Political conflict inevitably produces political prisoners. In this respect Thailand is no different. Those incarcerated in Thailand’s prisons for acts connected to their political beliefs are as much victims of upheaval as the grieving relatives of the dead of April/May 2010.
Another inevitability for those seeking to settle political conflict is the release of such rank and file political prisoners. An amnesty granted to similar who are awaiting trial or who are on the run must also be established. Yet, at this stage in Thailand’s ongoing process of political settlement and stabilisation, the release of these prisoners hasn’t taken on the significance it should. For anyone committed to a full restoration of ordinary Thais’ democratic rights this is simply unacceptable. It is my firm belief that the release of the rank and file Red Shirts and the lese majeste prisoners must be a priority for the government. To ignore this pressing issue will only alienate a key element of the Pheu Thai leadership’s support.
I very much enjoyed this post over at Political Prisoners in Thailand. I was similarly befuddled by how completely out of touch the Economist has become with the reality of politics on the ground in Thailand.
While acknowledging the birthday bash, the newspaper seems to want to portray Thailand as revolving around the aged king and Thaksin Shinawatra and views recent politics as being about Thaksin’s failed attempts to return home, noting that his exile has gone from “a temporary inconvenience has taken on an air of semi-permanency.” Its essential argument is that:
Since his younger sister, Yingluck, led their Pheu Thai party to a thumping win in the general election in July 2011, the government has explored just about every avenue to get Mr Thaksin back without having to serve the two-year jail term for corruption to which he was sentenced four years ago. Legislative attempts to revoke the charges, which he maintains were politically motivated, have got nowhere, as have attempts to win a royal pardon. Proposals for a general amnesty for all those involved in the political confrontations after 2006 have run into a constitutional brick wall.
Not only has the ceaseless plotting on Mr Thaksin’s behalf proved fruitless, it has also been damaging to the government of his sister. During her election campaign, Ms Yingluck promised “unity and reconciliation”, a sensible attempt to woo voters who were tired of continuous clashes between Mr Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters and his “yellow shirt” opponents. But the blatant efforts to rewrite the law and tamper with the constitution chiefly for Mr Thaksin’s benefit have undermined that promise and inflamed his old adversaries.
This account fudges recent history and politics. Puea Thai didn’t particularly need to woo voters with talk of reconciliation as the party was always going to win the election and had plenty of other policies that were attractive for voters. In addition, Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party, which campaigned on a kind of anti-reconciliation platform, were tainted by the manner in which they came to power and by the violent crackdowns on red shirts in 2009 and 2010. For many red shirts, reconciliation was also about justice and accountability (and they are looking carefully at how the prosecution of Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban is handled).
Importantly, far from the Democrat Party-royalist view that everything is about absolving Thaksin, the Yingluck-Thaksin team has backed away from bringing Thaksin home, from legal changes and from constitutional change (although the latter is now back on the agenda). The strategy has been, according to Duncan McCargo, to cool political tensions. Kevin Hewison has recently made similar claims in a recent article at Political Insight. He says that:
royalist and yellow shirt opponents have been sniping at the government for alleged corruption, disloyalty to the monarchy, supporting red shirt ‘terrorists’ and for being at Thaksin’s beck and call, but none of this has destabilised the government. This rapid political cooling has been possible because Yingluck and her brother Thaksin have recognised that, in government, their political aims are more likely to be achieved through compromise, cooling radical demands and reducing opposition from the military, judiciary and monarchy.
McCargo says: “Once seen a stopgap tasked only with preparing the ground for her brother’s imminent return, an extended term of office for Yingluck Shinawatra now looks increasingly probable.” Indeed, compared with the period of the Abhisit regime, politics has cooled (perhaps temporarily).
Until the Pitak Siam “brief war,” the current government while trying to promote elements of its electoral platform, had done its best to avoid confrontations with the aim of staying in power and getting re-elected. Even the Pitak Siam kerfuffle was handled in a way that reduced the possibility of mass mobilization of opponents. The Economist seems to miss this essential point and suggest quite the opposite.
Predicting that the number one priority in Pitak Siam’s November 24 demonstration was to spark violence did not require sophisticated forecasting skills. Given the strength of the government’s majority in parliament, an incident of some kind was needed, whether to provide the military with an excuse to stage a coup or to generate additional support to escalate Pitak Siam’s activities. What could not be so easily predicted is that the demonstration would fail so miserably. The day started off badly for Pitak Siam, which despite the great fanfare was only able to get 20,000 people at most to show up at its rally. The pathetic turnout forced desperate leaders to play the violence card early, in fact so early and so blatantly as to completely discredit themselves. Less predictable of all was that the often maligned Royal Thai Police would act with such professionalism and restraint, resisting to provocations while refusing to cede ground to the demonstrators.
