My latest op/ed in Foreign Policy Journal explores some of the similarities between Thailand and Guatemala’s experience with coups, and the subsequent struggle to achieve historical memory.
The topic of historical memory has long been a core theme among many Red Shirt groups, and it’s a issue of vital importance to many countries which have experienced tragedy and civil war. But specifically, the comparative case with Guatemala that has struck my attention for its similarity to Thailand in recent days while reading the excellent book “Paper Cadavers” by the Canadian academic Kirsten Weld.
On the surface, there is very little that connects the tiny Central American republic of 15 million to the Southeast Asian juggernaut of 67 million people, with completely different societies, economies, and political systems. But what Guatemala and Thailand share is fascinating: a common history of repeated, violent military coups and heavy U.S. involvement as a result of the Cold War, creating a lingering distortion in each nation’s political culture.
Many passages from Weld’s book are chillingly applicable to today’s Thailand.
As part of her research examining the secret archives of Guatemala’s military dictatorship, she came across a former guerilla named Gustavo Meoño, who for a time served as the director of the archives. According to Weld:
“Meoño’s postwar objectives included the recovery of what he called ‘democratic memory’ – a focus on the history of political struggle, rescuing and restoring the stories of those who had resisted dictatorship, even if their alternative visions had failed or been flawed in their execution. Without protecting this ‘democratic memory,’ Meoño believed, Guatemala would never construct a democratic national identity; instead it would continue to criminalize those who fought for the right to think differently, discouraging future youth from politics and leadership. ‘The idea of the rights to memory, truth, and justice is not an issue of the left or of the right,’ he argued. ‘It’s an issue of fundamental human rights, independent of ideology or political militancy.’”
According to reports published in the Thai media, the military junta administration is considering “action” against me in retaliation for public statements, and may seek to “block” communications by shutting down access to websites, among other measures to be pursued via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
These threats come at the same time that many others, including journalists, activists, and civil society leaders, are being called before the junta for interrogations, while hundreds remain detained without rights.
We should ask ourselves what this kind of conduct means. What does this say about the Thai junta that they so fear what people might say, and have to resort to fear and threats to shore up their support? This determination to control information is the defining characteristic of dictatorship, and stands as the clearest evidence why the coup must be dissolved and democratic civilian authority must be restored.
The military coup overseen by Gen. Prayuth has no constitutional authority and no legitimacy to issue these sorts of accusations. They have behaved in a criminal manner by illegally seizing power, and these efforts to chill free speech show a fundamental lack of confidence in their own status.
I reject any suggestion that my public statements have any bearing on “incitement.” The Thai people have the right to question the unlawful actions of an unelected military dictatorship, and they have the right to peacefully oppose the theft of their country by the military. If the act of voicing opposition to the coup and calling for the immediate restoration of civilian rule represents an offence, the junta would also have to pursue action against a wide range of diplomatic figures.
Given the majority of our communications take place on Facebook and Twitter, for the junta to shut down complete access to these websites would place it among the world’s most repressive, criminal governments. It would also confirm the total bankruptcy of their legitimacy among the people of Thailand.
Most importantly, these threats will not work. We will not be silenced, and we will not go away. Instead we have to find ways to work together to achieve peaceful resolution and a return to democracy.
It is for this reason we are committed to providing counsel and support to the legitimate government in exile, in order to ensure that one day peace and democracy are restored to Thailand.
It would be an understatement to say the last few days have been very difficult for you. After enduring several months of attacks on the democracy you value so highly, the Thai Army finally showed their hand and decided to join with those opposed to a Thailand based on civil and political equality.
There is no doubt that the Army’s actions have been both illegal and criminal. Their seizure of power, their taking your leaders and their family members hostage and their suppression of any dissenting voices only reveals them as little more than gangsters attempting to strong-arm an entire nation.
