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In pursuit of Thailand's happiness

The Thai military junta uses arbitrary repression to curb dissent.

Last updated: 10 Jun 2014 14:27
Tyrell Haberkorn

Tyrell Haberkorn is a fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.
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The Thai military recently launched a campaign 'Return Happiness to the People' [AFP/Getty Images]

Led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, on May 22 the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) fomented Thailand's 12th successful coup in 82 years. While claiming to reform the country in the service of the people's happiness, under the NCPO, political freedom has been curtailed, persons deemed critical of the monarchy or junta have been detained, and surveillance has increased. Wittingly or not, a key component of this repression has been its uneven and arbitrary nature. It is impossible to predict the NCPO's actions, and therefore impossible for a dissident citizen to know if she or he will be targeted or spared.

For those who have not been spared, the penalties are harsh.

Arbitrary repression

Apichat Pongsawat was a master's student at Thammasat University. On May 23, he joined a protest in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Angered by his opposition to the coup, a group of soldiers arrested and held him for seven days, the maximum duration allowed under martial law before formal charges have to be brought.

He was then charged with violating six different legal provisions, including Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which prescribes a punishment of three to 15 years for any act deemed to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent. While he was in custody, the military located his Facebook page, and alleged that a post made in 2010 violated Article 112. Denied bail twice, Apichat is currently in the Bangkok Remand Prison as the investigation against him continues.

Listening Post - Thailand: the military and the media

Although Article 112 has been part of the Criminal Code since its last revision in 1957, its use has increased dramatically since the 19 September 2006 coup. The measure has become a litmus test: To be accused of violating Article 112 is to be accused of not being Thai, and to accuse another of violating Article 112 is to display one's greatest loyalty to the monarchy and the nation.

Any citizen can file a complaint on violations of this law, and then the police must decide on whether to investigate and take it to the public prosecutor. On June 2, a Bangkok taxi driver was arrested by the Crime Suppression Division after a passenger accused him of violating Article 112. The passenger, a university lecturer, recorded a conversation with the taxi driver in January, and kept it on their mobile phone.

The penalties for the violation of Article 112 are already several times greater than that of defamation in Thailand for ordinary citizens, for which the maximum sentence is two years. The NCPO has paid special attention to Article 112, and under their Announcement No 37 made on May 25, has placed proceedings for those accused of violating it within the military court system. During the "abnormal times" of martial law, defendants in military courts could be stripped of human rights: They can be detained for extended periods of investigation, have no right of appeal, and can be tried in camera. In addition to crimes against the crown and state, any cases which violate the junta's orders can also be tried in the military courts. 

Does this mean that those who hold up placards with anti-coup messages, or people who raise the now-forbidden three fingers in public will be tried in military court?  While the announcement only technically places violations committed after its promulgation in the military court system, a comment by the Office of the Court of Justice stated that crimes prior to its promulgation could be moved to the military court as well. Given the junta's willingness to abrogate the constitution and act arbitrarily, the uncertainty about the scope of the military court raises the spectre that the cases of those deemed to be enemies of the junta may be processed there.

Reporting to the army club

In addition to those facing formal charges for their peaceful opposition to the coup, there are those who have been summoned to report to the junta. In 27 orders to date, announced through public broadcast, often between 9 and 10 pm, 384 people have been spuriously summoned to report to the Army Club on Thewet Road in Bangkok. Those summoned have included a wide range of figures, including dissident scholars and thinkers, lawyers, journalists, artists, activists, and former political prisoners, but also business people, politicians, and those likely to be sympathetic to the junta.

Inside Story - Thailand crisis: can martial law help?

Not all those summoned have complied, and those who have experienced different forms, locations, and lengths of detention. One may be held for the full seven days stipulated under martial law, such as Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Same Sky magazine and books. One may be released after a few hours of interrogation, such as history professor Suthachai Yimprasert, or questioned in the late hours of the night like sociologist Kengkij Kitirianglarp. Upon release, one must sign a statement pledging not to participate in political meetings or movements, and not to leave the country without the permission of General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The penalty for not showing up is a maximum prison term of up to two years and a fine of $1231. In some cases, such as those of Chaturon Chaisaeng, former Minister of Education, and Sombat Boonngamanong, an activist leader, the junta has moved to arrest those who have not responded to the summons.

Despite calls from international and Thai human rights organisations, the junta has refused to provide full details about those detained and their whereabouts. Outside Bangkok, the authorities summon people in a less official, and even less transparent fashion, such as students in Khon Kaen who were forced to sign a statement stating that their advocacy on behalf of villagers fighting the negative affects of mining violated the junta's orders.

In what seems like a profound disjuncture, during this time of repression and the concomitant spreading of fear, the NCPO has maintained their commitment to happiness. After a weekend of free haircuts, ice cream and pony petting, General Prayuth Chan-ocha has set up a weekly happiness broadcast which is aired on all Thai stations. At first glance, this call to happiness seems simply like just another absurd aspect of a regime which bears resemblance to a book once again in vogue in Thailand, George Orwell's 1984.

But this call to happiness is worth a closer look. In The Promise of Happiness, writing against sexism, racism, and homophobia, queer theorist Sara Ahmed has argued that the call to happiness is all too often deployed to depoliticise and elide stories of exclusion and oppression. So what do Prayuth and the junta hope that their call to happiness will paper over? My guess is that the violations of rights and liberties detailed above may be just the beginning.

Tyrell Haberkorn is a fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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