Thailand’s Military Junta Rigs Constitutional Referendum, Wins Vote For Continued Authoritarian Rule
The Thai people voted on the latest constitution pushed by the reigning military junta. A no vote was the only way to protest General/Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s dictatorship, but a majority of Thais apparently hoped to return to at least nominal civilian rule. No one knows what would have followed rejection of the military’s handiwork, though few believe the generalissimo was prepared to acknowledge his many mistakes and yield power.
Thailand long was characterized as the land of smiles: a friendly people, warm climate, and informal atmosphere all beckoned backpackers and businessmen alike. But politics has become less hospitable in recent years.
In 1932 the all-powerful king was turned into a constitutional monarch. However, military coups were frequent and the court, along with the military, bureaucracy, and business, long dominated democratic politics. Well-connected elites prospered while the rural poor languished, seemingly forgotten by their own government.
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Sunday’s constitutional referendum offers a choice between continued military rule and a regressive constitution that entrenches it until 2022. A slender carrot is that approval will mean an election (army-sponsored, of course) in 2017. The vote, like the generals’ other claims to democratic legitimacy, is a sham. Criticism of the charter carries a 10-year jail term; 100-plus nay-sayers have been jailed. The generals have run a mass propaganda campaign involving 700,000 henchmen. The 40m-odd voters must put their thumbprints on ballot papers; the count will lack independent monitors. Despite the climate of fear, the main opposition parties are recommending a “no” vote. Even that would not end the junta’s reign. The generals have an ace in the hole: the seemingly imminent death of the king, an event that will let them freeze Thailand’s political system for years to come.
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Somsak Sreesomsong was 18 when he was jailed for selling illegal drugs. Now, turning 30, he is not yet half way through his 33-year sentence at Bangkok’s high-security Klong Prem prison.
Somsak was “just a kid, not a big-time dealer”, his older brother Panit told Reuters after a visit to the jail. “We’re also serving time, waiting for him to get out so he can help the family.”
More than a decade after Thailand declared a “war on drugs”, the country is admitting defeat. As the prison population soars, Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya told Reuters he was looking at changes to the country’s draconian drug laws.
“I want to de-classify methamphetamine but Thailand is not ready yet,” said Paiboon, meaning downgrading the drug, popularly known as “meth”, from a Category 1 substance, which would reduce jail time for possession or dealing.
Use of methamphetamine is spiraling across Southeast Asia, and authorities are struggling to respond.
[…] Thailand’s military is coming under growing pressure not only on the foreign policy front, but also in the arena of domestic policy. It was evident, for instance, on December 7 when over 30 students were arrested as they tried to demonstrate against a multimillion-dollar park built by the military under construction contracts allegedly riddled with kickbacks.
The case is particularly sensitive, the expert says, because it strikes at the heart of the military’s legitimacy to rule the country. “The military leaders justified their coup by claiming: we are the good guys, and we will eliminate immoral and corrupt politicians.” But now the military, similar to the politicians it ousted, is also mired in graft scandals.
The military government’s performance since it seized power 19 months ago has been grim. “Everyone knows that the economy is in tatters. And the reforms haven’t led to any concrete results,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a well-known Thai journalist and commentator, told DW.
He said that it is evident from posts on social media that the polarization in the society hasn’t ebbed, with people belonging to different political camps still regarding each other with hatred. “There haven’t been any changes in terms of the fundamental problems facing the country. Thailand is frozen in time,” Pravit reckons.
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‘The last two times Thailand’s army grabbed control, in 2006 and 2014, fortune teller Warin Buawiratlert called it, informing the would-be junta ahead of time that they were destined for power.
So when Warin recently predicted that junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha was set to stay for up to three years – far beyond his declared “roadmap” for a return to civilian rule – the media in this mysticism-obsessed country crackled with the news.
The military government quickly poured cold water on the prediction. But for a growing chorus of domestic critics, it was yet another signal that Thailand’s irascible leader is getting far too comfortable with power almost a year after the military coup.’
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‘Prime minister and military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said Tuesday he would invoke controversial Article 44 of junta-imposed interim constitution to issue a new order protecting Thailand’s security.
The measure gives former army commander Prayuth power over all aspects of government and absolves him of any legal responsibility.
The prime minister told reporters that a new order to replace martial law would be “issued very soon.”
Prayuth also said he had asked the king of Thailand for permission to scrap the martial law, which was imposed after the Prayuth-led army takeover in May 2014. The approval from 87-year old king Bhumibol Adulyadej is considered a formality.’
