Life under the coup regime

June 18, 2014

After Thailand's highest court removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra weeks before, the Thai Army declared martial law in May--and declared on May 22 that it was taking power in place of the civilian government. Yingluck is the leader of the Puea Thai Party, the third incarnation of a party founded by her brother and capitalist mogul Thaksin Shinwatra, who was overthrown and driven out the country in 2006. The army and its capitalist allies oppose Puea Thai's agenda of modernization and populist reforms like universal health care.

As an alibi to stage the coup, the Army used the conflict between the Red Shirt movement--which defended Yingluck's government and fights for democracy and against economic inequality--and the monarchist and anti-democratic Yellow Shirts. The generals have moved aggressively to shore up their junta, criminalizing pro-democracy protests.

Earlier this month, Ashley Smith interviewed a Thai activist in Bangkok about conditions in the aftermath of the coup. Out of fear of retribution, the activist chose to be identified by the pseudonym Eye-Opening Thai. This is a common moniker used by those in the Red Shirt movement to communicate that they have "unlearned" monarchism and fealty to the rich--and that their eyes are now open.

WHAT ARE conditions like in Thailand today?

SINCE THE coup, we have been living under martial law, though they have lifted the curfew in some areas. We have no working constitutional government. Instead, the so-called National Council for Peace and Order, headed by the general who led the coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha, issues orders every day, and if you violate them, you can be detained, you can be arrested, and you can be tried in the military court that has been just set up.

The general's National Council has issued an order prohibiting Thai people from gathering in groups of more than five people. Any act that that protests the coup is deemed unlawful, and anyone involved in that act can be arrested.

A lot of people are very dissatisfied with the coup. During the first week after the coup, they went out on the street, despite martial law. Despite the military's orders, they went out on the street, and of course, there were more than five people together. In the first act of resistance, people went to the Victory Monument in Bangkok, shouting, "We want elections, we're tired of the coup." The military wasn't prepared and were stunned--they didn't know how to handle it.

Protesters in Bangkok oppose the coup
Protesters in Bangkok oppose the coup

After that, security measures were intensified. Anti-coup activity usually takes place on weekends--especially on Sundays. On the next Sunday, following the Victory Monument demonstration, the military tried to find out where the anti-coup protests would take place, and they sent hundreds of soldiers and police officers to occupy the area beforehand.

Now, it's normal to see both soldiers and officers walking through trains or hanging around on the sidewalk. Some have cameras on their necks, prepared to take a photo of any resistance. Two weeks ago, they even shut down the sky train--the mass transit system in Bangkok. They ordered the train not to stop for three consecutive stations, just to prevent passengers from getting off the train at an area where anti-coup actions were planned.

As a result of this, the number of protesters has decreased significantly. But some still have the courage to protest. On June 8, at Siam Square, which in the heart of Bangkok, seven people bravely stood up against 200 police and soldiers. They showed the three-finger salute, inspired by the Hunger Games, that has become one of the symbols of the democracy movement. They also held George Orwell's book 1984.

This was incredibly brave because you can be detained for three days just for flashing the three-finger salute. There have been many cases of people being detained for that. So we live in fear, and no one wants to voice their dissent right now.

It's important to note that I'm speaking about Bangkok. The situation in the countryside, particularly the Red Shirt regions in the North and Northeast, is worse. The military can act more arbitrarily, due to the lack of media attention. People's houses are raided. Many have been detained and charged, without their names being added to the list of arrestees. Therefore, we barely know who they are, what they are charged with and what has been done to them.

WHY DID the military stage the coup?

IN NOVEMBER 2012, the Yingluck government passed the amnesty bill for all those involved in the conflict over the past few years between those in the Red Shirt movement, which supported Thaksin Shinawatra, which the military drove from power in 2006, and the Yellow Shirt movement, an elite, far right wing movement that opposes popular democracy. The bill would also have given amnesty to Thaksin himself.

A lot of Yellow Shirts who were upper-middle class Bangkokians, military loyalists and very anti-Thaksin, were upset by the proposed amnesty and took this as an opportunity to find any means to overthrow Yingluck's government. Faced with this wave of protest, Yingluck disowned her government and called for a new election.

But the Yellow Shirts opposed the new election and obstructed it from taking place. They wanted anti-democratic "reforms" before any vote. Their proposal is for a "People's Council," which should really be called an "Unelected People's Council," which would implement reforms, and only then would we be allowed to have an election.

With this demand, they occupied Bangkok, closing down major intersections and causing a lot of economic damage that affected a lot of people. In January and February, the participants in the various protests decreased, and there were violent nighttime clashes between Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts, in which a lot of people died.

So the situation became anarchic. The central government was losing control. In some areas of the city, the Yellow Shirts were actually the main authority. They set up security checkpoints, and stopped people to frisk them. They even beat some people who they think they were suspicious. Violence was increasing, there were bombings, and there were more deaths and injuries. The military used this growing crisis as an excuse to stage the coup.

WHAT IS the political program of the coup regime?

THEY HAVE the same political agenda as the Yellow Shirts. The military's claims that it is a neutral actor and it was just putting an end to the conflict between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts are untrue. Afterward, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha announced his political agenda, and it's almost identical to the one proposed by the Yellow Shirts.

So, for example, they say that in five months, they will draft a new constitution. They say we will have a new prime minister, but the people will not elect him--he will be appointed. Their proposal is no less different from the "Unelected People's Council" proposed by the Yellow Shirts previously.

The military are also using the claim that there is widespread corruption in Thai politics as an excuse for delaying any election. Again, this is the argument of the Yellow Shirts. So Prayuth said we would not have any election until 15 months from now, in August 2015.

