Thailand under the junta: Paranoia and conspiracy

The Thai junta is investigating an imagined conspiracy plot to overthrow the monarchy.

The Thai military took over the government in a coup on May 22 [AFP/Getty Images]

Two months after the military coup, the Thai junta continues to interrogate, detain, and persecute activists, journalists, and academics. The period of “attitude adjustment”, as the military dictatorship calls these arbitrary detentions, may vary from a few hours to seven days, depending on how far removed the victims are from the fairy tale of peace, unity, and happiness that the junta wants them to repeat.

While these “conversations” have been quite effective in silencing opposition, they also reveal the army’s paranoid belief in the existence of an organised plot to bring down the Thai monarchy. Many among the summoned reported that the interrogators attempted to identify and expose such an organisation. Pitch Pongsawat was among them. A professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and the host of the popular satellite TV programme “Wake Up Thailand”, Pitch wrote of being called up to meet with the army and hearing about an alleged plot to take down the monarchy put together by a structured organisation.

This belief in the existence of an organisation revolving around former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, republican intellectuals, and fringes of the Red Shirts, is providing both legitimacy and urgency for unprecedented repressive measures by the Thai military, which has historically presented the protection of the monarchy as their top priority. 

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an outspoken professor at Kyoto University, who refused to return to Thailand after being summoned, told me:

“The exploitation of the monarchy has characterised the strategy of the Thai army in maintaining its role in politics. Since the Cold War, the military has been able to use the royal institution to guarantee its power position. So long as the monarchy is being viewed as under threat, this will give legitimacy to the military to intervene in politics and undermine its political enemies. However, the important part of it is to create, recreate the faces of enemies. Anyone disagreeing with the coup now could be perceived as anti-monarchist, thus being an enemy of the Thai state.”

101 East – Thailand in turmoil

The political use of the monarchy to silence critical voices is not a novelty in Thailand. The infamous lèse majesté law, which punishes anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, crown prince or regent with up to 15 years of jail, has been used heavily for this purpose, especially since the Red Shirt mobilisation in 2010.

In that year, 478 cases were filed, three times as many as in 2009. Since the coup on May 22, the junta led by General Prayut Chan-ocha has elevated this strategy to an unprecedented degree and set out to crush the imagined plot against the monarchy. Only in the last  few months, 13 lese majeste cases were filled. In the military paranoia, enemies of the state are everywhere, from students protesting the coup to media commentators, from vocal taxi drivers to academics advocating for a reform of the law.

The revival of the idea of “enemies of the state” to describe anybody who voices criticism, an important tool for violent military repression of progressive forces during the Cold War, is a sign of Thailand’s slow descent into a new dark era. Once the monarchy and the nation are perceived to be under attack, any form of dissent can be deemed by the military as a real challenge to Thai identity and repressed with any means possible.

Last time this happened was in the mid-1970s and it concluded with ultra-royalist paramilitary forces beating, raping, and killing hundreds of students and activists, who eventually fled in the jungle and started an armed struggle.

Thailand today is still distant from that level of violence, but the first worrying signs of the junta’s paranoia are starting to emerge. Pavin, together with famed Thai historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, to whom General Prayut referred early this year as “a mentally ill academic [who] is intent on overthrowing the institution,” and the exiled leaders of the Seri Thai resistance movement have been accused of being part of this imagined plot, forced to leave the country, and seen their passports and citizenships revoked.

Similarly, critics of the coup are threatened with lese majeste charges, and face trials in military courts, notoriously lacking accountability and the right to appeal.

Unfortunately, human history is dotted with similar authoritarian regimes and the disastrous consequences of their quixotic fights against imagined conspiracies. It is undeniable that the Thai monarchy has lost popularity since the palace has been seen as taking sides in the present political crisis, and often voiced to be the mind behind it. However, this discontent is a dispersed murmur rather than an actual conspiracy.

Whether the junta truly believes in the existence of this plot or is just using it as a way to legitimising repression, the effects of this paranoia are real and the current witch-hunt gives an eerie preview of things to come in Thailand.

Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University All Souls College  and the author of “Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red-Shirt Movement”.