August 9, 2014

Of Rights Lost and Democracy to Come.

Of Rights Lost and Democracy to Come.

In early May of this year the Thai Constitutional Court dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for a single transfer of office that allowed Thaksin Shinawatra’s former brother in law to become the nation’s top cop. Since the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin from office, Yingluck’s dismissal was the third time courts had removed from office  pro-Thaksin prime ministers. Two weeks later the self-proclaimed National Council for Peace and Order seized power, claiming that rival political camps were on the brink of political violence and it was time to restore national happiness.

Then followed the “Big Shift” as the junta purged officials and moved their people into place. From those outraged at Thaksin and Yingluck’s political nepotism no sound was heard against the military’s self-regarding and non-transparent  appointments.

The junta cemented its power by a series of extra-ordinary decrees including those enabling the forcible detention (for the purposes of attitude adjustment) of hundreds of politicians, activists, academics and potential dissidents. And from those who had taken to the streets citing the liberal rights of the minority (the protestors) in the face of the tyranny of the majority (the Yingluck government) no opposition was raised against arbitrary detention.  

The silence is symptomatic of authoritarian liberals’ belief that Thailand is now in abnormal times and requires drastic measures. And so it still remains, as each day brings new abnormalities under coup law and the country drifts towards an unimaginable future.  

Inevitably, whispers of physical  human rights abuse leaked from some detainees, but none so spectacularly as that of red shirt activist Kritsuda Khunasem, who endured three weeks of detention and emerged “more happy than I can say”, only to seek refuge in Europe  with claims of torture.  More of such reports can be expected, for a coup licenses such abuse. Until the rule of law is established, the onus should be on the alleged guilty party in such cases to prove that it did not engage in torture, since that party acts without  due process and transparency.

More allegations of coercion, harm and torture are likely to emerge, despite the conditional release of some detainees with statements that they were well-treated and would work with the military for reconciliation.  Images in the Thai press of forced meetings between yellow and red-shirt activists underline the grim-faced submission to the coup. That the military believed its Return Happiness and reconciliation campaigns would work is not farcical, it is terrifying.  We cannot know what else the military dictatorship believes it can get away with, or what it will do to stay in power.   

Indeed, what are we to make of the Thai coup makers' dispiriting use of martial law and censorship, and its growing political ambition evidenced by appointing an effective military majority to the just established
National Legislative Assembly?  This is a level of khaki ambition unseen since the Cold War 1970s. And it finds diplomatic support in Chinese and Burmese quarters. On display is a gritted-tooth spit in the face of history-as-freedom as the junta tries to convince itself of its legitimacy, as much as others, by double speak - hence the arrest of those  at  downtown Paragon Mall caught reading Orwell's 1984. This is not so much a case of an emperor with no clothes as commoners with mirrors.

While conspiracy theorists view the military return to power as a plot, the
decision to assume sovereign power by might, lies not in some original sin of the will to power, but in political circumstances surrounding the failure of competing political leaderships from 2005 onwards to settle the terms of their elite contest amidst emergent mass movements. When given a conditional constitutional terrain on which to contest their respective ideologies they each, at different times, failed to submit to a general constitutional law, providing the emotional, political or legal fuel to sustain a deadlocked politics .

For the latest crisis, responsibility at its gravest lies with the reactionary anti –Thaksin People’s Democratic Reform Committee that led months’ long protests before the coup,  and the opposition Democrat Party from which the committee was spawned. From late 2013, Thailand’s political opposition transformed itself into an outfit set on vandalizing Thailand’s relatively open electoral system by unashamedly courting partisan legal agencies and paving the way for military intervention. As egregious as Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party may have been to its opponents, smart oppositional strategy may have eroded the substantial electoral power that has delivered Thaksin-sponsored parties to power in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011.

Instead, the opposition effectively cheered for a military coup knowing that it would not be a “soft coup” like 2006.  It now supinely allows the military to stamp its full authority on post-coup institutions , underlining the desperation  of those wanting to eliminate the “Thaksin regime”, of which the Yingluck government was considered a proxy. That regime was considered by royalist liberals and conservatives a threat to monarchy, democracy, clean government and liberty. The only thing now supposedly secured by the coup is the monarchy. Democracy and liberty are being redefined along conservative guardianship lines, echoing military dogma from the 1960s. As for clean government, elements in the military are just as corrupt as some politicians evidenced by a number of procurement scandals.   