In the days before the Army embarked on their illegal course of action, UDD leader Jatuporn Prompan asked me to act on his behalf should he be seized by the Thai Army. In light of that, and as we write this letter, steps are now being undertaken to re-form a coherent UDD and Red Shirt leadership outside of Thailand. In the interim we will begin the process of seeking legal, international sanctions against the leaders of the Thai Army’s illegal putsch. General Prayuth and his mafia cabal are hereby put on notice – you will be held to account.
We will also do all we can to find out how those already taken hostage by the Army are being treated. Unconfirmed sources are already alleging mistreatment of your leaders and we demand that the Army allow legal representation and the Red Cross access to their prison camps.
We would also ask you to take photographs and video and prepare testimonies and accounts of any Thai Army activity and send them to email@example.com. Such evidence could prove essential in building our case against the Thai Army – all sources will, of course, remain anonymous.
In the meanwhile we would ask that all pro-democracy activists, Red Shirts and those committed to returning Thailand to civilian and legally mandated rule remain peaceful. The Army may attempt to unleash a “strategy of tension” in the days to come – something which could include terrorist actions – and Red Shirts must do their utmost to stay disciplined, calm and focused.
Yours in solidarity and fraternity
Lawyer Robert Amsterdam appears on CNBC to speak about the political crisis in Thailand, where he says that the elites have manipulated the constitutional court and electoral commission in an attempt to impose an unelected authoritarian government.
In light of the recent brutal attacks against journalists in Thailand, including the beating of German photojournalist Nick Nostitz, we must again reiterate that the safety of the men and women working to gather information for media during these crucial moments must be protected, no matter what the political orientation of their platform.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) has released a very powerful statement on these recent events, which I attach in full below.
The professional membership of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand condemns another aggressive incident involving a journalist and unofficial security personnel belonging to a political faction.
In the wider context of the current political strife, there have been incidents of both torture and murder involving non-journalists. Violence against any individual is illegal. Harassment of the media is unconstitutional and hinders objective coverage of a complex and evolving political situation. It also distracts attention from issues of public interest.
The purpose of this White Paper is to alert the international community to an ongoing assault on democracy and the rule of law in Thailand, carried out by a coalition that includes members of the military, the courts, the public administration, the business world, the Democrat Party, among others. Further, it calls on the international community to throw its full-throated support behind the Yingluck government, aiding in its efforts to protect Thailand’s civilian population against the denial of its right to self-determination and against the imminent prospect of widespread violence.
As detailed in the report, the arbitrary and discriminatory administration of justice in pursuit of an anti-democratic agenda is at the center of Thailand’s political instability.
The continuing breakdown in the rule of law can be directly attributed to the abolishment of the democratic “People’s Constitution” of 1997 and its replacement with the “Coup Constitution” of 2007, which perpetuates restrictions to democratic rule by giving the judiciary and the bureaucracy the power to alter the results of freely conducted elections and to interfere in the activities of the legislative and executive branches.
The likely removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the hands of the upper house, the courts, or the military, based on either the misapplication or nonobservance of the law, is almost sure to be followed by violence on a scale never before seen. This places the civilian population in Bangkok and in provinces where the government is strongly supported at an extreme risk of murder, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture, for which the PDRC already has a long track record.
In the long run, hopes for a durable peace in Thailand rest on the abolishment of the 2007 “Coup Constitution” and either the reinstatement of the 1997 “People’s Constitution” or the introduction of a new Constitution consistent with basic procedural and substantive requirements of democracy.
In the short run, however, the international community must act to defend Thailand’s beleaguered democracy based on its Responsibility to Protect. Further, if an individual state is failing in its duty, the concept of Responsibility to Protect calls upon the international community to take collective action within the framework of the UN Charter.
Protecting innocent civilians from brutal slaughter is no simple task in Thailand, as doing so requires breaking a cycle of lawless coups and killings that dates back decades. Now that the same groups responsible for this cycle of impunity are using every conceivable method to remove a duly elected government and destroy democracy, the international community must act to defend the lives and freedoms of the Thai civilian population from imminent danger. It should do so by coming to the aid and support of the Yingluck government, as it stands up to a coalition that has acted illegally and with such impunity for so long that it is simply blind to any semblance of the rule of law.
