht ($1.7 million) of state budget was used in the project, contradicting an earlier statement by Gen. Prawit that the money came entirely from donations. Coincidentally, the chairman of the NACC was removed two weeks later by order of the military junta and replaced by Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, a police general who happened to be secretary-general to Gen. Prawit shortly after the coup.

The Rajabhakti Park case is just one part of a wider purge in recent months, in which several high-ranking officials face lèse majesté charges for allegedly enriching themselves with either false claims to the royal family or abusing their connections to it. Some cases are tied to mass bike rallies to honor Queen Sirikit and King Bhumibol in August and December, respectively.

Two of the suspects, a police major and a prominent soothsayer, died in military custody on October 23 and November 6, respectively. Their bodies were hastily cremated within a day (not in accordance with Buddhist week-long funeral rituals), but authorities have ruled out foul play in both cases. The whereabouts of several other targeted officers is unknown. Some are rumored to have fled the country.

Whatever the inquiries will unearth (or not), the Thai military government is already practicing the worst kind of damage control by cracking down on its critics. Pro-democracy student activists and two red shirt leaders (a group supporting the toppled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra), respectively, have attempted to visit the park, only to be intercepted and detained by authorities on the way there.

Thai officials have also arrested two men for sharing (not creating) infographics on the Rajabhakti Park corruption case on Facebook: a 25-year-old man taken into custody at a hospital while he was awaiting surgery, and a 27-year old factory worker, who has reportedly confessed. Both men, currently in military detention, are being charged for violating the Computer Crimes Act and for sedition, the latter carrying a sentence of 7 years.

The 27-year-old suspect is being additionally charged with lèse majesté, which alone can carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years per offense. It was revealed later that one of the offenses was sharing (again, not creating) contents on Facebook that mocked the king's dog. That in itself marks an even wider interpretation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code - which only mentions "the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent" - after previous rulings have expanded the law to past kings and even "attempted" insults. Punishments under the notorious lèse majesté law have been particularly heavy-handed since the military coup: In August, two suspects have been given record sentences of 30 and 28 years in jail, respectively.

Thai authorities have also announced its intentions to charge ”hundreds” of Facebook users with lèse majesté as well as for 'liking' offending content. Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit told reporters last week not to ask too much about the scandal, as "there's no point" to further press coverage of issue. He added, “Please stop mentioning this already. It damages confidence a lot. You’re Thais, why do this? The government is working for the country. Therefore, the media must help us out.”

The ongoing controversy over Rajabhakti Park could slowly become the biggest problem for the military junta so far, which has been only able to respond to criticism by stifling it. Not only does it face the tainting of its biggest showcase of loyalty to the monarchy - a nigh-endless source of pride for the army - but this is also a slap in the face to junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has pledged to crack down on corruption. An opaque investigation and more furious backlashes against critics could further undermine a government that is desperately seeking legitimacy that is looking increasingly elusive.

EU extends invitation to ex-Thai PM Yingluck - but will the junta let her travel?

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 24, 2015 A LETTER appearing to be an invitation by European Union parliamentarians to former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to talk at the EU is being circulated in Thailand, sparking speculation about her future whereabouts amidst criminal charges at home and implications for the relations between the EU and the Thai military.

Signed by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Elmar Brok and Werner Langen, the letter (see below) recalls Yingluck’s visit to the EU in March 2013, before addressing the current political situation in Thailand under the military junta "with concern". The letter concludes with an invitation to the former prime minister for an ”exchange of views … either in Brussels or in Strasbourg.”

Yingluck invited to talk Thai politics at European Parliament. But will junta let her go?

Posted by BangkokPost on Monday, November 23, 2015

Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party-led government were toppled in a military coup on May 22, 2014 following over half a year of sustained anti-government protests. She and hundreds of Thais, including her cabinet ministers and party colleagues, were detained for several days by the military at various places in the country, before being released under the condition that they not rally against the Thai junta.

Since then, she has been impeached by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), an ersatz-parliament fully appointed by the military junta, and is now facing criminal charges at the Supreme Court for alleged negligence over her government’s rice subsidy program.

The policy - in which the government bought the rice from farmers at roughly 50 per cent more than the market price - was hugely popular among her party’s rural electorate and is credited to have helped her secure a landslide election victory in 2011. But the rice scheme program was slammed by critics for alleged cases of corruption, a huge financial loss of reportedly 500 billion baht ($14 billion) and millions of tonnes of rice rotting away in stockpiles while still waiting for a buyer. The latest reports suggests that 2 million tonnes of rotten rice have been approved for sale, which then can be used for industrial purposes such as the production of ethanol.

