On May 22, 2014 the Thai military, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, staged a coup d’état to end several months of political and civil chaos in Thailand. At its very basic level, the chaos was caused by an on-going conflict between the so-called ‘red-shirts’, followers of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party and comprising the rural voters forming a majority of the electorate, and the ‘yellow-shirts’, an alliance between the military, the Thai elite, and the middle-class Democrat party of Abhisit Vejjajiva with a strong following in Bangkok. Crucially, national reconciliation was promised.
While the junta promised that there would be an election, no definitive plans were made for a return to an elected government; from the outset, it stated that its priority was reconciliation throughout the country and so it decided to set up nationwide reconciliation centres to unite the people. There are several principles which reconciliation theorists have emphasized as being the foundations for repairing divisions in society and rebuilding trust after periods of conflict and victimization. A short review of those principles and the junta’s actions will show that the junta really seems to have little interest in succeeding in its stated aims.
In order to bring about reconciliation, the following conditions must be met: 1. A transition from the authoritarian regime or military supremacy democracy to a democracy or civilian supremacy democracy, respectively; 2. Anyone considered to have been responsible for serious abuses of human rights must be prosecuted to avoid a perception that those who have been in powerful positions could commit abuses with impunity; 3. Victims must be allowed to be participants so that they can be part of the process of forgiveness and can overcome feelings of inferiority and helplessness; 4. The truth, whether it is indisputable and backed by facts, alleged and requiring evidence, or simply the personal memory of victims who want people to be aware of their experiences, must be told; 5. Any part of a society which uses or authorises the use of violence, e.g. government departments, the police, and military must be reformed to prevent such use in the future; 6. Victims must be compensated for their suffering, not only financially but also with the provision of government services such as in the fields of education and health care; 7. There should be no public amnesia, so there should be some permanent memorial.
Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha
With the above conditions in mind we must consider how the junta has proceeded with its vision of reconciliation. It must be remembered that the military was a supporter of Suthep’s PRDC; the PRDC had called on the military to take control of the country and Suthep has been quoted as saying that, before martial law was declared, he had a meeting with Prayuth who told him that it was time for the military to take over as Suthep and his supporters were exhausted by the struggle. Thus, the military is itself part of the problem because of its political bias and its commanders should have been treated in exactly the same way as those summoned to appear before the military. So far, the junta has been very vague and elusive over when there will be free elections and a return to a democratic civilian government; apart from the desire to cling onto power because it cannot abide power being in the hands of those who are not pro-military, the suspicion is that the longer it holds onto power the more it hopes that the people will forget about its role. Obviously there can be no reconciliation that can meet the standards of reconciliation scholars since the first requirement – that there be a transfer to a democratic civilian government - has not happened. Instead, the junta has come up with its own slant on reconciliation.
In essence, it appears to have three facets, the first of which was emphasising that the Thai people should be returned to a state of happiness. To this end, the military was tasked with organizing mass parties in all the Thai provinces with food and drink, musical entertainment, fancy dress and dancing, including coyote dancing by scantily clad girls. There were also free haircuts and screenings of a jingoistic, historical film; a deal was made to show all of the football world cup matches on free television; a free concert featuring most of Thailand’s leading musicians was organized. For the 2015 new year, the junta arranged for department stores and shopping malls to offer discounted goods for sale, and soldiers were dispatched to clean municipal areas, including roads, canals, buildings, and temples. All of this is strangely reminiscent of Thaksin’s populist policies which were so much despised by the elite. Prayuth also displayed possible emerging megalomania by penning lyrics for a song which he called “Return Happiness to Thailand” and showed on YouTube. While people were probably pleased to accept the junta’s largesse, it is doubtful that anyone ended up happier than they were before the coup.
Like much of the military junta’s simplistic thinking, Prayuth believed that, if he could make people happy, they would forget not only the immediate past effects of the PRDC’s disruption campaign but also the killings in 2010 by the military. This ties in with what seems to be the second part of Prayuth’s strategy. People will be happy if they also forget past problems; not only the inconvenience and occasional violence caused by the PRDC’s campaign of disruption in Bangkok, but also the killings by the military in 2010. Indeed, in April this year when relatives of those who were killed in 2010 wished to hold their annual Buddhist ceremony to mourn the victims, initially at a temple but, after objections by the military, in a private residence, the military still refused to allow it to take place. Thais are, perhaps, notorious for a collective amnesia and apathy relating to past wrongs; it took 20 years for a memorial to be built to the victims of the Thammasat University massacre in 1976, and 17 years for those of the 1992 Black May massacre by the military. For this reason, the longer Prayuth can hang on without allowing free, democratic elections, the more likely the people will be to forget the military’s role.
But forgetting the military’s wrongdoings is only part of the forgetting strategy. The junta is doing everything it can to end the Shinawatras’ hold on Thai politics which even led the Ministry of Education to rewrite Thai history by producing a social science textbook for students which deleted all references to Thaksin. Deleting political opponents from history is a common ploy of dictators and Prayuth has strengthened this attempt by making sure that the mass media ignore the Shinawatras’ activities. Political magazines that displayed Yingluck on the cover were seized, the military confiscated stickers supporting the Shinawatras and Pheu Thai from shops and markets, they removed a stall selling wine in bottles with a label that had a figure looking like Thaksin on it, and they blocked red-shirt web sites. These latter examples, which show varying degrees of aggression, translate into the third and far more sinister prong of the junta’s reconciliation process: the outright bullying, harassment, and pursuit of those who are considered to be either pro-Shinawatras and red-shirts or simply anti-coup and, therefore, do not think along the same lines as the military.