In the last few days Thailand’s UDD Red Shirt movement appointed a new leader – the combative, energetic and principled, Jatuporn Promphan. Long a thorn in the side of the Thai establishment, Jatuporn exemplifies the struggle to secure Thailand’s democracy and his appointment marks a shift to a more assertive position for the UDD/Red Shirts.
As expected it didn’t take long for Thailand’s military chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, to respond to Jatuporn’s appointment.
Prayuth, a figure noted for his thin-skinned responses to any criticism, attacked Jatuporn for being “rude” and lacking “honor”. General Prayuth then told the hastily convened press conference that he “won’t be talking” to Jatuporn. Some might believe that Prayuth’s comments are not really befitting a respected, senior military leader. However, such tone is very much in keeping with Prayuth’s often amateurish yet sometimes sinister comments.
Like much of the rest of Thailand’s military, Prayuth has never seen or taken part in combat. The main target of the leadership of the Thai Army is Thailand’s own population, a group for whom it seems to have very little respect, despite this population funding the military’s existence.
Threats towards civilian rule, threats of violence and threats to the safety and well-being of Thai democracy are all part of Prayuth’s mindset.
Just don’t be “rude” to him. Otherwise he’ll get really upset.
There is something deeply sinister about the legal moves of Thailand’s Election Commission and Army over the last 24hours.
Both are engaging in a process to suppress views they consider counter to the power of Thailand’s shadowy “Deep State” and both are stepping far beyond what would be considered the internationally accepted norms for democratic and civilian governance.
On the one hand the Thai Army are filing criminal charges against those they suspect of allegedly daringly to voice any kind of regional aspirations - however weakly formed and incoherent those aspirations may yet be. What must not be forgotten is that the millions of ordinary voters that live in Thailand’s regions have seen their legitimately elected leaders removed, illegally, time after time. The only persons engaged, at present, in a “separation” process are the Thai Army generals, Suthep and Abhisit’s thugs on Bangkok’s streets and other unaccountable and anti-democratic elements in Thailand’s Deep State who seek to overthrow the entirely legitimate civilian government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra.
It is simply incredible to witness the Thai Army setting up “monitoring” units, dedicated to launching legal and extra-legal campaigns, against the very Thai taxpayers that fund the Army itself. So intolerant has the Thai Army become that the target of its military might is not a viable external threat but the opinions of the very population it is mandated to protect. It is clear that the Army is now deeply politicised and engaged directly in political repression.
Alongside the Army’s moves the Election Commission (EC) has also deemed that its new role is to engage in suppressing the legitimate political views of the Thai population it is meant to serve.
Stepping far beyond its brief to be an independent, neutral civil service body designed only to organise Thai elections, the EC has set-up “cyber monitoring” groups to track down the views of ordinary Thais that it considers “criminal”.
Many in Thailand have been critical of the EC, citing their poor handling of this year’s General Election, their seeming sympathy for Suthep’s anti-democratic PDRC movement and the EC’s failure to deliver a coherent election process.
The EC’s reaction to this negative criticism has been to “monitor” social media, with the result being that they’ve filed criminal charges against 688 persons whose views they deem as “defamatory accusations”. By intervening in this heavy-handed, discriminatory and politicised manner, the EC are now part of the tools of repression enacted and utilised by Thailand’s Deep State against ordinary Thai citizens.
The combined efforts of both the EC and the Thai Army now point towards yet greater threats to Thailand’s democracy and its stability. Their actions attack the most basic political rights of Thais and are affront to international accepted norms of a properly accountable civilian government.