Amidst that, the letter from Europe comes at a peculiar time. Thai-language daily Khaosod reported on Monday that it received word from the Pheu Thai Party about the letter, a copy of which was later circulated by its sister publication Matichon. Other media outlets reported, based on sources close to Yingluck, that she hasn't decided yet whether to accept the invitation.

Since the coup last year, several Western countries have downgraded their relations with the Thai military government, including the European Union. Not only has it banned any state visits on and above ministerial levels, it also suspended talks over a potential free trade agreement in the immediate aftermath of the coup (much to the annoyance of European business lobbyists in Bangkok).  The likelihood of a resumption of talks is  "probably zero”, according to Miguel Ceballos Baron, a top aide to EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. He added that ”it’ll be never ratified” as long as the junta stays at the helm.

In light of the deteriorating human rights situation under the Thai military junta and the deep revamp of the political system under the guidance of the generals, several European parliamentarians across the political spectrum criticized the current regime in October. The European Parliament as a whole passed a non-binding resolution condemning the ”illegal coup of May 2014” and demand to ”overturn convictions and sentences, to withdraw charges and to release individuals and media operators who have been sentenced or charged for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or assembly.” (Full text here)

The letter to Yingluck is dated October 7, a day before the vote in the EU parliament. The signatures are apparently those of MEPs Elmar Brok and Werner Langen, both from Germany and members of the European People’s Party (EPP), consisting of national Christian democratic and conservative parties. Mr. Brok is the longest-serving member of the EU parliament and has served as the chairman of the EU foreign affairs committee since 2012, a position he held previously between 1999 to 2008. Mr. Langen, an MEP veteran of over 20 years, is the chairman of the EU parliamentary delegation to ASEAN. Both men are also co-signatories of the aforementioned resolution condemning the Thai junta (full voters' list).

Whether Yingluck will travel to Europe is entirely up to the junta. While it allowed her to travel to Paris in July 2014 for the birthday of her exiled brother and former PM Thaksin, the generals banned her from traveling abroad without prior consent immediately after last year's coup, and again earlier this year, in order to prevent her from fleeing into exile (like her brother), shortly before her indictment over the aforementioned criminal charges for the rice scheme policy.

Asian Correspondent has reached out to MEPs Elmar Brok and Werner Langen for comments.

+++UPDATE 20.30h - Nov 24, 2015 +++

One of the co-signatories of the invitation to former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has confirmed the letter's authenticity. "Yes, the letter is by me and Mr. Brok," says Werner Langen, MEP, in reply to an email by Asian Correspondent. He hopes that "the military government will allow" Yingluck to travel to Brussels or Strasbourg. Furthermore, Mr. Langen says that the European Union wants to assist Thailand with "a return to democratic structures contribute a reconciliation between the rivaling factions."

ConstitutionNet: Last minute add-on to Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Crisis Committee or the long arm of the military

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on August 31, 2015 “If I were a woman I would fall in love with his excellency.”

Those flattering words were spoken by General Thanasak, until recently Foreign Minister of the Thai military government, who expressed his adoration for the Chinese Premier at an ASEAN security forum in early August. His counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, stood next to him looking somewhat embarrassed, not knowing what to say. Some would regard this open adoration as a sign of blooming relations between the two countries. After Thailand’s ties to Western countries soured since its 2014 military coup, it quickly pivoted towards China. The statement regarding the Chinese premier also underlines something else: the desire of the Thai military government to assert a more rigid and streamlined control of governance. Reading between the lines, General Thanasak’s praise for China’s “excellency” also pays regard to its form of governance in general. China’s politburo – the supreme policy-making body of the Communist party overseeing governance – has long been criticized for its level of stricture and unrepresentativeness; yet Thai constitution drafters have openly mooted the idea to implement something similar.

Following the military coup in May 2014, the generals who instigated the movement have been looking to cement their vision of a “reformed” democracy. They preach a system free from corruption, cronyism and imbalance; yet they continue to commit these very acts themselves. The junta that formally calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has taken firm control over the political discourse. It has outlawed public gatherings, detained dissenting opponents, and enforced a high degree of media scrutiny and online surveillance. It also oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO unilaterally appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC).