Some in the military believe in the justice of redesigning democracy, and as far as they can see most Thai citizens are smiling in agreement, as required by coup-law. They will do well to remember the events of 1973 and 1992 when hundreds of thousands of democracy protestors forced dictators to exit in shame. Hubris always has an expiry date. 
Piece written last week but was unable to place it.

June 4, 2014

Letter opposing the coup from academics outside of Thailand

23 May 2014

General Prayuth Chan-ocha
Commander-in-Chief, Royal Thai Army

Dear General Prayuth:

As scholars of Thailand based outside the country, we are writing to express our grave concern at the coup launched on 22 May 2014 by the National Order Maintenance Council. This is the twelfth coup successfully carried out in Thailand since the end of the absolute monarchy on 24 June 1932. In every instance, it failed to achieve its objectives while it has damaged the development of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.  Citizens, particularly those with dissident views, have been placed in danger and political freedom has been curtailed.  

In the National Order Maintenance Council’s first statement, you requested that citizens “carry out their lives and occupation as usual,” but nothing could be normal about the political and social conditions put in place by the coup. The coup cannot be a measure for peace because the coup itself is the use of violence. During the two days from 20 to 22 May 2014 in which martial law was in force, there was curtailment of human rights, particularly with respect to freedom of expression and political freedom. The situation has been worse since the coup, with extensive fear and unknown safety of many leaders and supporters of all political camps. The rapid speed and severity with which these restrictions were put in place makes Thailand notorious worldwide for the unjust actions by the coup group. The international community cannot tolerate such actions. 

We urge the National Order Maintenance Council to immediately return to constitutional rule by a civilian government.  In the absence of such an action, we call on the Council to provide a concrete timeline for return to constitutional rule, which should be done as rapidly as possible. We further call on the National Order Maintenance Council to assure that no further violence or suppression in any form will be used against the people. Constitutional rule by a civilian government, including both elections and the full participation of all citizens in rule, is the only path forward for the continued development of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Thailand.


1.      Dr. Andrew Brown, Lecturer, University of New England
2.      Dr. Pongphisoot Busbarat, Research Affiliate, University of Sydney
3.      Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor, Kyoto University
4.      Dr. Nick Cheesman, Lecturer, Australian National University
5.      Dr. Michael Connors, Associate Professor, University of Nottingham, Malaysia campus
6.      Dr. Eli Elinoff, Postdoctoral Fellow, National University of Singapore
7.      Dr. Jane M, Ferguson, Research Fellow, University of Sydney
8.      Dr. Jim Glassman, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia
9.      Dr. Tyrell Haberkorn, Fellow, Australian National University
10.  Dr. Kevin Hewison, Sir Walter Murdoch Professor, Murdoch University
11.  Dr. Philip Hirsch, Professor, University of Sydney
12.  Dr. Adadol Ingawanij, Senior Research Fellow, University of Westminster
13.  Dr. Soren Ivarsson, Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen
14.  Dr. Peter Jackson, Professor, Australian National University
15.  Dr. Andrew Johnson, Assistant Professor, Yale-NUS College
16.  Dr. Samson Lim, Singapore University of Technology and Design
17.  Dr. Tamara Loos, Associate Professor, Cornell University
18.  Dr. Mary Beth Mills, Professor, Colby College
19.  Dr. Michael Montesano, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
20.  Dr. Claudio Sopranzetti, Postdoctoral Fellow, Oxford University
21.  Dr. Ben Tausig, Associate Professor, Stony Brook University
22.  Dr. James L. Taylor, Adjunct Associate Professor, The University of Adelaide,
23.  Dr. Tubtim Tubtim, University of Sydney
24.  Dr. Peter Vandergeest, Associate Professor, York University
25.  Dr. Andrew Walker, Professor and Deputy Dean, Australian National University
26.  Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

June 2, 2014

Coup comments

Some comments (unused)  to the media last week reproduced below.

