Can the Thai junta deliver on promise to 'bring back happiness'?
There is little prospect of a resolution of Thailand's political crisis by the military junta which has seized power as it is too aligned to the country's traditional royalist elite which has come under challenge in recent years, says Tom Fawthrop.
HOW can the silent reading of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four by a solitary Thai citizen sitting outside a shopping mall in central Bangkok trigger repressive police action?
This unprecedented arrest for the act of reading a political book in public outside the Paragon Mall took place in June. Handfuls of protesters have staged several silent readings of the book in recent weeks, saying its indictment of totalitarianism has become relevant after the Thai army deposed the nation's elected government in a 22 May coup.
The generals behind Thailand's latest coup, a well-planned seizure of power, have declared an ambitious agenda to fix the political system, dissolve conflict and 'bring back happiness'. The steps they are taking: closing down protest, pressuring academics and controlling the media. But will it deliver the results they are looking for? Will it heal a badly-fractured and polarised nation by suppressing all dissent?
The May coup is markedly different from the 2006 army power grab that ousted billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That coup provided a clear plan for restoring civilian rule and a timetable for elections. This time around, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta have refused to commit themselves to a clear date. They claim 'the political system has to be reformed before a new election can take place', suggesting that it may take 15 months if things run smoothly, or maybe much longer, before new elections can be held.
In the meantime, the Thai junta have set about consolidating their power, ruling by decree and suppressing even the most innocuous and silent forms of dissent. Gatherings of five or more people have been declared illegal. Anyone who defies their decrees will be tried by military court-martial.
On the day of the Nineteen Eighty-Four reader's arrest, a woman wearing a T-shirt with the words 'Respect My Vote' was also grabbed by police and detained in a military camp. The 'Respect My Vote' motif became popular among many groups trying to counter anti-government protesters and their obstruction of February 2014 elections, later annulled in a controversial court ruling.
With the scrapping of the constitution and the dissolution of parliament, the military's power over policy-making and the judiciary is absolute. The junta's message to the public seems to be: 'Don't worry about the abrogation of human rights and freedom of assembly and the clampdown on the media.'
The military's public relations and social psychology unit has unleashed a series of free concerts and distributed free tickets to a stirring epic film that glorifies the victories of King Naresuan (who ruled Siam from 1590 to 1605). The concerts have featured songs lauding the army for saving the nation from the abyss and 'bringing back happiness'.
Beyond the entertainment, the message is clear: political divisions and debates have to be dissolved. The Thai people have to be united by ultra-nationalistic fervour and reverence for the monarchy.
Perhaps the clincher for winning over the masses was the junta's directive to ensure all World Cup matches were shown free on terrestrial Thai TV channels, at the cost of 427 million baht skimmed from another budget.
All this has combined to garner support from people in Bangkok and beyond, whose lives had been disrupted by months of anti-government rallies, blocked traffic and political deadlock.
Gagging the media
In July the military government tightened its grip on the media by banning them from criticising the junta's operations and threatening to immediately suspend the broadcast or publication of content that defies the order.
The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued an order prohibiting criticism by anyone on all forms of media against the operations of the junta and its personnel. The edict also prohibited interviews of academics, former civil servants or former employees of courts, judicial offices and independent organisations who could 'give opinions in a manner that can inflict or worsen the conflict, distort information, create confusion in the society or lead to the use of violence'.
The Associated Press reported online media freedom advocate Sarinee Achavanuntakul as saying that ordinary citizens who express their views on social media also would suffer from the junta's grip. 'This is basically a gag order, and it's not just a gag order to the press, but it's extending to anyone in Thailand, especially now that a lot of Thai people use social media to express opinions,' said Sarinee, who co-founded Thai Netizen Network, Thailand's first Internet freedom civil society group. 'I think it is very dangerous and, to me, it signals that the coup makers may not have a clear idea of who the enemies are.'
Background to the coup
There is a common theme in both the coups of 2006 and 2014: the objective of disrupting and dislodging the electoral domination of the Shinawatra-led political parties - which since 2001 have consistently won at the ballot box - and their 'Red Shirt' supporters.
Prior to the May putsch, the country's fragile democracy had been battered and paralysed by months of raucous anti-government demonstrations, including the occupation of government ministries by die-hard monarchists known as 'Yellow Shirts'.
They were opposed to a government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the ousted Thaksin, who now lives in exile as a businessman in Dubai. A fugitive on the run from a two-year jail sentence for corruption, he has been tenaciously plotting his return.
Attempts to settle the conflict by holding an election in February 2014 were stymied by anti-government protesters blocking the way to many voting stations in Bangkok and the south. The election was later annulled by the courts, leaving the country in a state of political impasse.
Month after month, the Thai military chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha had fended off the media with assurances that there would be no coup because 'a coup is not the solution'.
But soon after, on20 May, the army declared martial law, stressing that it was not really a coup. On 21 May, the army chief declared 'martial law is not the same as a coup'. Then on 22 May, martial law underwent a minor mutation, leading to full seizure of power. Overnight, the action became a fully-fledged coup under the command of the National Council for Peace and Order.
Despite appearances and General Prayuth's misleading statements, according to a reliable business source in close contact with the generals, it had all been planned a long time ago. This has now been confirmed by Suthep Thaugsuban, the former Democrat Party politician turned Yellow Shirt agitator-in-chief. The military have denied it.
The current hardline military regime has set about rooting out all anti-coup opposition - both Red Shirt as well as a politically liberal constituency based around groups of intellectuals, writers and academics.
The Thai Human Rights Alliance has reported that 470 people have been detained for questioning for seven days or more, after being summoned to appear before the generals. These included not only politicians and Red Shirt leaders but also human rights lawyers, academics, journalists and writers. Most have been released after being pressured to sign a declaration that they would not engage in any anti-coup activity.