The CDC has worked hard since the beginning of 2015 to draw up a new constitution with the hope that this will be the last one for the foreseeable future. While the draft was originally scheduled to be completed by late July, the CDC was granted a 30-day extension to clarify certain aspects of the constitution. The draft, reduced from 315 to 285 articles, was forwarded to the NRC, which will vote on its adoption in September 5. If the vote outcome is positive, the draft constitution will then be subject to a nationwide referendum in early 2016. This may or may not pave the way for elections sometime at the end of 2016 – a whole year later than what the military junta originally promised. Regardless in which form the draft will be enacted, Thailand’s twentieth constitution could deeply transform the country’s political landscape and have lasting negative consequences due to the changes severely hobbling the powers of elected officials to govern.

Crisis Panel: Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation 

Certain features proposed in the constitutional draft, such as the new electoral system or the pre-vetted Senate, have previously been discussed on ConstitutionNet. Additionally, a highly controversial article was added to the draft constitution at the last minute. Article 260 provides for the establishment of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation that would co-exist with the elected government. The Committee would have the power to “commit or suppress any action” in the event of a crisis or conflict in the country that cannot be contained.  Committee’s non-elected membership and lack of definition on what constitutes a “chaos” or “crisis” appears to be yet another signal of how the Thai military attempts to hold onto power and limit the power of elected officials by constitutional design.


Compulsive loquaciousness: Thai junta PM goes off script at media gala dinner

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 30, 2015 Thailand's Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's keynote speech at gala dinner in front of international media representatives is yet another example of the junta leader's unpredictable talkativeness, while his understanding of the media differs greatly from the international audience he was talking to.

Since seizing power almost a year ago, it appears that General Prayuth Chan-ocha is tirelessly working on something. Ever since the military coup of May 22, 2014, his authoritarian regime has micro-managed almost every aspect of Thai politics and more often than not also even beyond - and we're not even talking about the numerous detainments, media censorship, rampant online surveillance or the recent expansions of the junta's nigh-absolute powers. From the lottery system to World Cup television broadcasts to Songkran etiquette, the military junta seems to be eager to influence almost every aspect of everyday life in Thailand.

Junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth himself is mostly at the forefront of these actions and doesn't seem to be tired of talking about it, especially on his weekly TV address. Every Friday evening he reaches out to the nation via television to speak on average almost for an hour about his government's progress, achievements, future plans and whatever else is on his mind, mostly in a furiously fast-paced, relentlessly off-the-cuff manner (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him). These tirades are usually delivered in a patronizing "I can't believe I have to spell it out to you" tone.

This kind of rhetoric is only exacerbated under live conditions, for example at his daily press conferences, where he constantly displays his contempt towards reporters and the media by being borderline sardonically abusive, either verbally or physically. However, the biggest verbal escalation was in March where he, visibly annoyed by the barrage of questions, quipped about "executing" critical journalists.

With that in mind, let's turn our attention to Wednesday evening, where Gen. Prayuth, in his function as prime minister, was invited to be the headline speaker at the gala dinner of "Publish Asia 2015", a regional summit for the newspaper industry. Given what we know about Prayuth's fiery no-holds-barred rhetoric, the international audience was in for quite a ride...

It seems that the problems were just getting started here...

But that didn't deter junta leader Gen. Prayuth from staying on topic - or rather straying off topic...

On his weekly TV address and the apparently low viewership, he said:

And just when you thought it was over...

But the translators were not the only apparent 'casualties' of that evening...

Back to Prayuth himself, he then finally realized what audience he was talking to:

This remark is particularly interesting because "Peace TV", the satellite TV channel of the anti-junta red shirt movement has been permanently taken off the air by the authorities for "politically divisive" coverage that could "incite unrest".

And ending on a high note...

There's not much else to add here, other than: this is one of the rare times where Gen. Prayuth's compulsive loquaciousness has been exposed to an international audience, who got a taste of his singularly unique trail of thoughts. Some might argue that his speech might have missed its target audience, but it's not everyday that you get the wisdom of Uncle Knows Best - except for the Thai people that have been under his thumb for almost a year now.

P.S.: If you dare, here's the full video of Gen. Prayuth's speech sans translator.

Prayuth blasts US envoy's remarks, calls himself 'democratic soldier'

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 28, 2015 UPDATE: U.S. Charges d'Affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned by Thailand's Foreign Ministry Wednesday following diplomat Daniel Russel's call for Thailand to lift martial law (reported below). AP reports: "Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Russel’s comments had “hurt” many Thais and showed a lack of understanding of Thai politics."


Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has rebutted a top US diplomat's calls for a more "inclusive" political reform process and the lifting of martial law. The general's response yet again shows the impossible task to convince the world outside of Thailand that everything under the authoritarian rule is normal. 

The art of international diplomacy requires a very particular set of skills. Skills that one acquires over a very long career. If both parties we're highlighting in this story actually had them, that would be the end of it. But that's not the case.

Last week we reported on the attempts by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to proclaim a meeting by four foreign ambassadors with Foreign Minister and former Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as supportive endorsements of the military's juntas "reform" plans, which turned out to be neutral courtesy handshakes at best - and in some cases polite, yet assertive reminders of the junta's ongoing repression of civil liberties, human rights and a generally exclusive political process.

In what can be considered as an addendum to last week's story, the 'Bangkok Post' reported on the meeting between Thai junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan with the United States' Chargé D'affaires Patrick Murphy, in which the latter is reported to have pledged that military cooperation with Thailand will continue.

That is especially noteworthy since shortly after the coup of May 22, 2014, the US suspended $3.5m in military aid (again, it bears repeating that it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn). The coup also has casts doubt over the long-running annual regional military exercise "Cobra Gold", which will likely be scaled down when it takes place in February. However what was not reported - and had to be later tweeted out by the US Chargé d'affaires himself - is that Mr. Murphy also told General Prawit that the "US-Thai relationship will not return to capacity until democracy restored."

This week saw another round of bilateral back-and-forth when the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel visited Thailand (among other countries in Southeast Asia), the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to travel to Thailand in an official capacity since the coup.

Apart from meeting Thai junta Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak, former Prime Ministers Yingluck Shinawatra (her first semi-public appearance ever since she was retroactively impeached last Friday, thus banning her from politics for the next five years) and Abhisit Vejjajiva (remember him? where he and his “Democrat” Party blamed “corruption and abuse of power” for last year’s political deadlock), Mr. Russel also made these remarks during an event at Chulalongkorn University:

The fact is, and it’s unfortunate, but our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago. (…)

The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly, and I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.

We’re also particularly concerned that the political process doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society. Now (…), we’re not attempting to dictate (…) But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which in turn is key to long-term stability. That’s where our interests lie. The alternative — a narrow, restricted process — carries the risk of leaving many Thai citizens feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political process. (…)

I’d add that the perception of fairness is also extremely important and although this is being pretty blunt, when an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities — the same authorities that conducted the coup — and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions in the country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven. (…)

Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important stepsas part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country.

Remarks by Daniel R. Russel at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, January 26, 2015 via United States Department of State

These indeed are very critical, if not quite damning, words by the American diplomat towards the Thai military junta and the political situation in Thailand as a whole. It was just a matter of time until junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded to this in his usual manner – and while at first he shrugged it off, he didn’t disappoint:

“Thai democracy will never die, because I’m a soldier with a democratic heart. I have taken over the power because I want democracy to live on,” the junta-leader-cum-prime minister declared, adding that the situation in Thailand was unique, as nowhere else was a coup staged to restore democracy“We are building democracy every day… I did not seize power to give money away to this or that person or take it as my own property.

“Although this government came from a seizure of power, it happened because there was no [effective] government [at the time]. Though there was a government, it was as good as not having one. Where was Yingluck [Shinawatra]? She couldn’t perform her duty” because she had been removed by the Constitution Court, Prayut said.

He added that people should recognise the fact that Thailand is still free.

Prayut rebuts US snub“, The Nation, January 28, 2015

Apart from being spouting what can only be described as an early contender for the most bafflingly preposterous thing said by the junta this year already (compare with last year’s entries), Gen. Prayuth also claimed that “as many as 21 envoys had met with the current administration and understood the situation in Thailand.”

And there lies the crux of this whole issue: Not only does the military junta – willingly or not – confuse acknowledgment of their rule with approval, but also doesn’t seem to care whether or not it actually further damages their credibility, which leads to the question who the military court is actually pandering to with their dizzying spin on the narrative?

Tongue-Thai’ed! - Special Edition: Top 10 things the junta said in 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 31, 2014 This is part XXVIII of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

An image of the military junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is displayed on a giant screen during the army-organised concert at Siam Paragon shopping mall on June 26, 2014. (Pic: Khaosod/Facebook)

As you may have noticed, we here at Siam Voices have used our light-hearted Tongue-Thai'ed!-section not as much in 2014 as we would have liked to, since the coup and the ongoing authoritarian rule by the military junta were mostly no laughing matter. However, the generals now in charge of nearly every aspect of life in Thailand are not shy when it comes to sharing their ideas to the population - with varying results.