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Last month Gen Prayuth said he had the power to shut down news outlets, and on Wednesday he took an even harsher line. “We’ll probably just execute them,” said Prayuth, without a trace of a smile, when asked by reporters how the government would deal with those who do not adhere to the official line.
“You don’t have to support the government, but you should report the truth,” the former army chief said, telling reporters to write in a way that bolsters national reconciliation in the kingdom.’
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‘In the six months since Thailand’s military coup, the United States has exported tens of millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to the unelected government there. This finding is based on a new analysis of US Census Bureau export data conducted by Truthout.
The records, which run through September, show that since the May 22, 2014, coup, the United States has delivered $11 million in parts for military aircraft, more than $1 million in parts for guided missiles and three UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters worth more than $40 million.
The Thai military government, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has mandated widespread censorship on television, radio, in print and in social media. It has also outlawed criticism of the military authorities, as well as gatherings of more than five people.
The NCPO has also detained more than 300 politicians, activists, journalists and demonstrators since the coup. Many are being held incommunicado at military black sites, and some are alleging torture.’
‘Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Tuesday dismissed calls to lift martial law, saying it would continue until sweeping national reforms are in place, despite calls by tourism bodies to scrap a measure that has deterred many visitors.
Martial law was declared on May 20, two days before the army seized power in a bloodless coup following months of sometimes violent street protests aimed at ousting then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.’
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‘Communist Laos has issued a decree outlawing online criticism of policies of the ruling party or government, state media reported, the latest Southeast Asian country to enact strict internet controls. According to legislation approved by Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong last week, web users will face criminal action for spreading “false” information aimed at discrediting the government, the official KPL news agency said.
[…] The decree comes as cellphone and internet usage climbs in tandem with economic growth, a reduced poverty rate and greater electricity access in the country of 6.4 million people. The new laws bear similarities to those of its Communist neighbor Vietnam, which commands strong influence over Laos and has a near identical political system… Thailand has [also] closed hundreds of thousands of websites and jailed people who have used the internet to post critical comments about its monarchy under its 2007 Computer Crimes Act.’
‘In the wake of the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Thailand in May, at least one activist says she was tortured while in custody, some 60 civilians face trials in military courts, and dissent and freedom of expression have been sharply restricted, according to a report by Amnesty International.
“The right to a fair trial is currently in jeopardy,” said the report, which provided a snapshot of what it described as a deteriorating human rights situation in Thailand since the armed forces seized power in May.
The people facing military trials, which offer no appeal, are charged with taking part in political gatherings, protesting against the military takeover of the country or insulting the monarchy.’
‘Thai military leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha was endorsed as prime minister by Thailand’s king on Monday, four days after he was elected by his own hand-picked parliament, although critics called his appointment a political farce.
Prayuth was appointed prime minister on Thursday, three months after leading a coup, by 191 out of 197 members of the military-dominated national assembly. He was the sole candidate.
Approval from King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a formality. His endorsement paves the way for the establishment of an interim government in coming weeks, although power will remain firmly in the hands of the junta formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).’
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‘Thailand’s new temporary constitution that gives the military government sweeping powers in the run-up to a planned October 2015 election also allows the leader of the current ruling junta to become interim prime minister, a senior army official said Wednesday.
The document adopted Tuesday is the first step toward restoring electoral democracy in Thailand, two months after the army took power in a coup, but the junta will continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office in September.
Although the interim charter is supposed to pave the way for civilian rule, it gives the junta — officially called the National Council for Peace and Order — what amounts to supreme power over political developments. It also legalizes all actions the junta has taken since the coup, as well as the takeover itself.’
‘Huddled around a table at a university canteen, six Thai students draft a newsletter celebrating democracy — a meeting that would have barely attracted a glance two months ago, but could now land them in jail. They are part of a small but growing troop of undergraduates uniting in Bangkok to resist the curtailment of civil liberties under military rule. “We should write about what isn’t being reported,” says Achara, a 24-year-old languages student spurred into action by the junta’s censorship of domestic media.
Democratic rights. Students and the coup. The legality of the takeover. Just some of the ideas she lists in a notepad whose cover reads “Big things often have small beginnings”. These small and sporadic acts of resistance by students — from launching alternative publications to group readings of George Orwell’s anti-authoritarian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — are among the few public expressions against the takeover. That is because even a typical campus debate on a newsletter carries a huge risk in post-coup Thailand, where the line between what the junta deems lawful and illegal is increasingly blurry.’