May 27th to media

On use of court martial:
similar announcements on trials in military courts  were made in Thailand's most repressive coups d'etat, 1958 and 1976, and these were times of massive repression. There is no doubt that this coup is going for absolute victory. But this is not just about eradicating red shirts and the Thaksin network, it is also about the breakdown of political order on both sides and the unprecedented mobilization of street protests as mechanisms of political change. In response  the military's sense of itself as guardian of national security, the monarchy and social order is now on full display. It has declared itself sovereign, and it has the repressive apparatus to back up that claim, hence we see people with little choice but to report to the military when summoned despite the fact that a coup d'etat is by definition unconstitutional.

May 23rd to media
On business and the economy:

Business associations welcomed martial law. They now have to take sides since it is clear that martial law was no longer about brokering talks but about preparing the conditions for a decisive coup against potential opposition. Business has traditionally been subservient in these circumstances and apart from those highly integral to new capitalist class around Thaksin, most will wear the condition if it promises stability in the near future.

Options for the coup group:

They have two options. They can try and force a compromise among the rival elites and demobilise the mass movements of both sides,  which is the least bloody scenario. Or,  more likely,  they can decide not to repeat the "soft coup" of 2006 and they put in place the most draconian coup apparatus since 1976 and accept that there will be unprecedented repression and violence to subdue the opposition. The 1976 coup fueled a mass exodus into the ranks of communist insurgent zones by liberal and left-wing students. Today, repression will vindicate the hardline of the red-shirt movement who have argued for stronger forms of civil disobedience, and also perhaps  add weight to the armed elements that were present in 2010

June 1, 2014

I am law - Thailand's repetitive decisionist moment

I am law - Thailand's repetitive decisionist moment

In early May Thais  witnessed  a prime minister felled for a single transfer of office (rightly in normal circumstances), and then two weeks later a coup-group, acting as  self-anointed national saviors in the decisionist fashion of all coups de'etat, declared themselves as law itself and then proceeded to  remake the state by a series of non-constitutional decrees, some of which forcibly detain for the purposes of "adjustment" those who would question on what law stands the coup.

The  Thai coup makers' dispiriting humvee -and-trample  use of martial law and the  2014 May coup are a product of a gritted-tooth spit in the face of  history-as-freedom;  brazen and contrarian, the coup leadership must  convince now themselves of  their own legitimacy by double speak - hence their sensitivity about protestors reading Orwell's 1984.

Thailand's return to its  repetitive decisionism (how many coups d'eat now?) , which is to say  this latest  assumption of sovereignty by the law of might not right, has its origins not in some original sin of the military will to power,  but in the failure of the political leaderships to settle the terms of their elite contest amidst emergent mass movements.

When given a constitutional terrain on which to contest their respective ideologies they each, at different times,  failed to submit to a higher law. In this round the weight of  failure obviously goes to the PDRC and the Democrat Party. As egregious as the Pheu Thai party may have been to its opponents, it was still a possibility that smart oppositional politics and strategy could have whittled away its electoral power.

Now, with Democrat Party complicity and an establishment fearful of the emergence of new politics across the political divide -  of mass mobilization and a democracy of doing - the military has truncated the crisis (that might have been an episode of democratization)  not so much with a full stop as with an exclamation mark screaming unity and Thainess! Its partisan round-ups, censorship and exhortations builds a fortress of hyperbole backed by guns.

May 23, 2014

Comments to media on 20th May on the declaration of martial law

Impact of martial law?

It dampens expectations of an impending breakdown into chaotic violence but it will heighten tensions the moment the military is seen to take sides.  It has stopped the People's Democratic Reform Committee from its wandering street protests and occupations and the impending strike action by supportive state enterprise unions,  but it has also disbanded the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order which  was starting to look like the care-taker government command centre. In essence it has bled the rival sides of key resources and strategies to push competing claims of legitimacy and what was looking like the possible emergence of two entities claiming government status. So tensions are down, only because repressed.


A lot depends on whether the Senate proceeds with discussions on appointing  interim PM and government, and if this is supported by the military.  Acting Senate  President Surachai has confirmed the Senate will still seek a way out, despite caretaker PM Niwatthamrong not quitting yesterday.

Possibility of an appointed government?

If an appointed government emerges from whatever process, and it  incorporates people from the care-taker cabinet and oppositional elements, this may enable a compromise to emerge.  Such a move would recognise the care-taker government's historic mandate and also fit some calls for a government of national unity. If  an anti-Thaksin interim government is installed I expect the redshirt movement will  and try and deliver on its promised response of mass resistance.