Former army-chief, now Prime Minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has always been an outspoken man (as seen pre-coup here, here, here, here and here) and had a lot to say since the takeover of power over seven months ago. And while many things that the junta said have serious and dire implications for the foreseeable future, one can't help laugh at the generals' (delusions of) grand(eur) visions. You simply can't make this stuff up - hm, which would explain why the satirical Not the Nation hasn't written anything new in a while...

So without further ado, here's the definitively incomplete look at the top 10 things the Thai military junta said this past year, ranked in reverse order of ridiculousness/outlandishness:

10. General Prayuth Chan-ocha - As an example that he seems to know pretty much everything, he offered to improve the popular, but infamous Thai TV soap operas and he knows exactly where the problems are:

"I have ordered that scripts be written, including plays on reconciliation, on tourism and on Thai culture," Prayuth told reporters. "They are writing plots at the moment and if they can't finish it I will write it myself," he said of a team of government-appointed writers.

"Thai PM bemoans divisive soap operas, offers to write better ones", Reuters, September 26, 2014

9. Lt.-Gen. Suchart Pongput - The secretary-general of the junta’s media watchdog has his very own definition of press freedom:

“Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister and NCPO leader, has never censored the media. We are open, but please stay within the limits. [We] don’t want any colour. [You media] must report news positively. Sometimes, headlines lead to discomfort. Please don’t make them too harsh, although I understand that [headlines] are the highlights, but please soften them. I’d like to ask for the cooperation of columnists too. You editors please remind them for me,” the Daily News quoted Suchai as saying.

"Thai junta: we don’t limit media freedom but freedom must be within limits", Prachatai English, November 14, 2014

8. Admiral Narong Pipatanasai - The former navy chief and now Education Minister overseeing the junta's education "reform" found an unlikely kindred spirit when he met the North Korean Ambassador to Thailand:

According to the Office of the Minister Newsline, Admiral Narong Pipatanasai, the Thai Education Minister, (...) met with Mun Song Mo, the Ambassador of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea on Friday at Government House. The two agreed that the educational systems of both countries are similar. The similar elements include free 12-year basic education. Moreover, a few students from North Korea come to Thailand to study.

"Thai Education Minister: Thai education resembles North Korea", Prachatai English, November 17, 2014

7. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, again - As persistent criticism of the military government remains, the junta has moved against universities and detained academics for holding political forums. Amidst that, General Prayuth gave his reasoning why there shouldn't be any critical discussion now:

"Please understand that I don't come from an election. I'm well aware of that. So please put on hold all political criticism and forums on politics," said the prime minister, who came to administrative power through a military coup on May 22.

"'Unelected' Prayut warns against political forums", Bangkok Post, September 19, 2014

6. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul - After the murder of two British tourists in September and following messy police investigation that resulted in the rather suspicious arrest of two Burmese men (the trial started on December 26), the Tourism Minister's had some novel ideas on how to ensure tourist safety:

Under the new plan, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said hotels would hand out wristbands to tourists on check-in that would show a “serial number that matches their I.D. and shows the contact details of the resort they are staying in”. It was not immediately clear whether tourists would be obliged to wear the wristbands. (…)

Minister Kobkarn added Tuesday: “The next step would be some sort of electronic tracking device but this has not yet been discussed in detail.”

Thailand considers ID wristbands for tourists“, Asian Correspondent, September 30, 2014

5. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, once more - After the murder of the aforementioned two British tourists, it was critical that the Thai military government reacted to this murder case with the appropriate sensitivity in order to show the world how serious his administration was taking this bloody crime. Unfortunately though, it didn’t turn out that way:

“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

Thai PM questions if ‘tourists in bikinis’ safe after murders“, AFP, September 17, 2014

He would later apologise for his flippant remark.

4. Maj.-Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd - In his quest for regaining international recognition, General Prayuth took his first major trip to the West to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan. However, there were protesters telling him that he's not welcome. The junta spokesman sees this differently - that is, if he has seen anything at all:

"There have been claims on social media and a number of websites, especially on a website called Thai E News, about images that attempt to depict a protest against Gen. Prayuth and his delegates," said Maj.Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd. "Let me stress that these claims are false."

