Straight to the Point
I really wish I could write about something constructive going on in Thai society, but here I am again, having to raise the alarm on yet another attempt to undermine our democratic rights and civil liberties.
I'm referring to last week's Cabinet approval for the Council of State's version of the Internal Security Bill to be forwarded to the National Legislative Assembly for urgent consideration.
This is a bill which has aroused opposition among nearly all civilian sectors of Thai society including prominent academics, such as renowned security expert Dr. Surachart Bamrungsuk, media associations, and civil society organisations. Dr. Surachart described the original version of the bill as an attempt to accomplish a "noiseless coup d'état".
The bill has been strongly advocated by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the 2006 coup leader, both in his former capacity as Chairman of the Council for National Security and his present position as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of National Security.
Even without this law, Thailand's arsenal of security legislation is already most extensive!
First we have Martial Law, dating back to 1914. At present 27 of Thailand's 76 provinces are subject to martial law, which gives the military many special powers over the civilian population, such as powers to search homes, detain suspects for up to seven days, ban public gatherings, impose curfews, censor publications, and restrict travel. Civilians charged with crimes relating to national security face trial by military court, with no rights of appeal. Once we return to some form of democratic rule, however, it is unlikely that martial law will still remain in force on this scale.
In 2005, amid strong opposition from many quarters, including the Lawyer's Association, the Thaksin Shinawatra government introduced the emergency decree on "Public Administration in Emergency Situations" which became permanent after receiving parliamentary approval.
This law which is presently being applied to the three southern border provinces most affected by chronic violence, allows the government to declare a state of emergency in designated areas, thereby giving the Prime Minister and officials under his/her command wide-ranging special powers to restore order. These include powers to detain suspects, ban public gatherings, censor media, intercept communications, impose curfews, restrict travel, ban individuals from entering or leaving designated areas, and order individuals to report to officials for interrogation or for mandatory re-education.
In fact, under this law the Prime Minister has the power to order officials to carry out any "necessary" action, even the killing of suspects, and officials who carry out such orders in good faith are given immunity from prosecution.
Why, then, is there a further need for the Internal Security Law? Why is it required so urgently at this time? And who are the perceived "threats to internal security" who need to be dealt with under this new law?
The only logical explanation is that certain sections of the military, particularly those directly involved in last year's coup, want to have control of special powers, similar to those allowed for under martial law and the Public Administration in Emergency Situations Act, in order to prevent attempts by pro-Thaksin political groups to regain political power, even by legitimate democratic means.
Under the present draft, while the Prime Minister will be the nominal Director of the Internal Security Operations Command, the real power will likely reside with the Army Chief who will serve as Deputy Director of ISOC, and have hands-on command of the organisation. If this law is passed, it will allow the military to maintain a high degree of political control over the country, undermining opportunities for real democratic development.
Lets hope that widespread vocal opposition to the bill will hold back its passage through the National Legislative Assembly until the time we have a democratically elected parliament.
Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present the Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development. Comments are welcome at: email@example.com
First publish in Bangkok Post