Caption: Protest march on 7 March. Source: Prachatai

First three months of Thai politics in 2021

The first three months of this year will be concluded soon, but Thai politics have not changed much. Crackdowns by the establishment are getting more violent.

Move Forward still the most progressive party

On 10 February, the Move Forward Party proposed comprehensive changes to 5 laws related to defamation offences. The laws include 2 amendments to the Criminal Code, and 3 to the Computer Crime Act, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Civil Procedure Code.  

The proposed changes to the Criminal Code include:

  • Abolish imprisonment as a penalty for defaming ordinary persons (Sections 326, 328, 393), government officials (Section 136) and court officials (Section 198).
  • Reduce the jail term for the offence of lèse majesté (Section 112). A clause is added to protect the right of citizens to make honest comments about the monarchy.
  • Abolish imprisonment as a penalty for defaming a sovereign, queen, consort, heirapparent or head of a foreign state (Sections 133 and 134).

The second proposed amendment to the Criminal Code is a new provision to imprison any official in the criminal justice system who uses legal means to cause people to fear using their freedom or who dishonestly acquits a person of criminal charges.

The proposed changes to the Computer Crime Act include:

  • Remove “damag[ing] the country’s security and caus[ing] a public panic” from the offences under Section 14.
  • Remove other clauses which overlap with existing offences under the Criminal Code such as those related to terrorism and pornography.
  • Abolish imprisonment as a penalty for online defamation of a third person.
  • Limit to 365 days a court order to suspend disseminated computer data. Any data deemed legal may be redisseminated.

The proposed changes to the Codes of Criminal Procedure and Civil Procedure include a provision to prevent Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) by government departments and corporates.

A definition of these lawsuits will be added to the Codes of Criminal Procedure and Civil Procedure. A defendant shall be able to file a petition with the court to rule whether a lawsuit against the defendant is a Lawsuit against Public Participation. The case shall be dropped if the court rules it as such.

So far, the Move Forward party is still the most progressive party when it comes to freedom of expression and monarchy reform. Thai Liberal Party’s leader Sereepisuth Temeeyaves expressed his personal comment in December that threatening the monarchy should be a separate matter from insulting the monarchy in the eyes of law. However, he did not think that any amendments to the lèse majesté law would pass the legislature.

The Move Forward party also revealed the elephant ticket, an illegal fast track mechanism for police promotion using personal ties with powerful members of the elite. Rangsiman Rome, a Move Forward party MP, showed a letter, which he was not allowed to read to the parliament in the no-confidence motion, which revealed that ACM Satitpong Sukvimol, the Lord Chamberlain, passed on a request from King Vajiralongkorn to give 16 police officers higher ranks and promote another 4 into new positions. 

Because of its uncompromising stance, some 4 MPs defected from the Move Forward party in hope of joining the Bhumjaithai party as they voted in favour of its leader and Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Chanvirakul and Minister of Transport Saksayam Chidchob in the no-confidence motion.  These were Kharom Phonphornklang, Kwanlert Panichmat, Aekkaphop Pheanwiset, and Peeradech Khamsamut.

The Move Forward party responded not by kicking them out of the party, because that would give them what they want. According to the provision in the constitution designed to encourage defection, an MP who is kicked out of a party can join another political party within 30 days. MP status is only be revoked when the MP resigns from their political party. Once they were kicked out, the 4 MPs would join Bhumjaithai party.

Instead, the Move Forward party decided to keep them in the party but revoke their privileges as a party members until 2023. These include the right to participate in any parliamentary committees and to run in the next election as a member of the Move Forward party. The four were among 9 MPs who refused to sign the party’s motion to amend the lèse majesté law. The other 5 were Win Suteerachai, Kasemsan Meethip, Wanwari Talomsin, Tossaporn Thongsiri and Chirawat Aranyakanon. The party has not taken any action against these 5 MPs.

Pheu Thai to be more like Thai Rak Thai

 

Recently, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister in support of the Pheu Thai party, joined Clubhouse, a popular mobile application in Thailand, talking about the good old times under the Thai Rak Thai party and painting an inspiring economic vision. However, when asked by a participant about his past involvement in crackdowns in the Deep South during his premiership, he said he could not remember. When a young participant exchanged views about the importance of pushing forward monarchy reform, he also said he only cherished the monarchy.

After Thaksin’s talk on Clubhouse, several outlets publicized information on incidents which erupted from ethnic tensions in 2004 in the Deep South. In April, at Krue Se Mosque and other areas, clashes between violent insurrectionists and the authorities led to 109 deaths. In October, after a protest at Tak Bai police station, 85 peaceful protesters were killed, 7 disappeared, and 1,000 were injured. Even though the government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra paid 1 billion baht to the relatives of the deceased in 2012, the authorities responsible still escaped legal prosecution with impunity.  

Thaksin’s stance on monarchy reform is consistent with the Pheu Thai party, which focuses only on economic reform. Pheu Thai underwent internal changes last year including the appointment of a new executive committee, the abolition of the party’s strategic committee and the establishment of a party politburo. However, nothing has changed when it comes to their political stance.

If anything, Thaksin’s close aides have more influence over Pheu Thai party.

Pheu Thai is preparing for the next election in 2023. According to a press conference in January, Pheu Thai Secretary-General Prasert Chanruangthong said that, unlike the last election in which candidates in the Thaksin camp ran under separate political parties, all candidates in Thaksin’s camp will run for the Pheu Thai party in the next election. The party has established 21 coordinating committees responsible for different blocks of 350 constituencies across Thailand to recruit staff and suitable candidates.

