The selective NCPO ban on demonstrations, rallies, and any other form of public assembly is beginning to cause concern following recent disturbances of just the kind that martial law was supposed to prevent.
Attempts by various groups to hold public meetings and seminars on such blatantly seditious issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza and the proposed inheritance tax have been resolutely suppressed by the authorities. According to official justifications, these activities would exacerbate divisions in society and prevent the government from achieving its goal of national uniformity. Or unity, as they sometimes call it.
However, when a protest echoes the point of view of the ruling junta, the authorities have taken a more relaxed view and demonstrations have been allowed to proceed. Most have been against ‘interference’ by bread-eating foreigners who cannot understand the unique situation of rice-eating Thailand.
Such demonstrations have been excused on the grounds that they are not really protests at all, but merely the expression of opinion. And since these opinions are based on attitudes that require no adjustment, the security forces have merely watched from a distance without taking further action.
This implicit impunity for protests seems to have encouraged even more previously unknown nationalist groups to emerge, intent on manifesting their patriotic rectitude. However, things may be going a little too far. The unfortunate situation that occurred on Wireless Road last week is a case in point.
The Network for the Protection of Thais’ Benefits and Dignity made a re-appearance outside the US Embassy. This time it was protesting that when the Chargé d’Affaires, W Patrick Murphy, was ‘invited’ to the Foreign Ministry for a discussion of the remarks made earlier by Daniel Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, he failed to renounce, repudiate or disown his colleague’s remarks in any way.
These remarks, questioning the inclusivity of the reconciliation process and calling for the restoration of civil and political rights, had prompted the Network’s earlier demonstration and negative comments, some polite, some not, by various sections of the current government from the Prime Minister on down.
They were joined in their flag-waving protest this time by Students and Citizens for Democratic Martial Law, a third group whose banner gave their name as ‘Thais against Ignorant of Ulgy Americans Go Home’, and a noisy band of outraged middle-class housewives who had brought pots and pans to bang. The relatively small size of this last group was doubled by the presence of their maids and housekeepers who had been brought along to do the actual banging.
Some good-natured jostling where each group tried to occupy the prime spots for protest selfies turned nasty when a group of latecomers calling for a boycott of US goods noticed that many of the righteous housewives’ kitchen utensils were in fact of American manufacture. Some of these were peremptorily seized and thrown over the Embassy wall, although one large frying-pan failed to make it and ricocheted onto the head of a member of the Embassy Security Police, knocking him senseless. In attempting to arrest the perpetrator, police officers mistakenly went for one of the domestics but were roundly repulsed amid much screaming in Lao.
Meanwhile one housewife, having seen the best part of her ceramic-coated, PTFE- and PFOA-free, aluminium-core 10-piece tri-ply non-stick cookware set sail over the Embassy wall, seized a boycotter by the hair and gave him a totally unexpected and remarkably expert kick in the goolies, while shouting ‘They’re made in Germany, you ignoramus. Can’t you tell by the quality?’
At this point, the growing confusion was compounded by another march by the Rubbish Collection Organization. They were headed for the New Zealand Embassy next door to protest the granting of a passport to a fugitive from a lese majesté charge.
Having been told by gleeful bystanders that the melee involved ‘dozens’ of protest groups, the Rubbish Collectors counted the portraits of Their Majesties. These came nowhere near to ‘dozens’, implying that the fracas must have been infiltrated by the insidious Underground Overthrow the Monarchy movement. The Rubbish Collectors promptly proceeded to collect anyone they considered rubbish.
Traffic was brought to a halt, Lumpini Police Station emptied as officers joined in the melee, and a tourist trying to get to the Hungarian Embassy to report a stolen passport did an impromptu interview with CNN on his smartphone, further hastening the decline in tourism.
Police then spotted a rally by journalists and media professionals heading for the nearby Egyptian Embassy to deliver a petition over the case of the imprisoned Al-Jazeera journalists. Walking in silence, many with black tape sealing their mouths, and carrying banners saying ‘Journalism is not a crime’, they were quickly surrounded by men with short hair who ushered them into waiting paddy wagons to be taken away for attitude adjustment.
When later asked to justify this move when unrestrained mayhem was occurring only yards away, a military spokesperson said that as journalists, the protestors should have been aware of the strict interpretation of martial law by the current government. Thailand enjoyed freedom of the media, he claimed, as long as journalists respected the limits.
‘Besides,’ he added, ‘the Egyptian dictatorship has expressed its full understanding of the Thai government and we need all the friends we can find.’
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).