"Govt Insists Images of Milan Anti-Prayuth Protest Are Fake", Khaosod English, October 17, 2014

Quite a few would disagree with him later.

3. General Thanasak Patimaprakorn - The junta's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister has recently summed up his work to regain said international recognition - and he was quite proud of it:

"คนทั่วโลกมี 6 พันกว่าล้านคน เราได้แล้วประมาณ 4700 ล้านคนที่เป็นฝ่ายเรา 100 เปอร์เซนต์ (...)" พล.อ.ธนศักดิ์ กล่าว

"Of the 6 billion people on this world, 4.7 billion already support us 100 per cent (...)," Gen. Thanasak said.

"รมต.ต่างประเทศ เชื่อคนมากกว่าครึ่งโลกเห็นด้วยกับรัฐบาล ยันต่างชาติเชื่อมั่นไทย", Matichon, December 25, 2014

2. General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, again -  A couple days later, he backed up the previous diplomatic claim with some more breath-taking math:

พลเอกธนะศักดิ์ ปฏิมาประกร (...) กล่าวถึงการทำงานของรัฐบาล ช่วงที่ผ่านมา ว่า ได้ได้เดินหน้าตามแผนโรดแมปที่วางเอาไว้ ทำให้ประเทศต่างๆทั่วโลก ร้อยละ 85 เชื่อมั่น

General Thanasak Patimaprakorn (...) referring to the government's recent performance, said that it has progressed according to the roadmap [and] of the all the countries worldwide, 85 per cent are confident [with us]

"“พล.อ.ธนะศักดิ์” ระบุ 85% ประเทศทั่วโลกเชื่อมั่นรัฐบาลไทย", Spring News, December 30, 2014

And the number 1 is from... you guessed it...Prime Minister Prayuth!

He was referring to the media's suggestions for him to try to improve his personality. "I would like to thank [the media] for warning and suggestions. I won't change my personality because I am a person with multiple personalities," Prayut said.

"Prayut admits he has 'multiple personalities'", The Nation, November 3, 2014

Honorable mention: While not necessarily a quote but there were two incidents that shows General Prayuth's rather sardonic relationship with the press:

Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the head of the Thai junta, was caught on camera by Thairath throwing a banana peel at a cameraman’s head in front of the media and several others during a public event on Wednesday.

The mocking action from the junta head and now Thai Prime Minister seemed to draw laughter from the crowd at the event, who had probably witnessed his unique mocking style before.

In late November, he was also recorded on camera pulling the ears and ruffling the hair of a reporter while the reporter was reaching out with his microphone and kneeling down so that he would not be in the camera frame.

Earlier in late September, he mocked a journalist during a press conference at Government House with his now iconic sentence “I’ll smack you with the podium” after he was asked whether he intended to be PM from a coup d’état only, but not from an election.

"Thai junta leader throws banana peel at cameraman’s head", Prachatai English, December 24, 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!

Thai junta seeks deeper 'China pivot', lauds Beijing's leadership style

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2014 Thai prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinxing during APAC Bilateral Meeting at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Picture: Facebook/Khaosod)

Thailand's military government is seemingly seeking closer ties with China, as seen with the approval of a big infrastructure project and some odd words by Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

It is no big surprise that Thailand is not on best terms with some countries since the coup and still has an uphill task to gain the international reputation and respect it craves, despite being an authoritarian military government that does not tolerate dissent and continues to move the date for promised elections further and further into 2016.

With many relations - especially with Western countries - decidedly chilly (we reported), Thailand is looking closer to home for allies. We have previously reported that neighboring Cambodia and Burma have welcomed the military junta and gave their amicable endorsement of the new regime. And while it has maintained the familiar official stance talking to those countries that "understand" Thailand and those who "don't understand" (read: all those that condemned the coup), it nonetheless tries to play nice with countries that play a crucial economic role, especially with Thailand's biggest foreign investor Japan.

The other regional superpower Thailand's junta has been trying to court is China. Given that nearly all Western countries - especially the United States - have downgraded (but not completely given up due to strategic reasons) their relations with Thailand since the coup, it did not come as a surprise when then-army chief and still-to-this-day-junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha greeted Chinese businessmen as his first guests shortly after the coup of May 22 in an effort to woo investors back to the country and help jump start Thailand's struggling economy. That was shortly followed by a visit of Thai military commanders to China.