Their economic policy is not clear. Yingluck's government had combined policies that benefit a section of Thai capitalists with reforms like health care and rice subsidies, which won it a social base among workers and the peasantry.

The Yellow Shirts staged a campaign to block these reforms. For example, they organized blockades to prevent banks from giving a loan to the government for payments to farmers. They hoped to undermine popular support for Yingluck by doing this. Now, after the coup, the military faces no blockades at the banks, and it has released the funds to the farmers. The generals are hoping to win over the population to their wing of the ruling class.

Ironically, despite praising the philosophy of self-sufficiency, Prayuth has announced that military regime is considering approving a plan worth 3 trillion bahts ($92.3 billion) to invest in infrastructure and railways. Many say that this plan is taking after Yingluck's 2 trillion baht project that was deemed unconstitutional.

As for the short, the junta is now wasting public money on the so-called "bringing happiness back to Thais" campaign. They are organizing festive propaganda events each Sunday in public squares or parks. Free food is distributed, and there is live music played from big stages. Children enjoy riding and playing with the army's and police's horses and dogs. Magicians and jugglers are hired to perform.

In short, although Thaksin and Yingluck were condemned as immoral populist leaders, one can see attempts by the military junta to pose as "populist" in both its economic and social program.

WHAT IMPACT has the coup had on the Red Shirt movement?

THE JUNTA has targeted the movement and its leadership for repression. The generals have obviously not done the same to the Yellow Shirts, who they are, in fact, aligned with. The military have summoned more than 400 people to turn themselves in across the country. Some of them were detained for one week. About 80 percent of those are Puea Thai Party politicians, Red Shirt leaders and Red Shirt intellectuals. They are targeting the Red Shirts from the top, the formal Red Shirt leaders, to the bottom, with the local, grassroots and radical, autonomous, anti-monarchist Red Shirts.

The state is particularly going after the radical anti-monarchist fraction of the Red Shirts. They have mostly refused to turn themselves in, because they know they are likely to be charged with the lèse-majesté--disloyalty to Thailand's king--and will be tried in a military court. There will be no freedom for this group for a while, unlike the Puea Thai politicians who can turn themselves in, and on the next day some were released and returned home.

This repression has significantly impacted the Red Shirt movement. Of course, the formal Red Shirt leaders, after being released, stay quiet. This is partly because before being released, everybody had to sign a statement saying they won't join any political gathering or organize any political activities--and that if they want to leave the country, they have to inform the military. This is the statement everybody is forced to sign in exchange of your freedom.

But some resist. For example, one Red Shirt leader, Sombat Boonngamanong, refused to turn himself in and went into hiding, but he communicated with his supporters through social networks, encouraging the people to go into the streets, and keep on fighting and protesting. While he was in hiding, he was still inspiring people.

But then the military found out where he was and arrested him. His request for bail was denied. His penalty could range from seven to 14 years of imprisonment. Even worse, he says that the police plan to charge him with lèse-majesté. We expect that he's going to be detained for a while.

So a lot of people are feeling demoralized. Most people are left without a leader. On the other hand, while the Red Shirts are suffering real repression, people generally are still angry about the coup and have surprising courage to speak out.

For example, I visited the Red Shirt headquarters in Bangkok. It's located in a big department store. Every office is closed, and less than 20 people were on that floor. It was very depressing. But then afterward, I stopped to talk with people at small bookshops and vendors. When they started talking, they were just pouring out their frustrations and their anger. They aren't showing any sign of giving up. And I think they're becoming more radical. Even though I'm a stranger, and I just show up telling them I want to buy this magazine, in less than 10 minutes, these people were cursing our monarchy.

This woman in her 50s even told me she doesn't care, and even if I was a spy sent by the military, she's angry and she's had enough." So the anger and the will of the people remains. It may have been suppressed temporarily, but it's waiting for the opportunity to explode--to burn again in better circumstances.

WHAT HAS been the reaction of the U.S. government to the coup?

THE U.S. voiced its disapproval of the coup. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the cancelation of joint military exercises and threatened to withhold some military aid. But we must not forget that the U.S. has been a strong supporter of the Thai monarchy, the military and the elites that bankroll the Yellow Shirts.

The U.S. supported the monarchist elite and the military during the Cold War to repress communist movements in Southeast Asia. Whatever criticism the U.S. has of the coup, it is likely to stand by the junta in its repression of the Red Shirts, which in the eyes of the Thai elites are something like a Communist threat. So the U.S. may say it supports democracy, but it will side with the junta against the popular movement from below.

Interestingly, among 10 countries that publicly condemned the coup, some have taken concrete actions targeting the coup-makers and government representatives. For instance, Australia has refused to issue a visa for military leaders. The Argentinian ambassador declined an invitation to meet Thai officers at the Foreign Affairs ministry.

WHAT CAN activists in the rest of the world do to help the Thai struggle for democracy?

MOST IMPORTANTLY, people should spread the news about the coup and the repression. Tell everybody what's going on in our country. International solidarity can have an impact in emboldening opposition to the coup. If there isn't international condemnation of the coup, this will bolster the regime to continue the repression. All sides pay attention to the international reaction to events in Thailand, whether they're Red Shirts or Bangkokian bourgeoisie.

So if we share information that this junta is repressing freedom of expression and denying Thai people basic political rights of the people, it can help stop those in power from carrying through their most extreme, repressive agenda. It can help give the Red Shirt movement space to rebuild itself and prepare to fight for democracy and economic equality.

Transcribed by Andrea Hektor and Karen Domínguez Burke

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