Lessons learned by PDRC supporters 2 years after the coup

To commemorate the second anniversary of the 2014 coup d’état, Prachatai presents interviews with some of those who had protested against the government and against elections, aka the PDRC, whose lives and political ideas have been changed under the junta. Branded as the ones who paved the way for the coup two years ago, they have now learned that it is better to have an elected government, even a ‘bad’ one, than a dictatorship.

For two years since the coup on 22 May 2014, Thailand has been ruled by the military regime of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta head and PM. One of the key factors leading to the coup were the protests of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the anti-election political movement led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat politician.
 
The PDRC first emerged in late 2013 to oppose the Amnesty Bill, submitted by the Yingluck Shinawatra government. However, even though the Bill was scrapped, the movement expanded into an anti-election and, eventually, pro-military movement. The military supported the PDRC, Suthep claimed. He specifically named the current junta leader as a PDRC supporter. “Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha (then Army Commander) and most soldiers side with the country, side with justice, and side with the people,” Suthep said at the time.
 
Two years later, although academics, pro-democracy activists, civil society workers and the international community have repeatedly condemned the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Suthep incessantly praises Prayut. “I’m certain that Gen Prayut can maintain peace and order in the country and will smoothly facilitate the August referendum,” Suthep told the media, expressing his support for the junta’s draft charter.
 

Suthep Thaugsuban tells the media on 14 April 2016 that he supports the draft charter

But that is only the PDRC leader’s opinion. The movement did not consist only of Democrat politicians, who seem to directly benefit from the junta’s attempts to weaken Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party, but also activists and civil society workers from various fields, -- the environment, labour, health and development -- who have been greatly affected by the junta’s laws and policies.

In this article, four prominent civil society workers, who once sympathized with the PDRC, gave Prachatai their views of the junta’s administration in the past two years. Most importantly, they were asked “If you could go back in time, would you still join the PDRC?” Unlike Suthep, all four are very disappointed in Prayut and the coup.

Environmentalist: Junta favours capitalists more than Thaksin did

Prasitchai Noonual, an environmentalist from southern Thailand, told Prachatai that two years ago, he participated in the PDRC movement as he wanted to fight for the well-being of southerners. He opposed Thaksin Shinawatra government projects such as coal-fired power plants, saying that such projects favoured investors but would be harmful to the local environment.
 
“Today, we are carrying out a significant mission to uproot the Thaksin regime from Thailand,” Prasitchai said on a PDRC stage two years ago.
 
But he has realized that he was wrong, since the junta has favoured foreign investors to an even greater extent. For instance, the junta claimed the authority under Article 44 of the interim charter to bypass the EIA process for government projects and make exemptions from urban planning regulations, allowing investors to build anywhere and ignore the surrounding communities. (Read more)
 

Prasitchai speaking on a PDRC stage on 20 February 2014 (source: ASTV Manager Online)

Prasitchai added that the junta’s policies and administration are no different from the Thaksin government. But the junta is much worse because people were able to stop some government projects during Thaksin’s time, but never under the junta.

“I previously thought that the military could make the country better and more developed but I’ve proved to myself that I was wrong,” Prasitchai said. “If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t participate in the movement (PDRC). This is not what I expected at all.”

Student activist: we want people’s participation in political reform

Unlike Prasitchai, Thatchapong Kaedam, a student activist who was very active in the student wing of the PDRC until the last minute, told Prachatai that if he could turn back time, he would join the movement anyway since he wanted to stop the Amnesty Bill. The fact that the Yingluck administration supported the blanket Amnesty Bill in 2013 to whitewash her own brother obviously showed that the government was a parliamentary dictatorship, which is unacceptable to Thatchapong.  

“Democracy in the opinion of a vicious capitalist like Thaksin is not true democracy. But our democracy is the real thing because it emerges from the fact that you are sitting here [at the PDRC rally]. It is practical democracy,” Thatchapong said on the PDRC stage 2 years ago.

