On 2 June 2014, a group of academics, mostly from Chiang Mai University, and other activists went to the Kawila Military Headquarters in the city of Chiang Mai to meet with two Generals responsible for much of the summoning and detention of academics and activists after the 22 May coup in Chiang Mai and neighboring provinces. The first meeting took place at about 1pm with Major General Suthat Charumanee, Commander of the 7th Infantry Division. His father, General Prayuth Charumanee was Commander-in-Chief in the 1980’s and served as a member of the National Legislative Assembly after the coups in the 1970’s.
Calm, at ease and composed, Major General Suthat impressed us with his good manners, professionalism, humility and visible frankness. He explained how he has been involved with ‘inviting’ and ‘detaining’ political activists in Chiang Mai, mostly from the Red Shirt side. A writer and social media savvy military man, he was reportedly moved to an inactive position, and only two years ago rose to become the Commander of this newly established Infantry Division. His downturn was attributed to his vocal and critical writing about the role of the military.
After some icebreaking conversation, a former senior lecturer from CMU asked for his opinion on the recent coup. Major General Suthat answered be recalling 2006, when he was serving as a commander of border units in Mae Hong Son. “One evening, I found the whole city was blacked out. So I drove all the way to Chiang Mai to find out what happened,” said the General, commenting on the climate of the day of the military coup that ousted Thaksin. “It was a dark day in Thailand. And I thought we would never ever swing back into it again,” he said.
Given his keen interest to accept our request to meet in the first place, and all that he shared with us, he explained further that he knew well that it is hard to contain people’s resistance in an emerging democracy. He said that it was no longer possible to force people to keep to the line all the time and that there would always be some forms of dissent in a society. “The only country so far that successfully forces people to stay 100% loyal and obedient is North Korea. And I think it is an exceptional case,” said the General.
Then, we spent much time explaining to him our fear of being subject to ‘arbitrary arrest,’ a practice that has taken place widely since the seizure of power and why we have chosen to avoid reporting ourselves to the military until now, although the military have pursued us. Several of the academics who came to meet the General were not involved with any mobilization against the coup, and have barely been involved with any political activism at all. One of them, a Dean from Ubon Ratchathani University and former Chiang Mai University lecturer, has even suffered a recent stroke and spent much of the last few months in bed. He can barely walk by himself at present. Another lecturer, from the Faculty of Science at Chiang Mai University, has been called twice by the same police officer; during the second call, the officer told the lecturer that if he would not voluntarily report himself to the military, he could be ‘abducted’.
So we basically made our point clear that as academics we need to have freedom of speech and that the eerie climate of fear has pulled us back from expressing ourselves freely. We also asked that our names be cleared from the list. If the military feel that they want to acquire additional information, they can contact us through a person among us who will act as a liaison.
Then, at approximately 2.40 pm, we had our second meeting, which was with Major General Sarayuth Rangsee, Commander of the 33rd Military Circle. He was starkly different from the first General. This General, who is the senior of the two, and will retire next year, is in fact the person who has pulled the strings of the unit that has been coming after us for nearly two weeks. Different from the first General, he made no apologetic gestures toward the harassment committed by his subordinates. When we explained to him that the blanket ‘lists’ his unit has made seem to cover ‘too many’ academics/activists, several of whom are not politically active (but whom happened to have given a talk at Book Republic on other non-political subjects), the General simply said that, “In this time, the military needs to be blunt and swift to contain the situation.”
In the wake of the announcement to summon more academics and activists allegedly involved with lèse majesté offences in Thailand, and given that the General seemed to target Book Republic, I ventured to pin him down with a question of whether or not he had been coming after us due to possessing substantial evidence to hold us accountable for such highly sensitive charges. It was quite risky asking him upfront that way, but I thought that after 20 minutes into the discussion with no mention, he was too evasive to touch on the issue that scared us the most.
He was a little bit taken aback by such a blunt enquiry, and then simply threw the ball back to us by asking whether or not we thought that we had committed anything actionable. I instantly replied that, “No, of course we have absolutely done nothing wrong.” I further explained that the matter worried us since two Notifications (No. 37/2557  and No. 38/2557 ) had been issued by the junta to consolidate and even expand the jurisdiction of the Military Court over cases related to offences against the King, Queen, Heir-apparent, and Regent ex post facto and that the Military Court during this “abnormal time” shall consist of only one level of court. Then, Major General Sarayuth showed his rather royalist spirit. “We have allowed people to offend and harass our monarchy for too long,” said the General in his solemn voice. “The governments have completely failed to protect the monarchy. Thus, it’s about the right time that the military must step in.”
He did not explain clearly if there was any pretext involving the lèse majesté offence that brought his avid attention to the bookshop and the lecturers and activists involved. But earlier in the conversation, he did mention that he received reports that some of the content of our activities were found to be ‘Min May’ (‘หมิ่นเหม่’ which could either simply mean ‘illegal’ or ‘offensive to the monarchy’).
In his concluding remarks, the General criticized foreign governments for their swift counter-reactions against the coup in Thailand. “Look, they just don’t understanding our unique situation. Those people have burned down the city and nothing has been done to stop it,” said the General using the phrase “Phao Baan Phao Muang,” much touted by the royalist mobsters who claim that the Red Shirts “burned the city to the ground” during the demonstrations in 2010. “Thus, you should report to foreign countries that here we have been having a unique situation (whereby a military coup is necessary)”. “They just don’t understand us,” lamented the General.
The meeting was concluded with a promise from the General to clear our names from the ‘lists’ (although he avoided answering how many lists existed or how many names were included on the lists) with a string attached: we had to stop carrying out any activities which may incite or lead to insurrection. I do not think that what happened yesterday between us and the two Generals was a case of good cop-bad cop, but only time will tell.
*George Orwell is an activist based on Chiang Mai. He has been subject to harassment and intimidation after the 22 May coup.