An army crackdown on dissent

June 2, 2014

In an article published May 28, Giles Ji Ungpakorn and Numnual Yapparat report on the measures taken by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to shore up the power of Thailand's military junta. Prayuth took power in a coup in late May after months of violent protests instigated by the misnamed "Democrat Party" that destabilized the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and disrupted elections.

In early May, Yingluck was removed from office by Thailand's Constitutional Court, clearing the way for the military to first declare martial law, and then declare it was taking power. Ever since, pro-democracy activists, including those affiliated with the Red Shirt movement, have faced repression. Despite this, protests continue against the military regime.

GEN. PRAYUTH Chan-ocha is aggressively trying to exercise his power. He arrogantly refused to answer two basic questions from reporters about whether he would be the next prime minister and when the elections would be held.

In response to the first question, he angrily pointed his finger at the reporter and asked, "So do YOU want to be PM then?" In response to the question on the election timetable, he shouted, "There is no time frame" and then stormed out of the press conference. He clearly lacks any communications skills.

The next day, the army summoned the reporters to give them a lecture on how to appropriately question His Excellency the Generalissimo. The junta has let it be known what sort of punishment reporters will face if they do not comply with the "New Order Regime."

Yesterday, soldiers were stupid enough to arrest former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng while he was giving a press conference in front of hundreds of reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand. He is now in jail and faces a military court. All those who have been detained will also face military courts if they are charged.

Thai soldiers in the streets of downtown Bangkok in April
Thai soldiers in the streets of downtown Bangkok in April (Anthony Bouch)

Pro-democracy activists, progressive academics, Red Shirt leaders and students have been told to turn themselves in to the military junta at the army clubs. Many have been immediately detained and sent to military camps. Some of them refused to go and are now in hiding.

Not only has the military detained decent people who believe in freedom and democracy, but also their relatives and children. People like Somyot Prueksakasemsuk's wife and son were temporarily detained after troops raided their house. The brother of the nurse who was shot dead by army snipers in 2010 was also detained and later released. Political activities are forbidden in universities. Students are arrested because they protested against the coup. Soldiers are breaking into Red Shirt leaders' houses in the North and Northeast and threatening them not to organize people against the coup.

In marked contrast, members of Suthep Thaugsuban's gang, who carried weapons and used violence on the streets to wreck the February elections, are set free. The army is trying to arrest anybody who has the potential to lead a rebellion against them.

Generalissimo Prayuth, the Great Leader, has giving an order to put up banners in several provinces to "thank" him for helping the farmers. Basically, he just carried on with the previous government's rice subsidy program. He desperately wants to give an impression that he is a strong leader who can "save" Thailand from the crisis. But he and his anti-Democrat mates started the crisis in the first place.

Generalissimo Prayuth wants to show that he is a tough man. He and his junta are issuing a huge number of decrees, covering nearly all aspects of life. One recent decree is to ban all gambling. We bet that this will not work.

He tries to flex his muscles and claim that he, as the Great Leader, can fix the all the nation's problems much better than any elected civilian government. In order to try to stimulate the economy, he is in favor of bringing forward large infrastructure projects which Puea Thai was originally trying to do. Of course those who shouted loudest against Puea Thai's projects, including the Constitutional Court judges, are now strangely silent.

Prayuth has placed his military and anti-Democrat cronies in positions of power. Creatures from the 2009 junta, like Pridiyathorn Devakula, have been creeping back to help the present regime in its dirty work.

GENERALISSIMO PRAYUTH’S behavior reminds us of the old dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, one of the most brutal and corrupt prime ministers in Thai history.

Sarit was in the power from 1958 to 1963. He died of cirrhosis of the liver and had hundreds of wives. After his death, a committee was set up to retrieve the millions he had stolen from the nation. Throughout his time as dictator, he issued many stupid decrees, but more importantly, he ordered gangster and drug dealers who were encroaching on his own interests to be summarily executed without trial. Some executions were carried out in public. Socialist and Communists were also killed.

But Thailand in the 1950s and ’60s is not the same as Thailand today. In 1954, 88 percent of the working population was involved in agriculture. By 2002, at the beginning of the Thai Rak Thai government, this figure had declined to 37 percent, with 63 percent in industry and services. Even those people classified as working in agriculture were in fact involved in "occupational multiplicity", mixing "farm jobs" with "off-farm jobs." The majority of Thais are now part of the urbanized working class.

In 1960, no more than 20 percent of the population attained lower secondary school qualifications. By 1999, the Ministry of Education reported that 84 percent of all 12-14 year olds were in lower secondary school.

People do not need to be educated at school or college in order to understand democracy, human rights or social justice, as many of the conservative elites continuously make out. But education can increase self-confidence to get organized and stand up and fight. The proliferation of secondary education in Thailand can help to partly explain why the Red Shirt movement became the largest social movement in Thai history.

Education and basic computer skills have also been useful for rank-and-file Red Shirts in a climate of severe government censorship, in order to access alternative websites, blogs and internet radio, as well as for communicating with each other via e-mail, Facebook and Skype.

GENERALISSIMO PRAYUHT may dream that he is the Supreme Leader. He may dream of bringing in a new order police state. But his dreams are starting to fall apart. Throughout the first few days of after the coup, there have been spontaneous anti-military protests by hundreds of people in Bangkok and other cities. Some protests attracted a couple of thousand people. Soldiers have often been berated by middle-aged women.

On more than one occasion, soldiers have been forced to retreat in the face of angry crowds. The majority of Thailand's 70 million-strong population are totally opposed to the junta and have shown this in repeated elections.

On May 28, 2014, the junta tested its ability to block Facebook and other social networks, but they could not do this for long because people would have become very angry. They cannot block the Internet as a whole because it would wreck the economy. What they can do is to block certain websites, including the Midnight University and hundreds of other sites. They can also shut down Facebook at strategic moments if they think that it is being used to organize certain political actions.

Pro-democracy activists are organizing to protest again on June 1 at Ratchapasong, and people keep returning to gather at the Victory Monument.

It takes immense courage to defy a military junta and stand in front of armed soldiers. In 2010, General Prayuth ordered the killing of nearly 90 Red Shirt demonstrators who were demanding democratic elections after a judicial coup.

The hope is that this movement will grow and will reach out to the organized working class. But this will take time. It may well be a case of "two steps forward, one step back." The junta will not be overthrown over night.

First published at Red Thai Socialist.

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