Other bilateral meetings between Prayuth and Chinese leaders took place during the Asia-Europe Meeting in October, where he met China's premier Li Keqiang and a month later at the APEC Conference hosted in Beijing with president Xi Jingping. The latter would welcome Prayuth again to the Chinese capital last week, where both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and build a "medium-speed" rail network linking the countries.

And it was after that most recent visit General Prayuth Prayuth said in his weekly TV address last Friday:

"I spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping and he told me that 60 years ago his country was (one of) the poorest in the world. In 30 years they were able to make their country a world economic superpower," Prayuth said. "But we are still bickering amongst ourselves."

"Thai leader cites China as positive example in year-end message", Reuters, December 25, 2014

It's not so much the envy towards China's economic growth and power that is striking, but the apparent perception by the junta leader that the "bickering" in the Thai political discourse is what's holding us back. One could mark this down as yet another of the half-baked throwaway thoughts that General Prayuth has become quite (in)famous for. He essentially ignores the fact this "bickering" is in fact the political discourse that in the past decade has turned into an ongoing crisis mostly because of the refusal of the politically established elite to accommodate a changing social and political landscape, as this blog has debated for years and most recently here. Also, it doesn't help that the junta is intolerant of dissent and criticism, as evident in yet another blow-out by Prayuth against the press, threatening to shut shut dissenting outlets down - a threat supported by his deputy.

Nevertheless, Prayuth's remark also hints at a genuine reverence towards an effective, authoritarian one-party rule in exchange for economic propensity. With the junta currently sitting comfortably in power (in part thanks to ongoing martial law)  and pushing its political "reforms" through appointed bodies, it can consider implementing some of these elements, as the some of the constant chatter from the Constitutional Drafting Committee suggests:

ส่วน คสช.จะทำหน้าที่ต่อไป โดยอาจปรับเปลี่ยนใหม่ อาจเป็นรูปแบบของ "คณะกรรมการพิทักษ์รัฐธรรมนูญ" เพื่อดูแลการทำงานของรัฐบาล ซึ่งจะมีลักษณะคล้ายกับรูปแบบของกรรมการโปลิตบูโร

Concerning the future of the “National Council for Peace and Order” [NCPO, the junta's official name], it may be transformed into something like a "Committee to Protect the Constitution" that oversees the work of the government,  similar to a politburo.

"สะพัด! คสช.เสนอโมเดลใหม่! สส.ลต.รวมสว.สรรหา 500 คน-ให้คสช.อยู่ต่อ ควบคุมรัฐบาล", Matichon, December 23, 2014

A politburo is an executive committee usually found in one-party-ruled, communist countries like, guess what, China! Now, the idea here seems to be more that the junta will remain to co-exist beside a partially or fully elected parliament and would hawkishly watch over the government.

With the number of possible partners abroad ever dwindling - in contrast with the foreign minister stating that Thailand is getting "due recognition" by "4.7bn" of the world that support the junta "100 per cent" - Thailand's military junta hopes that its relationship with China may be its ace in the hole. But that may turn out to be a zero-sum game because, as The Economist argued, in the end China has nothing significant to gain or to lose from this relationship, while the junta is under more pressure (especially domestically) to deliver on all fronts.

Lèse majesté vigilantism and Thailand's political crisis

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 23, 2014 UPDATE (April 23): The head of the newly created radical royalist cyber-vigilante group has filed a lèse majesté charge against Ms. "Rose" himself. In separate story on Wednesday, Kamol Duangphasuk, better known among the red shirts as a poet under his pen name "Maineung K. Kunthee" has been shot dead by unknown assailants. "Maineung" was also known to be an anti-lèse majesté activist.


As Thailand's political crisis lingers on, the country's draconian lèse majesté law is still being applied, as two related cases show. Moreover, a new online vigilante group is making sure it stays that way.

The words Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun spoke into the camera were as straightforward as they were blunt. The man more commonly known as red shirt activist and radio talk-show host "Ko Tee" has always been more outspoken than the mainstream umbrella red shirt organization, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and he also doesn't shy away from openly criticizing the monarchy.

In a documentary by VICE News on the current Thai political crisis posted on YouTube earlier this month, "Ko Tee" implies that anti-government protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban "is only the figurehead" and points to somebody higher behind the protest movement.

The reporter asks Kotee what the red-shirts’ demands are. Kotee replies: “We demand that they stop mob gatherings on the streets. We demand the electoral system. They say they love the country. But all they do is destroy it and the economy. I'm fighting the system that has dominated Thailand for a long time. Suthep is only the figurehead. I'm fighting the one who is really behind the mob. You know the meaning, right?"

