Interview with junta critic in exile: Yukti Mukdawijitra

After the coup d’état on 22 May, a number of anti-establishment Thai political activists and academics immediately fled the country to Europe, the US and Thailand’s neighbouring countries. As of now, more and more political dissidents are fleeing Thailand as the junta continues to crack down on dissenting voices, especially those who are accused of defaming the King on Facebook. 

Some of the academics came back after they found that they were not summoned by the junta, while some, such as Worachet Pakeerut and Sawatree Suksri from the Nitirat academic law group of Thammasat University (TU), came back despite being summoned and knowing that they would be detained and might face charges for violating the coup makers’ order. On the contrary, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, the TU historian, is still out of the country as he faces a lèse majesté charge filed by the Army. 

 

Yukti Mukdawijitra is one of the dissidents who fled the country right after the coup. The Thammasat anthropologist told the Chronicle that his role as an anti-coup, pro-democracy activist with the Assembly for the Defense of Democracy (AFDD) and campaigner against Article 112 or the lèse majesté law made him feel it was unsafe to stay in the country

 

The 2014 coup marked the highest number of lèse majesté prisoners in Thai history. Arrests have taken place every other day since the coup. Making protection of the monarchy its top priority, the coup makers transferred jurisdiction over lèse majesté cases from the civilian to the military courts, where the defendants are tried by only one court and cannot appeal, to ensure decisive measures against these dissidents.

 

Having been in Vietnam during fieldwork trips in his PhD year, Yukti chose Hanoi as his safe harbour and stayed there for a month before receiving a fellowship from the Scholar Rescue Fund at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he earned his PhD seven years ago.

 

Yukti, who is now teaching anthropology at Wisconsin, talked with Hathairat Phaholtap on the junta’s campaign to crack down on lèse majesté and the outlook for the country after the coup.

 

 

Yukti Mukdawijitra

 

After the coup d’état, the use of Article 112 of the Criminal Code as a political tool has increased and a number of people accused of Article 112 are anti-coup. What do you think of this phenomenon?

 

The use of this law, together with the justifications for staging a coup d’état, is nearly every time claimed as measure to protect the monarchy, but this time it is different from previous times. This time the witch hunt citing Article 112 is more frequent, clear, and serious. It can be observed that it is clearly different from the previous coup. The combination of people who are being hunted down is also interesting because they are from various groups. In the big picture, it is quite obvious that people who are accused of defaming the monarchy are likely to be anti-coup. To look at this from a different angle, Article 112 is used as a pretext for preventing the anti-coup activities.         

After the coup, the [lèse majesté] hunt is much rigorous, according to your observation.  What is the reason behind this?

Partially, it might be because of the low legitimacy of the coup this time. Therefore, other claims were needed to protect it although every time this is always brought up as common excuse. This time, however, it is not so clear. In the 2006 coup for example, the politicians were being targeted and the confiscation of property and legal proceedings against many politicians were highlighted, but this time there are only a few and it barely happens. We can see that only Yingluck Shinawatra, the ex-Prime Minister, is being pursued and the others are not being heard about much. However, Article 112 which relates to the monarchy is being stressed as if they have changed the aim of the coup. In essence, this means changing the justification the coup to protecting the monarchy. One of the outcomes of this is that this process might create more restraints on and obstacles in the way of politicians in the constitution and human rights related issues might be undermined. However, what is being highlighted is the monarchy. To sum up, I think it is because they wanted to show that they are doing something serious which in the end turns out to be about the monarchy to seek a better justification for the coup.   

The statistics from iLaw show that legal proceedings against lèse majesté suspects have been transferred to the military courts instead of the normal courts. Does this reduce the credibility of the judicial system in Thailand and make Article 112 of the Criminal Code more severe?

I think the way which the judicial system deals with Article 112 suspects and other suspects who are also charged with Article 14 (importing illegal computer content) for defaming the monarchy has expanded the parameter of how this offence can be applied. This has created more problems which predate the coup, similar to what the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 realised when it was trying to campaign to amend this law. This is because the problems in the judicial procedures regarding the arrests, reports, filing charges, denying bail, and explaining the rulings in cases related to Article 112 of the Criminal Code can be spotted from the beginning.

The transfer of jurisdiction over Article 112 cases from civilian courts to military courts reaffirmed the weight of legal procedures under Article 112 because the military court is not a civilian court and has a proportion of military personnel sitting on the bench. This is likely to affect the judicial procedure and the perspective of verdicts in a way that tends not to protect the rights and freedoms of the people. For example, most Article 112 suspects have been denied bail as if it was an established position. This can be seen in the previous rulings.