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‘Slavery is back. Modern day slave ships have been used to provide feed for prawns supplied to some of the world’s biggest supermarkets, including: Tesco, Aldi, Walmart and Morrisons. A six-month Guardian multimedia investigation has, for the first time, tracked how these supermarkets use suppliers relying on slave labour to put cheap prawns on their shelves.’ (The Guardian)
‘There are no whistles, no loud speakers, and no placards held up high in this quiet act of subversion. Pimsiri Petchnamrob stands silently in a mass of sharply dressed Bangkok commuters, her hands clutched around a copy of George Orwell‘s 1984. Next to her a small group of young men and women, their faces sombre and their heads bowed low, also read books about fictional and real totalitarian worlds in silence.
This was the second such protest in two days in Thailand against the country’s military coup. In a city accustomed to roller-coaster politics and sometimes violent demonstrations, the defiant book club was barely noticed. “We did it because we are angry at the military dictatorship in Thailand but we don’t think confrontation is the way,” says Ms. Pimsiri, an activist who came up with the protest idea after recently attending a conference on non-violent political opposition in Boston. The participants read English-language copies of the books.’
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‘Military coups in Thailand are nothing new. But the latest seizure of power by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha underscores the risks to democracy when governments consistently fail to deal adequately with the complex convergence of systemic crises.
Although Chan-ocha has said he is merely seeking to “restore order” in reaction to escalating protests that have seen the deaths of 28 and injury of 700, informed observers point out that the declaration of martial law appears to have been calculated to benefit the coup instigators.
Whatever the case, the opportunity to impose authoritarian rule has emerged in the context of escalating political instability. But few recognise that the driving force of this instability is not simply ‘political infighting’, but the inexorable intersection of global trends that affect us all.’
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‘The Obama Administration has suspended US military aid to Thailand after this week’s coup, and is halting “non-essential” visits by US government officials to the country. The administration was reluctant to recognize the Thai coup, initially defending the takeover as “constitutional.” When Thailand’s military started calling it a coup, however, the ruse was over, and Obama was obliged under US law to make the cut.
That’s in keeping with the administration’s reaction to other coups, as the one in Egypt, which the US still hasn’t officially “recognized,” and has not led to cutting the much larger military aid sent there. Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno called Thailand’s new junta chief today, urging the quick restoration of “democratic principles” to the country. It is unclear what that actually means, but with the junta talking about making wholesale reforms before even considering elections, it is likely the US will look for some pretense to declare the coup “over” pretty quickly, and Thailand will probably see US military aid back long before they see the return to civilian rule.’
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‘Thailand’s army declared martial law nationwide on Tuesday to restore order after six months of street protests that have left the country without a proper functioning government, but denied that the surprise move amounted to a military coup. While troops patrolled parts of Bangkok, the caretaker government led by supporters of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was still in office, military and government officials said. Ministers were not informed of the army’s plan before the announcement on television at 3 a.m. (4 p.m. EDT on Monday).
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military was taking charge of public security because of violent protests that had claimed lives and caused damage. Nearly 30 people have been killed since the protests began in November last year. “We are concerned this violence could harm the country’s security in general. Then, in order to restore law and order to the country, we have declared martial law,” Prayuth said. “I’m asking all those activist groups to stop all activities and cooperate with us in seeking a way out of this crisis.”‘
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…Thailand is the land of the Thais, of course — but also of the Lanna, Lao, Mon, Malay, Khmer and Chinese, among other ethnic groups subsumed into the country over the centuries. Eight years into Thailand’s political crisis over the influence of the prime minister’s family, some of those ethnic identities are resurfacing. The country’s political divisions roughly follow the outlines of ancient kingdoms and principalities, rekindling bygone impulses for greater autonomy from Bangkok. “I’ve never seen the country this divided,” said Ponganand Srisai, a member of the local council in Baan Nong Tun, a rice-farming northeastern village.
…Building modern Thailand has been a painstaking and sometimes bloody process that took centuries but accelerated over the past century. Local languages and dialects were banned from schools. Authoritarian leaders changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand and created what today are icons as a sort of nationalist glue for the country. Pad thai, the stir-fried noodles so common in Thai restaurants, was introduced by the authorities as a national dish. The government also promoted the use of a greeting, “sawasdee,” that is used nationwide. Decisions about everything from the appointment of Buddhist clergy to the architecture of Thai temples were transferred from the provinces to Bangkok.