General Prayuth and the Thai Army’s furious response to my recent oped, Life Under A Coup, is typical of a mindset that refuses any notion of democratic accountability or civilian control. That he missed the glaring irony of denying involvement in Thailand’s civil governance whilst unilaterally threatening to bar a critic from the country adds to Prayuth’s image of operating beyond the reach of ordinary, legally sanctioned jurisdiction. It seems as though just speaking the truth to Thailand’s military elicits only threats and venom from them. By such methods – backed up with the constant menace of implied and actual violence – the Thai Army have sustained an atmosphere of fear and loathing in Thailand.
This careful cultivation of fear – built, most recently, upon the corpses of unarmed Thai civilians who died during the 2010 Bangkok Massacre – has now reached such a level of intimidation that only a few voices remain who will confront the Thai Army’s malfeasance openly and directly.
The international and diplomatic community have remained almost silent as the Thai Army have racked up the tension in Bangkok – this taciturn approach is made even more remarkable given the Thai Army’s unparalleled appetite for coup. Well-known and widely respected human rights NGOs, many of whom have regional HQs in Bangkok, seem almost willfully silent as Prayuth rolls his tanks into Bangkok, and verbally admonishes Thailand’s popular and democratically-elected leaders. Much of the international press and media corps in Bangkok may privately express views considered adverse to the Thai Army but almost none would dare make any public comment against them and instead choose targets that are unable to project similar power and force.
One only has to look back over the last 80years of Thai history to see the role the Thai Army has played in destabilizing democracy. As stated in Life Under A Coup, Prayuth’s charges have never defended a democratically elected government and always sided with those who view ordinary Thais as less than equal.
For the entire range of international voices – from NGOs and the press through to Bangkok’s diplomatic community – to remain silent in the face of the Thai Army’s recent conduct offers a case study in genuflection. Where are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others? Where are the truth-seekers of the international press, determined to hold power to account? The simple fact they are not singled out by Prayuth for attack – despite the mountains of evidence that implicate the Thai Army – reveals their failings. It is time for them to step up to the plate.
The Thai Army have a long and ignoble tradition of stymying democracy, attacking Thai civilians and meddling in politics. When it has suited their interests – as it did during the Bangkok Massacre in 2010 when they acted without hesitation to support the Abhist Vejjajiva-led regime, despite that regime having no meaningful democratic mandate – they have proved willing and able actors, sending their snipers to kill unarmed civilians and creating “live fire zones” to project their power. That the projection of this power is always used to attack democracy is an undeniable historical fact. The numerous coups that have enforced the suspension of Thai citizens’ political and democratic rights have become such a natural occurrence that the constant threat of coup now seems to be an accepted part of Thailand’s political life.
Conversely, when called upon by democratically-elected Thai governments to help defend the political rights of the country’s citizens the Thai Army routinely go missing. Their sordid cast of generals (there are literally 100s of “generals” of different rank supposedly serving in the Thai Army) and Army chiefs then appear at press conferences, making veiled threats to Thailand’s elected lawmakers and rather pathetic mealy-mouthed excuses about why they cannot be under accountable, democratic civilian control and why they must maintain “neutrality”. Of course “neutral”, in the Thai context, means that you tacitly and explicitly accept anti-democratic forces as a given, natural part of the political discourse. Neutrality, in this instance, is a non-existent opportunistic chimera created purely to divert a proper analysis of the real conditions within which the Thai Army operate.
The result of this military-inspired process of coups, massacres and inaction is that Thai democracy remains on thin, ill-formed ice, ready to crack and unable to sustain the struggles and debates associated with a healthy body politic. Therefore Abhisit’s undemocratic regime was able to impose itself on an unwilling Thai public through the use of Army-organised violence whilst in recent weeks a democratically-elected and popular government has to dissolve itself in an attempt to stall possible Army intervention to overthrow it. With every cycle of this process Thai democracy weakens. How much longer will it be before an even more severe crisis requires the immediate attention of an international community that has armed and supported Thailand’s Army for decades?
What is clear is that until the Thai Army is brought under lawful, accountable, democratic and civilian control it will act as a force hindering Thailand’s struggling – yet burgeoning – democracy.