August 26, 2014

Rival camps on deadly collision course  Bangkok Post May 15th, 2014
This is a pre-edited version of the piece that appeared in Bangkok Post May 15th - reposted because Bangkok Post takes material off after 60 days). If the PDRC has now been swept aside, the victory, politically, has been theirs in many ways, with the new military dictatorship bent on "eradication" of the Thaksin network and criminalizing political expression, especially of red-shirted elements and dissidents on 112.
For a Constituent Assembly - my title.

For the last few days I’ve visited the protest sites of the rival camps in Thailand’s ongoing crisis. At both, protestors have told me they are willing to die for their cause. On Sunday, at the United Front for Democracy Against Democracy (UDD) site in the Phuttamonthon district some 30 kilometres from central Bangkok, Bu (not her real name) cautiously switches from Thai to English to tell me that the protest sought royal protection through the Crown Prince [following a long tradition of decorating protests with royal imagery as a form of protection]. Indeed, the red-shirt rally is positioned close to the Crown Prince’s palace.  Bu is one of many farmers from the Northeast of the country – the heartland of the current care-taker government – who have joined the protest to protect the pro-Thaksin care-taker government, after Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office last week by the Constitutional Court, along with a third of her Cabinet.  

The affinity the protestors have for the Crown Prince is hardly a secret, with T’shirts proclaiming “we love the Crown Prince” “or we love 904” a reference to the Crown Prince’s radio signature.  Bu and others have joined the protest on rotation, expecting to stay for a week – to be replaced by others she knows who are already on standby from her province. During the hot long days before big-name speakers take to the stage at night, refuge is sought under a bridge and in makeshift tents that dot the protest site.  Hundreds of stalls selling or distributing  t’shirts, rice-cookers, satellite disks and newspapers provide some shade and reminders of past battles fought. CDs of fiery speeches and red-shirt confrontations with security forces are on sale or constantly replayed on old televisions. They await the evening crowds who will fill the long empty Aksa Road that has been closed to traffic by red-shirt guards at either end.  

On Monday evening from the protest stage a former lecturer from Chulalongkorn university, said to have lost her job due to her political activities, reads a poem by recently assassinated  ‘people’s poet’  “Nai Neung”.  An advocate of reform of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which severely punishes lese majeste, his death was rumoured to be at the hands of an underground movement to wipe out those disloyal to the “Institution” as the monarchy is colloquially  known. He was said to be the first victim of the ominously named Organization to Remove Rubbish, which announced a witchhunt against those disloyal to the monarchy.  Then rumours swirled that it was not so simple. That the poet was part of an underground armed element of the redshirts and his death was “more complicated”. The death sums up the difficulty of being certain about anything in this crisis.

The protest will stay put as long as the care-taker government faces the threat of forced removal. Should a challenger interim government emerge out of initiatives by informal meetings of the Senate that commenced on Monday, it can be expected that the protestors ranks will swell into the hundreds of thousands and move en-masse into central Bangkok to protect the care-taker government. Should this occur Thailand will possess two governments claiming  legitimacy and demanding loyalty from state agencies.  

At the People’s Democratic Reform Committee and related group protest sites I came across a sentiment that I can only describe as smug expectation that victory will be theirs.  On Sunday the protest leader Suthep Thaungsuban, former Secretary General of  the Democrat Party which boycotted the February election, was allowed to set up office in government house, being politely flanked by soldiers. The ease of occupation bloated an already swelling smugness. On stage he declared – “all are welcome to come and see me, I am ready now. I said I wouldn’t talk to you, but I am ready now. Come!”, to admiring cheers and whistles of the crowd. On Monday evening Suthep met with Acting Senate President in a polite exchange  and expressed his desire for remaining legitimate agencies of the state to appoint an interim government. Far away, at the red-shirt rally the cry is to stop Suthep’s rebellion and push forward to a new election.

As the various anti-Thaksin forces gather to pressure for the removal of yet another pro-Thaksin government), the language on the PDRC stage is both demagogic and technical. Suthep appears tired on stage, constantly wiping his forehead and swaying gently from side to side. He speaks of himself as the “medium” of the people (emulating Thaksin’s egotism), but at times his stage presence reminds of a lawyer explaining the various mitigations of a transgression. His constant reference to Article-this and Article-that of the 2007 constitution on why an appointed government is constitutional are breathtakingly ingenious. It is constitutional white-noise meant to cover a brazen attempt to fell the current care-taker government by any means possible. The crowd is lured to quiet with such legalities, stirred only by talk of the “evil family”,  eradicating corruption and the Thaksin regime, and folksy idioms I cannot fully grasp.

The 2007 constitution which is used by both sides to argue their respective cases, is one birthed by the anti-Thaksin 2006 coup. Despite this, it has not been able to stop the electoral preference of a majority expressing support for the side the coup was meant to eradicate. The constitutional upper hand is with the anti-Thaksin side, for the coup enabled strong anti-Thaksin elements to occupy key offices in the so-called independent agencies of the state and in the appointed parts of the Senate. Despite the PDRC’s reactionary rantings, the anti-Thaksin side is not a marginal minority waiting for history-as-justice to sweep it aside (even if the PDRC may be). It is a substantial force that must also be accommodated in any settlement to this conflict. But it needs to compromise too, and it must recognise the mandate given to successive pro-Thaksin governments since the 2006 coup d’etat (2007, 2011 and probably 2014 had the poll proceeded properly).

Thailand now faces an enormous challenge of political transition. It can push through with either side prevailing – and it is not clear which side would prevail just now - but at enormous cost to peace and life. Or it can be a transition that recognizes the validity of some elements of each camp’s claim. To do that would raise the possibility of a peaceful resolution and to begin the hard work of democratizing the conflict into a new social contract.

Both sides have a responsibility to seek a resolution that does not cause further loss of life to their respective rank and files – it is they who have paid the highest cost already  -  as rival elites go for broke.

Somehow Thailand has to retreat from the brink. This would entail a recognition of the electoral mandate of the current care-taker government. Under its administration with an agreement on extraordinary powers,   a constituent assembly could be formed that accommodates a range of interests and political persuasions to establish new rules that, being fairly agreed upon, all must be subject to, and which then are ruthlessly applied without prejudice. The 2007 Constitution lacks this founding legitimacy and resolving the conflict under its auspices will lead to further violence and protest or a repressive military coup.

Michael Connors.

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.