The case of Ampon Tangnoppakul (aka. Ah Kong) is an example of this. Although it was processed by a civilian court, we could raise questions as to why the suspect was denied bail. I was one of many academics who used our academic positions as guarantors to Ah Kong’s bail request, but eventually the request was denied. In part, it seems like people who have been through this judicial procedure did not receive justice. It is even said that people who commit this sort of crime do not feel guilty. Although in fact the principles of judicial procedure should be to establish the facts to prove whether the accused is guilty or not; if not, then it should be concluded that the accused is not guilty. The transfer of the jurisdiction over these cases [lèse majesté] to the military courts would only further lower the standards of human rights of suspects and procedures in these cases.      

Currently, the Royal Thai Police have increasingly been using this judicial procedure [post-coup lèse majesté legal procedure] against people who voice opinions about the monarchy. Will the legitimacy of the application of the lèse majesté law in making arrests and sending suspects to the military courts further reduce the credibility of the justice system and also have an impact on the coup-makers?

The impacts will be greater than that, but I think the coup-makers do not care much about anything. Looking at what they have been doing now, such as closing the Human Rights Watch website and violating human rights principles to the point that these measures have caused much criticism, it has made it obvious that they do not care much. However, the damage will be much wider than that and this damage will reach the monarchy which will be neglected. People will look if it is true that no one can express an opinion [about the monarchy], which is not good for the monarchy itself. 

At the same time, we cannot speak about historical facts.  Even if we do not have to go as far back in time as the period of King Naresuan [an ancient king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom who reigned 400 years ago], which now has been brought up as a lèse majesté complaint, it might only be the reign of Rama IV, because at present it seems that the protection of the monarchy is much wider.

It is all distorted and this will have very big impact on the institution of the monarchy itself and Thai society at large because Thai history is connected to the institution of the monarchy and if we cannot speak honestly about the monarchy, it will surely affect the knowledge of Thai society.

We cannot discuss what happened in the past. Someday, there might be people who say that the argument that the Ramkhamhaeng Stone Inscription [an inscription believed to be written by King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai kingdom 800 years ago] is fake is defaming the monarchy and then that would lead to court cases. This would bring Thai society to an end because we would no longer have to learn and seek the truth. We would have to live with a mystified version of history which would be like reading fairy tales to deceive ourselves and we would not be able to understand anything anymore and this problem would gradually get bigger.    

If this trend is allowed to continue, would it have a negative impact on Thai society?

It surely would. The systematic procedures that are happening these days are accelerating these impacts. Education on these kinds of topics would be reduced or people would not want to teach them. Even at a seminar, people would have to be careful and strictly conduct themselves to refrain from talking because they can only say positive things [about the monarchy]. This would affect knowledge and the truth in Thai society because we will not be able to talk about this topic critically.       

The forces for charge, however, have adapted as well. They are trying to adapt to survive. This is why we see unique cooperation that has never been witnessed before between the forces that used to be perceived as progressive, such as NGOs and academics [with the military regime].  The military cannot do this alone and persist for long. But it is support from the press, NGOs, and many academics that facilitates and allows the coup to persist.       

Do you think that the environment prior to the coup d’état in which people were free to discuss and criticise [history related to the monarchy and other relevant topics] will come back?

No way, this kind of environment will be gone for at least ten years and it will be very difficult to return because nowadays the problems do not lie here. No matter how we are trying to criticise the military, there are no factors to bring about change, for several underlying reasons.

Firstly, the military still has stable control over its forces. Secondly, the stability of the government comes from various supporters in the powerful Thai elite, such as Prem Tinsulanonda, the President of the Privy Council, who openly supported the recent coup d’état, and the deans of famous universities who have been appointed as members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), and who seemingly support the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

Thirdly, resistance against the coup d’état is still fragmented while the stronger resistance group still says ‘let’s wait, and let them work’. This can be derived from the conversation between Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial ex-PM who was ousted out by the 2006 coup, and his close associates that there will be no movement. This makes the power for the movement to change the game or the current situation more unyielding. If one asks if there is still power in this, then the answer is yes. If one further asks if Thai society has changed, then yes it has changed. Is Thai society more concerned about rights and democracy than in the past? The answer is yes it is.

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