After a pause, he asks the reporter if she understands the implication of his gesture. He then says the name of the alleged de facto leader of the anti-government protest.

"Hardcore red Kotee target of lèse majesté charge", Prachatai English, April 9, 2014

The reactions were swift and even the Yingluck government were quick to pull the trigger, ordering the police to take legal actions against "Ko Tee", who remains at large at the time of publishing. Furthermore, the authorities have also threatened the public not to share said video, since they could also be implicated for lèse majesté.

That wasn't the only lèse majesté charge this month.

A Thai mother and father have sued their daughter, a vocal anti-establishment red-shirt residing in the UK, for posting video clips of herself defaming the monarchy after they received a storm of hate phone calls from Thai loyalists.

Thai media reported on April 17 that Surapong and Somchintra Amornpat filed a police complaint against their daughter Chatwadee Amornpat, 34, who is now working as a hair stylist in London and holds British citizenship.

Declaring herself a “progressive red shirt” and republican, Chatwadee, aka Rose, recorded several video clips, voicing her opinions on the Thai political conflict and attacking the monarchy and published them on her Facebook profile. (...)

Her parents decided to press charges against her because they were threatened by phone calls from people in Thailand. Pressing charges is to show that they do not condone their daughter’s actions, the parents said, adding that they have warned her to stop defaming the King.

"I want people to understand that just because a daughter is doing something wrong, it doesn't mean the parents are also guilty, because we don't condone such actions," Khaosod English quoted Surapong as saying.

"Parents sue daughter for lèse majesté", Prachatai English, April 19, 2014

While "Rose" is in the United Kingdom, she could be arrested if she returns in Thailand. What is more striking in this case is not only that the parents are filing a lèse majesté complaint against their own daughter, but also the apparent climate of fear in the form of the threats made against the parents.

Such a climate of fear and pre-emptive social obedience - something we have mentioned a few times here when it comes to (over-)emphasizing one's loyalty to the monarchy - has now gained another supporter in form of an online vigilante group. The Facebook group, roughly translated to the "Organisation to Eradicate the Nation's Trash" ("องค์กรเก็บขยะแผ่นดิน" in Thai), has taken it upon itself to, as the name implies, to “exterminate” those that in their view "insult, defame and discredit the monarchy." The group, opened by a former military doctor called Dr Rienthong Naenna, has as of writing more than 140,000 likes since its launch a little over a week ago.

Pro-monarchist vigilantism online is not a new phenomenon in Thailand - at one point in recent history it was even state-sponsored. Those accused of being critical of the monarchy have often been the target of cyber witch hunts. Victims of such attacks have often have their personal details and contact information disclosed in public.

But the aforementioned group is seemingly upping the ante:

Mongkutwattana General Hospital director Rienthong Nanna, who unveiled his new Rubbish Collection Organisation (RCO) last Wednesday, yesterday warned critics that he would “respond with violence” to any violent attacks committed against his supporters.

It came as Dr Rienthong claimed yesterday that about 7pm on Saturday he saw “suspicious-looking men” in three cars lurking outside his house on Chaeng Watthana Road. (...)

Dr Rienthong said he was working on the establishment of a “People’s Army to Protect the Monarchy”, which would recruit people in every region (...). He also invited retired military and police officers who are loyal to the King to a meeting (...) to discuss the establishment of “a special task force of old soldiers” to help the National Police Office punish perpetrators of the lese majeste law.

However, Dr Rienthong told the Bangkok Post that his “People’s Army” and the soldiers task force are not intended to persecute or use violence against fellow Thais. Their mission will be only to look for lese majeste suspects and bring them to justice. He denied the RCO is a rogue organisation and vowed that it will operate within the law, without links to political or business groups.

"Monarchists vow to fight ‘armed threat’", Bangkok Post, April 20, 2014

Even if the online mob does not translate its vigilantism into the real life, it does plant yet another dangerous seed in the already hatred-filled plains by naming their perceived enemies as "trash" and vowing to collect and "eradicate" them. The radical monarchists are setting a dangerous precedent, which some observers have compared to the Thammasat massacre of 1976. The holier-than-thou mindset of those claiming to defend the monarchy is further polarizing an already emotionally charged political crisis and could damage the monarchy in the long run more than they're actually protecting it.