In February, the Pheu Thai party launched an initiative called Change Maker to recruit new blood into the party. The initiative is influenced by Creative Action for Revival & People Empowerment or CARE, a policy platform founded last year by Thaksin’s close aides who work as the project’s advisors including Prommin Lertsuridej, Surapong Suebwonglee and Phumtham Wechayachai. At the opening event, Prommin Lertsuridej said that an important mission is to revive the legacy of the Thai Rak Thai party.

“The Pheu Thai party is the real thing. It does not take the old success of Thai Rak Thai party to sell,” said Prommin. We will invent new things, but we let you know that we were able to do it, that is, with the people, think together and propose solutions. The strong point of the Thai Rak Thai party in the past was proposing solutions. It is all about proposing solutions. But they are not boastful solutions, but practical solutions and you see a real impact.”

According to Prachachat, the Election Commission of Thailand released information revealing that, just before the resignation of Sudarat Keyuraphan from the Pheu Thai party, millions of political donations started flowing from Thaksin’s close aides including Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, Pichai Naripthaphan, Puangpet Chunlaiad and Chutharat Menasawet, a close friend of Thaksin’s ex-wife Potjaman Damapong.

Internal conflict over cabinet seats

In the first quarter of 2021, the opposition parties’ focus has been on 2 issues: constitutional amendments and the no-confidence motion.

With regard to constitutional amendments, it was not unexpected that the government wanted to slow down the process as much as possible. In February, the government coalition and senate filed a petition with the Constitutional Court to rule whether parliament has the power to pass the two draft constitutional amendments. The Constitutional Court ruled on 11 March that the parliament has the power to rewrite the constitution if they proceed through the two referenda as planned. 

The no-confidence motion against 10 ministers also led to no changes even though important issues were raised in parliament. However, 6 Phalang Pracharat MPs from Bangkok constituencies led by Watanya Wongopasi abstained in the vote against Minister of Transport Saksayam Chidchob of the Bhumjaithai Party. Watanya posted on Facebook a defence of their action, saying that many opaque transport projects remained unanswered by Saksayam and an MP was free to abstain.

This led to harsh criticism by Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan. A Phalang Pracharat committee has been established to investigate the matter. Matichon reported that a proposal is to be sent to the Phalang Pracharat executive committee to order the 6 MPs to make a public apology to Saksayam Chidchob and they may not take any positions on parliamentary committees for six months.

During the internal struggle over the Ministry of Transport, three ministers were unexpectedly removed from office by virtue of being sentenced to jail for leading the insurrection of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2014. The three ministers were Nataphol Teepsuwan (Education), Puttipong Punnakanta (Digital Economy and Society), and Thaworn Senneam (Deputy Minister of Transport). Many observers commented that it was a successful attempt by the establishment to force a cabinet reshuffle. 

36 other PDRC leaders were given jail sentences including Suthep Thaugsuban, Suwit Thongprasert and Taya Teepsuwan, Nataphol’s wife, who has said she would run for governor of Bangkok against other government candidates. They were bailed out after only two days in prison. The same could not be said about human rights defenders whose bail petitions were repeatedly rejected. Also, it remains to be seen if the MP status of the three ministers will be suspended since the case is still not final.

Thai protests met with more violence

From December to February, democratic activists turned to the tactic of dispersed resistance. Protest signs could be seen across Thailand without many big public gatherings. To widen the democratic coalition, student activists in a group named UNME of Anarchy visited rural areas affected by government policies such as Bang Kloi and a coal mine in Loei Province to build relationships with the communities.

Anon Nampa said there would be no big protests for six months because of the Covid-19 outbreak. Pakorn Porncheewangkun said earlier this year that he was holding meetings to deal with internal conflicts among activists. However, right after the unelected Senate petitioned the Constitutional Court over the legitimacy of the constitutional amendments, protest leaders called for large protests to put pressure on the establishment.

The three main demands of the protesters were adjusted for the third time. When the protests emerged at the beginning of last year, these demands were the resignation of the prime minister, the constitutional amendments, and an end to threats against citizens. After the emergence of Khana Ratsadon in mid-2020, the demands changed to the resignation of the prime minister, the constitutional amendments, and monarchy reform.

In 2021, the main demands changed again as Free Youth called for limiting the power of the monarchy, kicking the military out of politics, and - to incorporate the leftist ideas promoted at the end of last year under the harshly criticized campaign Restart Thailand (now changed to Restart Democracy or REDEM) - reducing inequality by universal welfare. A long march from Nakhon Ratchasima to Bangkok was organized by UNME of Anarchy and the People Go Network.

Several large protests were met with violence as police used batons, tear gas and rubber bullets without warning. Protest leaders’ right to stay out of jail pending trial has been unfairly revoked as the Criminal Court repeatedly rejected any further requests for bail. The suppression led to escalating reactions from protesters as some of them held protests to burn photos of King Vajiralongkorn. The Ratsadon Facebook page called for people to wear black after protest leaders were denied bail.

It is getting clearer that the democracy movement is now divided into three connected groups. The first group is led by Ratsadon, UNME of Anarchy, United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, and the People Go Network. In this group, the political student activists are mainly based in the northeast and put an emphasis on rural communities affected by the current government. The second group is led by Free Youth whose members are mainly based in Bangkok and some of whom appeal to socialist ideas.

The third group is the red shirt movement which on one hand is the political base of the Pheu Thai party and on the other hand is more or less allied with the student movement. At the organizational level, the red shirt movement supports any democratic proposals except monarchy reform. At an individual level, some red shirt supporters calling themselves progressives have joined hands with the student movement on monarchy reform. While all three groups have complementary goals, they sometimes conflict. The major challenge of the democracy movement from now on is how to maintain unity in the face of threats by an increasingly authoritarian government.

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