Thatchapong Kaedam (white shirt) speaking on a PDRC stage on 18 May 2014 (source: Lek Leko’s Facebook)

After observing the junta administration for two years, Thatchapong told Prachatai that he was disappointed because it has failed to deliver what it promised to the public – that it would reform the country before an election. According the draft charter, it is obvious that reform will happen after the election. Moreover, the reforms will be carried out by an unelected government and junta-appointed political bodies, not by the people or civil society.

“Back then, I always believed that a coup d’état would never happen again in this country. One had just happened in 2006 so I thought the military would not do it again. But of course, I was disappointed,” Thatchapong told Prachatai.

Thatchapong added that the junta’s intimidation of ordinary people will heat up political conflict. It is, however, not a conflict between the red shirts and the yellow shirts, but rather between the people and the dictatorial regime.

Doctor: we could protest under a civilian government, but now we can’t

The third interviewee is Supat Hasuwannakit, a medical doctor and activist from Energy Walk Thailand and the Medical Volunteer Network. He is also an official in the Ministry of Public Health. He had been part of PDRC movement since the anti-Amnesty Bill campaign and agreed with the anti-election strategy. Due to his involvement with various civil society organizations, he had proposed many issues, such as energy reform, community rights reform, healthcare reform, and bureaucratic reform, during the PDRC demonstrations.

“We don’t accept the election [on 2 February 2014] and the Constitutional Court has done the right thing by nullifying the election result,” Supat said on the PDRC main stage.

Supat Hasuwannakit on the PDRC main stage on 25 March 2014 (source: Bluesky Channel)

Two years later, Supat told Prachatai that people are now fed up with the junta but they don’t dare to express their anger due to the intensive suppression of free speech. This anger, however, will manifest itself in the August referendum, meaning that people show their approval or disapproval of the junta through the ballot box.  

Supat added that generally, public assembly is how the people bargain with the state, but that is hardly possible under the junta.

“Let’s hold an election now. We’re sick of the junta. At least under an elected government, we can criticize, express ideas, and negotiate. Doing such things is very difficult under the junta,” said Supat. “This is a big lesson for all Thai people, that we might despair of representative democracy but a coup d’état is absolutely not an option in any way.”

Activist: We have a PM dumber than the previous one

Last but not least, Boonyuen Siritham, a former senator, is a former PDRC sympathizer whose networks have been affected by the junta. Like Supat, she is involved in various civil society issues such as community rights, consumer rights, and energy reform. However, during the PDRC movement, she mostly advocated energy reform, claiming that Thaksin had appointed his people to the boards of national energy agencies, making the price of energy higher than it should have been.     

“To be an executive in the Thaksin regime, the first requirement is that you have to be dumb. You don’t have to think, just listen to Thaksin,” Boonyuen said on a PDRC stage.

Boonyuen Siritham on a PDRC stage on 17 January 2014 (source: ASTV Manager Online)
 
Two years have passed, and Boonyuen told Prachatai that apart from maintaining peace and order, the junta has done nothing tangible for the country. The national reforms that the PDRC demanded before the coup have made hardly any progress and no civil society members have been allowed to participate in any ongoing reforms.
 
“We use to call the former PM ‘the dumb girl’ but I’m not sure whether we now have a dumber PM or not, since our lives have more suffering than during the dumb girl’s government,” Boonyuen said in a public forum.
 
Boonyuen added that the junta’s draft charter will take Thai politics back almost 20 years. For example, the draft allows the junta to appoint 250 senators to parliament and they may have the right to vote for the PM, the same as elected MPs. She believes that if the charter is ratified, Thailand might have an unelected government even after an election.
 
“Do I want an election? Of course I want one, but if an election is held under this charter, it will worsen the country’s situation. By the way, the more important thing is that the military has to go now. Two years is already too long,” Boonyuen said to Prachatai. “The military claimed that it would solve the political conflict but the conflict hasn’t been solved at all. In fact, the military has created further conflicts.”