Floods, hacks and the Nitirat effect

It’s been a busy few weeks for me, so my posts to New Mandala have been sparse. Here are a few thoughts on some of the main events of recent days.

Thailand’s devastating floods have already claimed 200 lives and caused widespread damage and disruption in agricultural, urban and industrial areas. The extent of impact on Bangkok itself remains to be seen, but with most dams to the north now at, or above, capacity, there is clearly very little room  to cope with any more heavy rain.

In the past in Thailand there has often been a tendency to attribute flooding to deforestation in upland areas, conveniently placing the blame on marginal farmers who can do little to defend their environmental reputation. Such claims have very little justification. While deforestation (and associated reduction of the ability of the land to absorb rainfall) may have some impact on localised flooding, the impact of land-cover on widespread flooding is much more limited.

Thankfully most commentary about the current disaster has avoided pointing the finger of blame at upland farmers. Attention, quite correctly, has focused on the very high levels of rainfall from a series of tropical storms. With the ground saturated from rainfall earlier in the wet season, there really is nowhere for the rain to go, except downhill. Forest or no forest, such vast quantities of water have to flow somewhere and in most of the north and centre, and parts of the northeast, all streams head to Bangkok.

Some commentators are calling for more dams which could store some of the flow. But in extreme events these will just fill up too.

At the much less serious end of the news spectrum is the hacking of Yingluck’s twitter account. Last Sunday, over about half an hour, a series of unflattering tweets about government policy and action were posted under Yingluck’s account. The final tweet suggested that someone who could not protect the security of their twitter account could hardly be trusted to protect the security of the nation. As political protest goes, this is pretty mild stuff; a clever exploitation of the vulnerabilities that emerge when politicians embrace social media.

The culprit has now been revealed as a 22-year-old student. Good luck to him. It would be an outrage if he was prosecuted under the odious Computer Crimes Act.

Finally, the Nitirat effect. A group of legal scholars from Thammasat University, under the name Nitirat, has released a statement proposing some innovative solutions to some of Thailand’s political difficulties. Most controversial is the proposal that the legal consequences of the 2006 coup be nullified. Here is Suranand Vejjajiva’s summary:

The gist of the controversial proposal is: to nullify the legality of the coup d’etat of Sept 19, 2006 and the subsequent legal actions taken as a result of the coup. These would encompass all orders declared by the Council of Democratic Reform (CDR) formed by the coup leaders as the legal entity which exercised power at the time.

Nitirat’s proposal also seeks to nullify Sections 36 and 37 of the temporary constitution of 2006, which endorsed the actions taken by the CDR and provided amnesty for the coup leaders. Any rulings by the Constitution Judiciary Commission, the Constitution Court and the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions based upon the orders of the CDR and others resulting from the coup _ especially those rulings from the processes initiated by the Assets Scrutiny Committee appointed by CDR _ are also to be invalidated.

Unsurprisingly the Nitirat statement has generated a great deal of public debate, with dueling public statements issued at press conferences, via the media and, in particular, on Facebook. Some of the contributions have been plain silly with some asking why Nitirat has only focused on one coup — why not all of them! The Rector of Thammasat University will live to regret bringing Pridi Phanomyong into the debate.

Nevertheless, silliness aside, the debate has been a very positive development for Thailand. The benefit of the Nitirat effect is that is it encouraging open discussion about the nature of Thailand’s political system. Put simply — is Thailand willing to put its faith in the parliamentary system or is it going to continue to rely on the illegal use of force to resolve political difficulties?

Clearly there are some in Thailand who remain alarmed about the possibility of a parliamentary dictatorship. In a country where only one government has managed to serve its full term this seems a rather strange anxiety but, like all anxieties, it is best dealt with by open and frank discussion.

About Andrew Walker