TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | JUNE 2014
VOLUME 03 NUMBER 03


OPINION: THAILAND

The tradition of granting the state authorities impunity does not only mean that the junta will never be punished for the coup, it will also save itself from being held accountable for past crimes, the most recent of which is the army crackdown on pro-government red shirt protesters in 2010, which resulted in nearly 100 deaths.

by SULUCK LAMUBOL

THAILAND’S 13th coup took place on 22 May 2014, two days after the Martial Law was declared nationwide. It was the 2nd coup within 10 years; the coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra occurred in 2006. This time, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted, as the Army claimed they needed to end street protests and violence that had taken place in Bangkok for over six months since November.

For Thais, many are immune and not terrified about another coup. In Thailand’s 82 years under Constitutional Monarchy, the country has seen 19 coups, including failed attempts, with 13 successfully carried out. Eighteen constitutions have been ripped apart and rewritten throughout the years, reflecting the democracy’s shaky foundation in Thailand.

In most of the coups, the junta has cited the justification of national security and the need of military control to bring peace and order back to the country. What is different about this coup is the world has changed and no military regime can last long in the 21st century.

In the month after the coup took place, over 500 people have been summoned to the military and ordered not to participate in any political activity, and not to travel abroad before receiving permission from the military. The people summoned have been politicians, academics, activists, journalists, or ordinary citizens who have been involved in the pro-government movement. Some have been summoned because they were vocal on sensitive subjects like Thailand’s monarchy and lese majeste law, which has one of the harshest sentences in the world. After detention that usually lasts seven days under Martial Law they have been monitored closely and some have been threatened.

The military has said the detention, despite being arbitrary, has been to “ask for cooperation” so that the country could return to peace and, now the main theme that the junta employs, “bring happiness back to the people.”

Those detained have not only themselves been questioned and intimidated, but the military has also visited their families, to create fear and prevent them from coming out against the dictatorship. The military will have to answer to the public how creating fear will bring happiness and reconciliation to the people.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the formal name of the junta, has employed many populist policies such as free movie tickets to patriotic films; free entrance to the zoo; free FIFA World Cup on TV; and organizing community events with army-composed songs, free haircuts, massages, and food, hoping to make people happy with their post-coup lives.

However, no rights are guaranteed as the constitution is suspended. Media is under heavy censorship, dissidents are being closely watched, and even symbolic and peaceful protesters are being arrested. Those who violate the law are tried in the military courts where they cannot appeal. Happiness for the military definitely does not mean the same thing as the citizen’s happiness in this case.

With the suppressive atmosphere, citizens who want to voice their opposition against the military rule have sought subtle or smart ways to express themselves. They have used sandwiches, three-finger salutes (as in the movie Hunger Games), wearing T-shirts with a political message, and holding placards, as ways to express their dissent. Yet, these people have been among the over 200 arrested for various reasons since the coup.

In the name of “peace and order”, the army has ignored the people’s civil and political rights and violated them by carrying out arbitrary detentions, interrogations, arrests, and prosecutions. According to a local rights organisation iLaw, since the coup, 60 people have been prosecuted, as of July 3rd, and of these, 49 will be tried in the military courts. Nine have been prosecuted for violating the lese majeste law, deemed by critics as severely limiting the freedom of speech.

But getting rid of the people who speak out against coup will not bring “peace” to Thai society; it will only deepen polarised political conflicts that have been rooted in Thailand for a past decade. By continually intervening in politics and not letting people decide by casting ballots will only cripple Thai politics and stall healthy democratisation of Thai society.

While international pressure has mounted on the regime, as the European Union has officially suspended partnership with Thailand until democratic rule is restored, the US has cut-off military aid, and Australia has banned issuing of visas for Thai military officers, the junta is remaking its image by drafting an interim constitution and has announced that it will hold election by 2015.

Traditionally, the junta has stipulated sections on Amnesty Law, whitewashing all the crime they have committed, the most serious of which is overthrowing the state. It would also immunize itself from any wrongdoings in issuing all orders such as arbitrary transfer of government officials, chairing the state enterprise boards, and other actions considered violations of rights and laws.

The tradition of granting the state authorities impunity does not only mean that the junta will never be punished for the coup, it will also save itself from being held accountable for past crimes, the most recent of which is the army crackdown on pro-government red shirt protesters in 2010, which resulted in nearly 100 deaths.

As court cases related to 2010 proceed and the Criminal Court has found in inquest hearings that at least 17 people were killed by the military, calls for justice have become inevitable. Yet, the path to justice for those victims appear to be fading away and may end up like past state crimes, where perpetrators have never been punished, as the coup has taken place again in this vicious cycle.

It is ironic that the military, an institution self-perceived as having higher moral standard than the “dirty” politicians, have now turned to populist policies and amnesty, issues that sparked the anti-government protests last year and led to the 2014 coup, with the claim of bringing “happiness” back to the people.

The only way that the military will ever truly bring happiness to the people is of it lets democratic rule function, makes itself accountable for crimes, and respects the rights and liberty of citizens in Thailand. Forcing the people to be happy by imposing power and purging dissenters will never work in the short or long term.

Suluck Lamubol (Fai) works as a journalist for the alternative online news website Prachatai.com. She writes mainly about Thai politics and human rights issue in Thailand.  ( Image courtesy: Prachatai.com)