The deteriorating Thai political situation has made the “land of smiles” the object of constant curiosity among friends and colleagues in Britain. Thailand also has begun to trend online and it is now the international press’s favorite country to talk about. It is right up there with the likes of the New York bomb plot and the fiscal crisis in Greece. One has to only pick up a copy of The Economist to realize that they now run articles on the crisis in Thailand on a weekly basis.
The Thai government, dominated by the Democrat Party, has jumped right into the information fray and is slugging it out. Their embassy staffs, from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, are writing letters to newspapers to insist that that the situation in Thailand is peaceful and well. But the public, especially those who have been closely following Thailand politics, know that the crisis is far from over. They can tell that we are still very much in the ditch.
Sadly, there are some news and political observers who treat the crisis as spectator sport. They overlook the crisis’ repercussions and the way it has transformed the country. There are many reports about body counts or the surreal music played near rally sites but too little about the hand of the government in all this. As we read, observe, and report, the culture of fear and violence grows. There is an increase in the worrying uses of excessive power and authority by the government.
Since the start of the demonstration by the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or the Red Shirts on 14 March 2010, Oxford-educated PM Abhisit Vejajiva has conducted series of actions that are unacceptable by international standards. This includes the bloody crackdown on the UDD on 10 April which resulted into 26 dead and more than 850 injured. This is not to mention the most recent bloody crackdown held since 14 May, which has led to the death of at least 33 protesters and at least hundreds more people injured. The numbers of civilian protesters being killed and shot are mounting fast as we speak. Military snipers are spotted by international media like the CNN firing incriminatingly at the protesters.
This military-backed government has attempted to justify the crackdown by branding protesters as “terrorists”, using the similar tactic by the military and the right wing militia in October 6, 1976 massacre at Thammasat University in central Bangkok where close to 50 pro-democracy student activists were killed, raped, and lynched alive for being “subversive” to the government.
This information campaign, however, has been rebutted by the United States Department of State. In a press statement it voiced out that the demonstrations “[appeared] to be motivated by domestic politics and do not appear to be acts of […] terrorism”. Moreover, the grave concern of the international community over the incidents is evident further by visits of the diplomatic corps to the protest sites.
International rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have raised worries on the excessive uses of forces in the violence crackdown as being contradictory to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials that non-violent means shall be used before resorting to the use of force.
The emergency decree has also been used to close of internet websites and radio stations critical to the government for the sake of “national unity”. Since last week, through the order of the Center for Emergency Situation Resolution, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has shut down at least 1,032 political websites.
HRW has also raised its concerns of the usage of Emergency Decree as a pretext to summon hundreds of politicians, former government officials, academic, student activists, and community radio operators to the military barracks for investigation.
Last week, Ms. Suluck Lamu-bol, a committee member of the Student Federation of Thailand (SFT) and two other student activists friends, were received by half dozen police officers at her home summoning her to be presented at the 11th Infantry Regiment under the order of CRES.
The action is seen as worrisome as never has there been in the recent history that student activists are directly threatened in the capital like this, whether under ousted PM Thaksin Shinnawatra’s government or General Surayud’s regime. The situation in the provinces or Southern Thailand is however in a different context.
We should take note that Mr. Abhisit back in August 2005, heavily lashed out against the decree saying that “[the emergency decree] violated the spirit of the Constitution” and that it opened up the opportunities for the PM to abuse of power, since it was vaguely written given the excessive level of power to the PM.
Ironically, he raised his concerns “over the fate of the country’s free press” since the decree gave the PM absolute supremacy to censor news deemed a threat to national security. Now, we are seeing Mr. Abhisit doing the opposite, embracing the uses of this decree.
The act of Mr. Abhisit has further raised continuing distress by international rights groups. On Friday, the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations, warned that the PM could be held responsible under the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court for intentionally directed the attacks against the civilian demonstrators on the event of 10 April 2010. After a month time and like the previous promised probe by the PM on the alleged violence against the Rohingya refugees in 2009, the public still are left scratching their heads whether there could be action beyond those empty words.
David Dadge, the Director of Vienna-based International Press Institute has urged for the full and transparent investigation into the killing of Hiro Muramoto, the Reuter journalist shot dead on the 10 April crackdown. Mr. Dagdge highlighted that “the failure to identify the killer [will] create an environment” which promotes impunity.
Former Senator Jon Ungpakorn wrote a commentary in Prachatai.com, a news website that he set up to counter Thaksin’s government repression on the mainstream media using his fund from the Magsaysay Award which he was its recipient in 2005 (which is currently remained blocked in Thailand following the usage of the emergency decree) in response to the 10 April crackdown.
A staunch critic of Mr. Thaksin’s government, Former Senator Jon compared the killing of the Muslim protesters at Tak Bai under Thaksin’s administration with the 10 April crackdown. He said that in both incident “there was absolutely no offer to take responsibility, either personally or collectively as a government, for the consequences” and that “every time Abhisit looks in the mirror, he will see the face of Thaksin”.
Mr. Abhisit, while in the opposition, has always criticized Thaksin for his hard-fisted policies including the abuse of power via the uses of draconian related laws and policies to suppress the opponent critics. Mr. Abhisit has to ask himself if power has made him turn into someone he loathes the most.
The writer is a World Bank scholar at the Department of Political Science, University College London. Views here are his own.