Universities have been warned against holding political forums. In schools, a decree has banned any criticism of the coup. The NCPO is also considering rewriting history books to add patriotic fervour to classroom study.
Censorship of the Internet was already extensive before the coup. It has reached new heights under the junta, with an attempt to close down Facebook. However, it suddenly came back online after an hour with the military engaging infrantic denials.
Following the junta's taking control over TV, radio and print media, the only remaining source of independent information can be found on the Web. Blocking Facebook pages is part of along-term strategy to rival the success of Burmese counterparts in controlling Internet gateways. Anyone who clicks 'like' on an anti-coup comment on the Web has, according to the NCPO, committed a criminal offence.
The junta tries to extend its grip overseas
Army chief General Prayuth has briefed 23 Thai ambassadors to keep a close watch for any anti-coup protests abroad. Any 'inappropriate comments' about the Thai monarchy should be reported and could be prosecuted under Thailand's notorious 'lese majeste' law. This controversial law bans any public debate of the monarchy and has been widely used to discredit political opposition.
In Thailand the military's first allegiance is to the royal family. The politics of the coup is viewed by many as part of a broader plan to ensure that the succession that follows the death of ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej will be managed by a Thai parliament under the firm control of deeply committed monarchists, and not Thaksin's Red Shirt camp.
All sides profess affection and loyalty to the king, but the wearing of yellow indicates special allegiance to increasing the powers of the throne beyond the limits of a constitutional monarchy.
In late May, the Royal Thai Embassy in London tried to lobby the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and its Thai Society to cancel a public panel discussion on 2 June on the coup. Despite embassy pressure, the debate went ahead at SOAS. The event featured a panel of speakers including law academic Verapat Pariyawong, one of those summoned by the junta.
In Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the long arm of the military was more successful, blocking the screening of the film 1984 based on Orwell's novel. A Thai cineclub had wanted to screen it at an art gallery with an anticipated audience of probably less than 30. As a result of pressure from an army colonel who contacted the gallery, it was cancelled.
Military newspeak and Orwellian times
Addressing the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok, junta spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipak urged the media: 'Please avoid using the word "coup", because the context of what happened in Thailand is completely different. The only thing that happened in Thailand is the change of the administration of this country.' The colonel also instructed the media against using 'junta', saying: 'One must never use that word, it sounds bad.'
He also declared: 'I don't like the word "detention" as people were only invited to come.' However, about 50 people who declined the 'invitation' have been charged and will be tried by court-martial.
The military have also said they wanted to end the country's deeply entrenched political divisions by setting up reconciliation forums under the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a body established in 1966 to counter an armed communist rebellion.
ISOC spokesman Ban Pompeian said 'it's time for Thais to stop dwelling on the past'. Addressing primarily Red Shirt voters in the north and northeast, he said they 'should forget everything that happened before 22 May'.
In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, forgetting the past is all part of a totalitarian design to exert thought control and acceptance of a new reality. 'Thailand in 2014 is George Orwell's 1984,' Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, told Timemagazine.
Pavin rejected the junta's 'invitation' to return to Thailand and has since had his passport cancelled for his defiance of the military regime.
David Steckfuss, an expert on northern Thailand who lectures at Khon Kaen University, argues there are many things that 'it would be hard for them [Red Shirts] to forget', mentioning specifically the military crackdown on Red Shirt supporters in Bangkok in 2010, which resulted in 90 people killed. The military fired live ammunition in order to disperse a mass protest that had blocked central Bangkok for over two months.
Steckfuss argues that reconciliation based on the barrel of a gun is not going to work. Red Shirt activists and the voters in northern Thailand do not view the junta as honest brokers between the two political sides, but as clearly aligned with one side comprised of the Bangkok elite, the Yellow Shirt monarchists and the royal palace, he said.
Kevin Hewison, a Thai studies expert who heads the Asia Research Centre at Australia's Murdoch University, commented that General Prayuth's actions during anti-government demonstrations were 'biased towards the anti-government side, protecting and promoting them under the guise of the military being "neutral"'.
Dark days ahead
Thailand's political history has been riddled with coups, usually involving a semi-feudal elite at loggerheads with the new capitalism represented by Thaksin and his telecom empire, and with the recent sense of empowerment by the voters of north and northeast Thailand.
Buddhist scholar Sulak Sivaraksa points out: 'Unfortunately, the military hasn't learnt much from their previous mistakes; that is, every coup thus far has been a fundamental failure, and the military must take full responsibility for this.'
If the country is to emerge from this crisis, Sulak argues, the elite and the military have to start respecting the poor who vote for Red Shirt parties and are starting to assert their political rights.
'Many Red Shirts are not pawns of Thaksin Shinawatra. They have bravely struggled for freedom from domination by the ammarts,' Sulaksaid, referring to the traditional elite closely linked to the judiciary and the royal palace.
The military's 'reform of the Thai system' and their apparent preference for a more limited or guided democracy will almost certainly only be welcomed by the circles of Yellow Shirt royalists, and roundly rejected by much of the country who insist that any election not based on one-man-one-vote is a sham.
If there is to be a credible reform process, Dr Lee Jones of Queen Mary, University of London, says: 'The only way forward is a new social contract that distributes power and resources more equitably. We get that by talking and negotiating, not from the barrel of a gun.'
Tom Fawthrop is an author and filmmaker who specialises in coverage of the developing world from Cuba to Cambodia, Ecuador to East Timor and beyond. He can be reached at tomfawthrop@yahoo.
co.uk. See www.tomfawthropmedia.com
*Third World Resurgence No. 287/288, July/August 2014, pp 56-58