Thailand has once again descended down the rabbit hole, subsumed by another political crisis in which the nation’s fragile democracy is facing a destabilizing threat from coordinated network of elites related to the Democrat Party.
It is amazing to behold the rhetoric at play. Just three and a half years since the former government ordered the military to violently disperse a peaceful protest, resulting in the murder more than 90 Thai citizens, those same people responsible for the killings are now parading themselves under the flag of “rule of law,” “accountability,” and “reconciliation.”
The reason for this latest attempt at destabilization is an ill-conceived amnesty proposal, (which is guaranteed be voted down by the Senate), the Democrat Party network is seeking to use it as a pretext to apply the leverage of their activist judges and engineer a seizure of power.
As many are aware, a seizure of power in Thailand can take place through the military or judiciary. In today’s international environment, military coups and the threat of violence are generally frowned upon, though they cannot be ruled out. But it seems much more likely that the Democrat Party network will opt for the judicial coup, where some form of false charges or legal technicalities are mounted against the current government, backed by the coordinated acquiescence of civil society fronts in order to undermine elected leaders and “legitimize” a transfer of power that would not otherwise take place.
The network is also looking to capitalize upon the court ruling on the Preah Vihear temple dispute with Cambodia, a sensitive issue that inflames the passions of many Thai nationalists. They apparently see the controversy as an opportunity to fan the flames and incite disorder.
Since the April-May 2010 massacre, steps have been made toward accountability. Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been indicted on murder charges – which is the first time in the history of Thailand a leader has been held responsible for the death of citizens. But clearly more has to be done, which is challenging for a nation where civilian control over the military is more a concept on paper than a political reality.
It is important to take time to analyze where we are and what can be done for Thailand to navigate this present season of uncertainty.
Firstly, it is clear that the Yingluck Shinawatra government is under grave threat. The familiar opponents of the ruling party see an opportunity to gain momentum that they would not otherwise be able to summon by capitalizing on public distrust of the amnesty bill – which critically failed to address those serving jail sentences on convictions of lese majeste.
Secondly, the present government, in an attempt to maintain power, has come dangerously close to losing its legitimacy by depriving its core supporters of the fruits of representative democracy.
The current political crisis is a product of history. In the years since the 2006 military coup that removed the popularly elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s experience with democracy has been uneven. Elections are held, but sometimes with limited participation, as political leaders and parties have been repeatedly suspended and dissolved by coup-appointed judges, buttressed by an absence of freedom of speech. Thanks to the Democrat Party network, lese majeste has been weaponized against political speech, making it difficult for citizens to articulate their policy demands without fear of criminal charges.
Meanwhile the international media has given a free ride to would-be coup planners. Even coverage from the widely read New York Times, whose correspondent once literally stood feet away from Seh Daeng when he was assassinated (a murder which was never properly investigated), has fallen short of understanding the functioning of the Democrat Party’s network throughout the nation’s institutions. Other foreign correspondents have been instrumentalized as propaganda outlets for the elites simply because they have never travelled north of the Marriott Bangkok swimming pool.
It is a great pity that there is such a lack of awareness of how power is exercised by this network. As a system of governance, democracy in Thailand cannot be successful without rule of law, and the continued partisan activism on behalf of a number of Constitutional Court judges is a matter of grave concern. It is this lack of judicial independence that led the former government to unleash the military against the population without fear of consequence. Unfortunately, the amnesty bill, which may have been proposed out of good intentions, would only perpetuate this impunity.
The current Pheu Thai administration has repeatedly attempted to introduce constitutional amendments to restore representative avenues to their constituents, but they have been blocked at every turn. It is perhaps this frustration and desperation that brought forward the amnesty proposal, but like it or not, these actions were taken within the lawful context of democratic governance, and similarly should be resolved as such. Instead, the former leadership is delaying the issue to keep it alive while they essentially call for an elected government to be overthrown.
Having experienced firsthand the brutality of 2010, I will tell you that what motivated demands for accountability was not revenge or politics, but history. Thai history involves a cyclical process of repeated violence by the state against the population, followed by demands from the elite that the people forget. It is a plea for self-deception and forgetting that augurs poorly for Thailand ever moving ahead.
The failure to date to properly investigate the events of 2010 cannot go unremarked. If rule of law is to survive in Thailand, it is for the government to put principle above its interest of staying in power and properly expose the networks that have led to the violent repression of citizens seeking suffrage and representation.
If the government survives the present crisis, the UDD should demand nothing less than the full accountability for 2010 and international assistance in restoring the rule of law and bringing about long overdue constitutional change in Thailand.
When the dust settles from this crisis, the government may wake up and take more seriously their obligations to respect the interests of the electorate to whom they are accountable. For my part, the best demonstration of that would be for Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul to file a 12(3) acknowledgement with the International Criminal Court (ICC) so that for the first time, a real page could be turned in the history of Thailand.
But in the meantime, the Thai people will have to summon the determination to hold steadfast against this familiar incursion. Coups, both judicial and military, should exist only in Thailand’s past – they have no place in the future.
Robert Amsterdam is a lawyer retained by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and has been assigned as international defense council to several members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), popularly known as the “Red Shirts.” In 2012 he was interviewed by New Mandala.