One year of Thai military rule passes with a whisper
A year after the military seized power in a bloodless coup, critics appear to have been effectively silenced.
Bangkok, Thailand – It is quiet, it is calm. One year after the military announced martial law, suspended the constitution and took control of the country, there is scant sign of public remonstrance.
Thailand’s May 22, 2014 coup came after months of political unrest and violent clashes between government supporters and those calling for then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ouster over a proposed amnesty bill.
An early election did little to quell discontent, and Yingluck’s power was rapidly eroded. Hauled before a constitutional court on abuse of power charges, the prime minister was found guilty and summarily dismissed on May 7.
Within two weeks, General Prayuth Chan-ocha was installed at the helm of a programme intended to swiftly and harshly shutter dissent.
The arrests, threats and harassment have done the trick: most critics have gone silent.
“They breach our houses, they kick in our doors, they talk to our families,” said student activist Than Rittiphan.
For those still pushing back against the military rule, it has been a long year, said Than, adding that it has been difficult watching his friends be jailed.
“It’s one year since the coup? It seems like four years already.”
Orwell and sandwiches
“In order to run the country smoothly, [we] suspended the constitution of 2007, except for the chapter on the monarchy,” the military announced in a televised statement broadcast May 22.
In the early days of the coup (Thailand’s 12th since constitutional monarchy was installed in 1932), protesters marched on Bangkok demanding a restoration of democracy.
Others displayed their opposition by reading George Orwell books in public, flashing a three-finger salute popularised by The Hunger Games, and eating sandwiches.
The seemingly benign acts became punishable and arrests multiplied. Just two days after the coup, dozens of academics, lawyers and activists were summonsed by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Many fled.
“The regime has proven that it’s really serious about dissidence,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst and professor at Kyoto University who himself was forced to apply for asylum from Japan after receiving an NCPO summons.
Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia desk at the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said the military had been highly effective at suppressing opposition.
“Behind the façade of stability, the junta has steamrolled fundamental human rights and runs the country unchecked. Members of the military have been directly responsible for a myriad of violations of international law but there is no way to hold them accountable,” he said.
At the junta’s disposal is a range of quasi-legal weapons.
According to data from Thai legal rights centre iLaw, more than 750 people have been summonsed to military camps or detained in the past year. At least 146 have been arrested during peaceful protests after the military outlawed gatherings of more than five people.
Incitement charges and even the Sanitation Act have been employed against demonstrators, while the country’s controversial lèse majesté law has proven a particularly potent means of dealing with critics.
On Wednesday, FIDH announced there had been at least 47 detained since the NCPO came to power – an “unprecedented” number of lèse majesté cases.
This is trench warfare. The military in this country just wants power, they’re going to be in power for a long time.
Whatever the allegation, those arrested under martial law can expect few basic rights. The military is permitted to hold detainees up to 10 days without charge, which has created a powerful atmosphere of fear, said Jon Ungphakorn, executive director of iLaw.
“Their relatives were not told which military camps they were being held in. In some cases they were blindfolded, in other cases put in vans with covered windows so the detainees didn’t know themselves where they were taken,” he said.
“The thing which is giving the power to the junta is the use of martial law, which is now replaced by Article 44 of the interim constitution,” he said, referring to the sweeping law that last month replaced martial law and which allows for absolute power in the name of security.
Outside the judiciary, blunter tools were engaged. Local diplomats pushed for extraditions, police paid visits to activists’ families and spies followed the politically contentious.
“Whenever possible for them, they would send someone to listen, to sit in my lectures. When they could not come, they would call Thai students harassing them, threatening them, trying to get information from them,” Pavin recalled.
The student activist, Than, said members of the Thai Student Centre for Democracy are frequently forced to move around to avoid police harassment.
“This is trench warfare,” he said. “The military in this country just wants power, they’re going to be in power for a long time.”
Freedom and duty
While Prayuth has promised democratic elections, few expect them to arrive anytime soon. Immediately after the coup, he gave a timeframe of 15 months. By June, elections had been pushed back to October. Four months later, he said it was unlikely necessary reforms would come in time.
Addressing such criticisms, Prayuth lashed out in a televised “progress report” speech given last month.
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“There’s no country in this world that can have peace with unlimited freedom, meaning freedom should go hand in hand with duty, respect of rights and mutual respect among individuals,” he said.
“People should just get on with their lives. If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”
Repeated requests for comment to Major General Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, NCPO spokesman, went unanswered by publication time.
Whether Prayuth can outlast the current calm, however remains to be seen. The students said they will continue to fight, a poor economy is sowing discontent, and local media has warned the military appears to be wearing out its welcome.
“I think now, more or less, they would be able to control the situation,” said Pavin.
“But it doesn’t mean that society has become totally passive also. It might be quiet but it’s kind of like simmering water. We just wait for it to explode.”