Thailand, Zimbabwe, and the Algorithm of Terror
Last week I was in Kenya, advocating on behalf of a client in a UN trial, when I had the chance to meet with a number of leading African human rights specialists. Among others, I met with the well-known human rights lawyer Evans Monari, Member of the Council of Law Society of Kenya, who drew some interesting parallels between the April-May Bangkok massacres and the post-electoral violence in Nairobi of 2007-2008.
Overall I was impressed by the high level of interest in these matters on behalf of Africa’s thought leaders, as many of them are deeply experienced in both the scourge of military dictatorship and violence, but also fluent in post-conflict human rights, international law, and peace and reconciliation processes.
Offhand comparison between African and Asian experiences with democracy and military rule is not a fruitful pursuit: the two regions are fundamentally different in terms of development, culture, society, economy, size, and geopolitical advantage. What is worth looking into, however, is a comparative examination of the processes underway which drive many of these political events and often produce similar outcomes.
In Zimbabwe in particular there are a number of processes and striking parallels between the current conduct of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party, and the military, and events that were taking place under Mugabe’s early administration 7-9 years ago, before everything went off the rails. Early on in Mugabe’s rise, we observed 1) an outsourcing of political violence, 2) the creation of a repressive legalistic apparatus, and 3) an exhibition of a “terrorism algorithm” – an inverse relationship between the state’s level of democratic legitimacy and the need to taint opponents as terrorists.
Early on, from an organizational perspective, it was important for Mugabe to consolidate control over ZANU-PF and integrate key members of the military behind the scenes into the party apparatus, creating an exceptional status for the organization that elevated it above any other opposition party. Corruption in the party is widely met with impunity as a way to build discipline among the ranks, while the violence and intimidation is outsourced to a “non-official” entity.
Here was one of Mugabe’s key innovations that set Zimbabwe down a dangerous path. The recruitment of roving gangs of bandits, known as the “war veterans,” began in the late 1990s as an instrument to seize white-owned farms, but later transformed into a generalized armed wing of ZANU-PF, frequently showing up at opposition rallies to provoke violent confrontations, beating up protesters, election intimidation, and presenting a clear threat to anyone challenging the president. When opposition party MDC claimed electoral victory in 2008, the War Veterans announced that it was a “provocation against freedom fighters,” and unleashed a rampage of persecution to partially reverse the democratic choice of the majority. Often referred to as “Mugabe’s Shock Troops,” the War Veterans are a well-organized and abundantly funded militia, yet seemingly disassociated and non-officially tied to the ruling party.
In many respects, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in Thailand represents this same role as the War Veterans, acting as an extra-official armed wing on behalf of the Democrat Party. In numerous instances the organization has utilized violence, most notably in the extended forced occupation of the Government House, Suvarnabhumi and Phuket airports in 2008 (which was accompanied by numerous shootings captured on camera). The PAD leaders responsible for these crimes have never been addressed by the legal system – not one charge, prosecution, or jail sentence, or gesture of punishment, underscoring an arbitrary and exceptional status above the law. These types of systems of selective justice are very familiar to the War Veterans and their victims in Zimbabwe.
With ZANU-PF firmly under control and strengthened by the brute militia violence of the War Veterans, Mugabe set in place new legal mechanisms, including emergency powers, charged with managing repression campaigns in the name of national security. Established before independence, Zimbabwe’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) is the supreme organ to manage state security, and under Mugabe’s control, was transformed into a blunt weapon to manage the government’s repression campaigns. Mugabe and the JOC have become masterful in their abuse of treason legislation to jail the opposition supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and contain the electoral popularity of Morgan Tsvangirai and others.
This process is succinctly outlined in Phillip Barclay’s new book on Mugabe’s Zimbabwe:
“The mass arrests, torture and killing on 11 March marked the beginning of a concerted effort through the winter months of 2007 to detain leading MDC members. Forty were arrested in early April, and charged with conducting a terrorist campaign. There was a string of molotov-cocktail attacks after 11 March on three police stations, a passenger train, and a supermarket. The MDC denied any involvement, stressed its non-violent credentials, and suggested that the government was carrying out the attacks itself as a pretext for a crackdown.”
Thailand has experienced a similar process during the political crisis with the emergence and dramatic influence of the Committee for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), and is believed to have conducted itself in a similar manner to the JOC in the run up to clamp down. Under the aegis of repeatedly extended emergency powers, CRES has jailed hundreds of protesters without charges, unilaterally censored thousands of websites and media sources, and is believed to have been behind a number of strategic decisions in the handling of the protests which led to mass loss of life.
In terms of prosecutions against political opponents, Zimbabwe and Thailand are among the very few nations in the world to falsely charge their own citizens with terrorism for merely demanding the observation of their voting rights. It is a very significant development for these countries to pull the terrorism card – it sets their legal system apart from the rest of the developed world, illustrating clearly deficient rule of law, and resulting in a serious downgrade in relations with neighbors and allies.
And yet Thailand has no single Mugabe – no prime minister in history has been able to completely serve a full two terms in office, but it is rather a cabal of elites whose decisions have led Thailand down this path, exhibiting an all-too-familiar disdain for democratic institutions, social justice, and competitive elections. There is even speculation that Prime Minister Abhisit may be on the brink of resignation and the Democrat Party may dissolve, leaving a national unity government in place – but the elites behind the scenes are identical.
Zimbabwe is very far gone down the path of institutional destruction, but Thailand appears to only be beginning these steps. It’s not too late for the international community to stand firm on basic principles, and ask that Thailand fulfill its obligations under international law, release its political prisoners, investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the deaths of 90 people, and restore its institutional legitimacy through elections. If nothing changes, I fear that these similarities between Thailand and Zimbabwe will only deepen.