Thailand

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?http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/773944/yingluck-invited-to-talk-thai-politics-at-european-parliament

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.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

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.