As stated previously, immediately following the coup many people were summoned to report to the military for a form of attitude adjustment. This was, to some extent, understandable since those on both sides of the political divide had shown a considerable degree of intractability in accepting the other’s political views or policies. This summoning should have been by invitation, which the invitee should have been free to accept or reject; however, those who did not accept were arrested and prosecuted in the military courts. Those who were already abroad or who fled abroad fearing for their safety had their passports cancelled; those who did report were only allowed to leave after being forced to sign documents that would allow the junta to seize their assets if they became involved in any political movement.They were further threatened that they would be prohibited from travelling abroad and would also have their accounts and expenditures audited.
Those who were Pheu Thai members of parliament have been threatened with legal action for violating the constitution, although it is difficult to understand the junta’s muddled thinking as they had violated and then nullified the constitution when seizing power. Yingluck herself has been impeached in connection with her party’s rice-pledging scheme and banned from politics for 5 years. The National Anti-Corruption Commission has decided to examine the award of $220,000 US given under the Pheu Thai government to the families of those killed by the military in the 2010, citing possible irregular procedures.
In spite of all this action against the former administration, there is a significant lack of action against the former Democrat-led government - a criminal court actually decided to drop the case against Abhisit and Suthep for their part in the 2010 killings without any investigation - or against the leaders of the PRDC.
It is not only the red-shirted political faction which is being targeted with threats by the military. Students, in particular, have been targeted. University administrators have been warned to prevent their students from any form of protest against either the coup or the junta and to make sure that they adjusted their students’ political attitude. Students who protested a visit by Prayuth to their university were threatened with being sent down; others who took part in a play which was deemed irrespectful to the monarchy were prosecuted under the draconian lèse-majesté law and sentenced to varying prison terms.
Elsewhere, the junta cracked down on ordinary citizens who displayed opposition to the coup because any criticism of or opposition to the coup was banned. It banned people giving the three-fingered freedom salute shown in the film The Hunger Games; people reading George Orwell’s novel 1984 in public were arrested. One member of the junta urged the publicto report people protesting on social media or other web pages and offered to give them rewards. Needless to say, there were accusations by some who were arrested by themilitary of harsh treatment including death threats, beatings, torture, and threats of rape.
There was much criticism in the free world of the Thai coup and many countries and organizations urged Prayuth both to end martial law quickly and hold free elections. Prayuth listened with half an ear, because on April 1st 2015 he announced that the swingeing martial law throughout the country was to be lifted but, to show just what an April Fools’ Day joke he had played on the Thai people, he then said that it was being replaced by Article 44 of the junta’s interim constitution.
This cemented Prayuth’s position as dictator, as since then he has had sweeping powers to do whatever he wants under this article without being held accountable. It should be noted that it also provides that military officers have the power to search, arrest, and detain people with no judicial oversight, while Prayuth himself claims the power to close down the media, arrest people, and order for people to be shot. He is also on record, with apparent seriousness, saying that he would ‘’probably just execute’’ journalists who did note toe his government’s line. Prayuth is a man, like Thaksin, who is notorious for seemingly speaking without thinking first and it is to be hoped that this was just an example of his foot-in-the-mouth, unfunny remarks, but it is clearly not an example of how to bring about reconciliation.
If one is to believe the military’s stated intention of bringing about reconciliation, it is incomprehensible why they did not make earlier plans for a return to a democratic, civilian government. They completely ignored the first principle of reconciliation and ignored international advice to have a free election as soon as possible. Instead, they are following their own road, on which they see happy Thai people, devoted to the monarchy and having completely forgotten both the military’s past actions and the Shinawatras, who have been consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Anyone who objects to this will be made to see reason by being persecuted by whatever means are necessary: arrest, detention, prosecution, loss of passport and right to travel, examination of finances, and, if possible, prosecution and conviction for lèse-majesté.
Of course, the junta will not allow the prosecution of its own for human rights violations; it has no interest in the truth about its activities being told; it is not interested in compensation for victims, certainly if they are red-shirts; it has absolutely no intention of the military ever being reformed; and it does not want a collective memory of events, but rather a collective loss of memory. In other words, the junta fails to tick any of the correct boxes for a reconciliation process.
In Prayuth’s view, if someone does not think or see the world as he does, he or she lacks Thainess and is a danger to Thai society; he, Prayuth, is right and the other person is wrong. This is clearly the result of his military background where the top man is always right and his orders are carried out without question. Many are suspicious concerning the real reasons for the coup and how long Prayuth will stay in power. At present the junta has announced elections for August 2018 but appears to be trying to gauge how much discontent among the people lies below the surface.
About the author: Siwach Sripokangkul (PhD. Political Science) is an Assistant Professor at the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University, Thailand and a member of the Project for a Social Democracy. E-mail: email@example.com