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[…] Revolutionaries must have some idea of what they are going to do once they have displaced the powers-that-be. It is not enough to say that anything is better than the status quo, particularly, as happened in Egypt and Syria, when people find their lives are getting worse. What happens when foreign powers, once so eager to support the risen people, want a share of the political cake? The success of those first uprisings meant that the revolutionaries, always better on tactics than strategy, had lethally few ideas about what to do next.
But the formula that brought them to power still works. In the past eight months, governments in Turkey, Thailand and Ukraine have been destabilised by prolonged mass protests. In the case of Egypt a giant demonstration on 30 June led directly to – and was portrayed as giving legitimacy to – a military coup on 3 July. In Istanbul it was Taksim Square and in Kiev it was Independence Square that were the stages on which revolutionary dramas were played. But what is at issue now is very different from 2011. This is not obvious, because television reporters often produce the same simple-minded story as before. Downplayed and even unstated in reports from Kiev, Cairo, Bangkok and Istanbul was that this time the protesters were confronting democratically elected leaders.
The Thai government has declared a state of emergency for the tense capital of Bangkok amid anti-government protests, a security official said Tuesday.
It will go into effect Wednesday and will last 60 days, Thailand’s national security chief, Lt. Gen. Paradon Patthanathubut, told CNN.
Since demonstrations against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government began in November, at least nine people have died and more than 450 have been wounded, according to authorities.
The emergency decree gives authorities the power to impose curfews, detain suspects without court permission, censor media and declare parts of the capital off-limits.
In a bid to resolve the crisis, Yingluck dissolved parliament last month and called for new elections to be held February 2.
But the move has done little to appease protesters. They have called on Yingluck to step down from her caretaker position and be replaced by an unelected “people’s council,” which would see through electoral and political changes.
The opposition Democrat Party has said it will boycott the elections.
Anti-government protesters forced their way inside Thailand’s Finance Ministry and burst through the gates of the Foreign Ministry compound on Monday, in an escalating bid to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The seizing of government buildings by protesters, led by the opposition Democrat Party, plunges Thailand into its deepest political uncertainty since it was convulsed three years ago by the bloodiest political unrest in a generation.
The protesters’ actions “threaten the stability of the government,” Yingluck said in a brief televised address.
The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a puppet for her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and convicted two years later of graft – charges he denies. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile but exerts enormous influence over his sister’s government.
More than 400,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their lands since 2003, often without compensation, as the nation sells off its territory to sugar and rubber barons and property developers. Villagers who protest have been beaten, imprisoned and murdered – such as the environmental campaigner Chut Wutty, who was killed last year – as more than one-tenth of land has been transferred in the past few years from small-scale farmers to agribusiness, rights groups claim. A recent Global Witness report – and investigation by the Guardian – found that Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation were bankrolling massive government-sponsored land grabs in both Cambodia and Laos through two Vietnamese companies, HAGL and VRG, which had been granted recent economic land concessions. Villagers claimed they had little food to eat and no chance of jobs, as hardly any positions were offered by the companies.
The state can take land away from citizens for economic development, national security or defence reasons, or in the public interest. But in recent years the government has grabbed land to make way for eco-parks, resorts and golf courses, much to the anger of the public. Last year, around 3,000 security forces were deployed in the northern Hung Yen province after villagers protested against a 70-hectare land grab to make way for an “eco-urban township”. Around the same time, a family of four fish farmers protested against a state eviction squad armed with homemade shotguns and land mines – a bold move in this one-party nation. While the prime minister declared the fish farmers’ eviction illegal,a court recently handed down a five-year jail sentence to those involved in the protest for making a “bad impact on the social order … [of] the country as a whole”.
The sea gypsies in the southern resort island of Phuket are facing eviction after living on and around the beaches of Rawai for the past 200 years. Thai landowners claim they want the land back to build houses and a “sea gypsy village” in which tourists can buy fish and see how this once nomadic seafaring tribe now lives on land. The sea gypsy communities have so far refused to move, but could be forcibly evicted if no resolution is reached. Sea gypsies in neighbouring areas, such as Khao Lak, have also been forced off their land by resorts and hotels over past decades, while Burmese sea gypsies around the Mergui islands are reportedly being moved out by authorities keen to develop the area for tourism.