Since the first day Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power on May 22, 2014, his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the government have rounded up political dissenters from all walks of life.
The first set to attend “attitude adjustment” camps were the ministers and officials from the Yingluck Shinawatra government, the then opposition Democrats, pro-military People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and a group of red-shirt leaders.
Many businessmen and journalists were called to report themselves. Local political canvassers and supporters, particularly on the red-shirt and Pheu Thai Party side, were threatened and detained.
All continue to be monitored up to the present. Many have been confined repeatedly at military barracks as the regime leaders took offence at their comments in the media or Facebook. Throughout the past two years, the circle of people detained or charged has widened. Freedom of speech is restricted and the prohibition of assembly of more than five people is still in effect.
Judgement on what constitutes “inappropriate” opinions and actions is arbitrary. Obviously, any protest against the regime will be suppressed.
Students’ civil disobedience activities such as gathering to read George Orwell’s 1984, saluting with three fingers as in the movie, The Hunger Games, lighting candles in a peaceful event and calling for a return to democracy, were dispersed and participants arrested.
Before the referendum on the constitution took place on Aug 7, many who were critical of the draft were suppressed.
Some, including Pheu Thai politicians and former MPs in Chiang Mai, were arrested on vague charges. What is wrong with sending “letters” criticising the draft? Student activists from the New Democracy Movement (NDM) and the Dao Din group were also arrested for handing out pamphlets stating the reasons for the “No” side.
The authority’s decision-making in such cases has no legal basis but for orders issued by the regime, excessive interpretation of the criminal code or resorting to the all-encompassing use of Section 44 of the interim charter. None of those comply with international standards on the rule of law and respect for basic human rights. Worse, the normal judicial process is disrupted and substituted by the use of military courts.
According to the Centre of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, during the period from May 22, 2014 to May 31, 2016, 1,546 cases of civilians went before military courts.
The cases involved 1,811 suspects and defendants, and include 517 cases which are still proceeding and 1,029 which have reached an outcome.
Many of the cases are not political in nature, but stem from violating the gun control law. But whatever the case, all could have gone through the normal court system where the judicial process is more transparent and the rights of the defendants are more assured. No civilians should be tried in the Military Court.
The past week the government has again demonstrated its determination to keep a tight control on freedom of speech and political activities.
The first incident involves the Dao Din student group and the group’s coordinator, Jatupat Bunpattararaksa aka “Pai Dao Din”, who was detained at Phukhieu Prison, Chaiyaphum.
Pai was charged with breaking the referendum law by handing out pamphlets criticising the draft constitution. Initially he refused bail, arguing he is fighting an unjust law.
He went on a hunger strike, taking only milk. When asked by the press, both the prime minister and the Minister of Justice, Gen Paiboon Koomchaya, refused to take up Pai’s case. “I am not interested,” said Gen Prayut. “Milk is a type of food,” said Gen Paiboon, arguing he was not actually on a hunger strike.
After his friends talked him out of it, Pai stopped the hunger strike and agreed to pay his 150,000-baht bail, comprising 30,000 baht in cash and his father’s lawyer’s certificate.
However, the joy was short-lived as the activist was detained again that evening, not within official hours, by Khon Kaen police on a charge that he defied the NPCO’s ban on political assembly in March 2015 when he protested against the coup.
The case is before a military court which dismissed the plea to release Pai and also asserted that a military court, unlike civilian ones, does not have rules against accepting cases outside official hours.
The Dao Din (Stars of the Earth) group consists of law students attending Khon Kaen University. It was set up around 12 years ago with the intention of learning about the people’s plight, how to solve their problems and speak up for them. The students believe they can use their university years for the greater good.
Dao Din has protested against many projects of past governments. But when the military staged the coup of 2014, the group, with their firm beliefs in democracy, became one of the most outspoken critics of the NPCO.
In the second incident of the past week in which the government showed its determination to have its way, 17 people were rounded up, with the government initially telling the media they were suspects in the recent explosions and arson attacks in the Upper South and Hua Hin.
It now turns out they are “communist sympathisers” who have set up a Revolution for Democracy Front. Most are old, in their 60s and 70s. They are said to be linked to the anti-monarchy Red Siam group which supposedly took refuge in neighbouring countries after the coup.
But they are neither “Thaksin reds” nor the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship reds, the current regime’s opponents. They are merely remnants of the old communist insurgency.
At the moment 17 have been detained and charged with being involved in mafia or ang yee activities, and harbouring criminals, an all-embracing type of charge designed to bring in the usual suspects; and violating the NCPO order on political assembly. So far there is no proof of this group’s involvement in last week’s bombings.
Is this designed to deflect the news on the bombings? Is it someone’s old grudge against the “communists” — or simply another ghost to resurrect as an excuse to remain in power?
Casting the net over everyone is wrong. If it is a matter of security such as preventing terrorist activities, I do not question the duty of the government to contain and eliminate such threats. But if they are political dissenting voices, protests against government policies, criticism of the way things are going for the economy, the government has no right to impose control.
The younger generation are the future of the nation. If young people possess a political consciousness, even better. Why not nurture them by opening up and listening to what they have to say. The culture of demanding submission from the young is archaic and will lead to further generational conflicts.
At the same time, a preference for alternative ideas in governing the country should be allowed and freely discussed. One must trust the public to be able to judge and choose what they want. I firmly believe the majority of Thais will support a democracy with a constitutional monarchy and a free market economy. Freedom of speech and participation in the political process will strengthened the system.
Exclusion and alienation through forced suppression will only destabilise the country even more. The government can reverse this by releasing all political dissenters and dropping all charges, starting with Pai. Allowing debate will pave the way toward a return to democracy in next year’s election. Any other route would leave no peaceful exit for the regime’s leadership.
About the author
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.