The biggest loser from yesterday’s failed rally/coup was the former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party. The response of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government was proportional and reasonable. In other words, when a government has been elected and can be removed in the next vote, they tend to take greater care toward their citizens. Compared with the brutality of the last government in the 2010 massacres, this is a big step forward for the country. But of course, protecting electoral democracy in Thailand is far from over. Preventing the return of coups will require vigilance, patience, and active focus to keep the destructive, retroactive forces in the country at bay.
Below is some coverage from Bloomberg:
Thai anti-government forces called off a rally yesterday aimed at toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra because of a poor turnout after clashes left two police officers in critical condition.
“I quit,” Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired general leading the demonstration, said in an interview after he called off the rally. “I told the truth. I needed a million people, but we were interrupted when police fired tear gas and blocked people from coming.”
Very interesting article by Pavin Chachavalpongpun in Asia Sentinel about how the United States has traditionally relied upon relations with a thin layer of royalist elites in Thailand rather than the burgeoning pro-democracy movement and working class among the Red Shirts. During his visit to Asia, it’s time for President Barack Obama to update his Thailand policy.
In the meantime, the US has been rather quiet even when the Thai domestic situation turned violent, particularly in the past few years. Why has the US failed to promote democratization in Thailand?
The answer is that the American perception of the current power struggle in Thailand is strictly constrained by an old, obsolete structure in which Thai-US relations have been shaped and dominated by the effective military-monarchy partnership and the various American interests in the maintenance of such a partnership. As a result, the US has appeared to adopt a stance of support for establishment forces at the expense of a serious advocacy of the pro-democracy agenda of the Red Shirt movement, known principally as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul is on the verge of signing a document that might change the course of Thai history. Following a visit to Bangkok by officials from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the government is now considering whether to issue a declaration that would give the ICC jurisdiction over crimes against humanity committed in Thailand in April and May 2010 (see here for an explanation of the process). This could be a major turning point in Thailand’s eighty-year struggle for democracy.
As the Foreign Minister has stated, giving the ICC jurisdiction over the abuses committed in 2010 can help ensure that the victims, having already been deprived of their lives, their rights, their freedoms, or their family members, will not be denied justice, as the victims of state violence always have in the past. Unlike the massacres of 1973, 1976, and 1992, there is now a real possibility that the deadly government crackdowns of April and May 2010 will be properly investigated, and that those responsible for committing crimes will be held to account.
Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Surapong Tovichakchaikul is to meet with the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, today to discuss the possibility of opening an investigation into the protests of April-May 2010.
Below are answers to frequently asked questions about the possibility of Thailand extending jurisdiction to the ICC.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Question: What is the ICC and why is the prosecutor in Thailand?
Answer: The ICC is located in The Hague. The ICC is established by a treaty known as the Rome Statute of the ICC. One hundred twenty-one countries have joined the treaty. Thailand has signed, but not ratified the Rome Statute. Thailand is therefore not a party to the treaty.
UDD lawyer Robert Amsterdam filed an application with the Prosecutor of the ICC on January 30 2011, requesting a preliminary investigation into the protests that occurred in Thailand between April-May 2010, where 98 civilians were killed and thousands injured.
The application alleges that crimes against humanity were committed against civilian protesters. Although the ICC has jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, only crimes against humanity are alleged in the application relating to Thailand. There is no basis to allege genocide or war crimes.
On Saturday, in torrential monsoon rains, thousands of Red Shirts gathered in Bangkok to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the 2006 military coup that illegally ousted Thailand’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Red Shirt leaders, Robert Amsterdam, and PM Thaksin (via a webcast) delivered a resounding message that the military coup is still in effect.
Amsterdam asserted that:
“The Coup is not over. This government is not free, nor can it be democratic when institutions in this country have a veto over its ability to function.”
In her speech at the rally, UDD Chairwoman, Thida Thavornseth argued that since 1932 there have been 18 military coups – that’s one coup almost every four years.
She also maintained that despite democratic elections in 2011, Thailand is still living under the conditions of a coup, the difference being that:
“Instead of the military, the judiciary is now the instrument of choice”
UDD leader Jatuporn Prompan also spoke to the crowd:
“In Thailand, a coup can happen at any time. This is not a true democracy, when people suffer and must stop working to protest, and must pay the price with their lives.”
He also reaffirmed the UDD’s commitment to a democratic Constitution, saying that:
“We must amend the Constitution so that everybody in the country has equal rights.”
One thing is for sure, the Red Shirts are dedicated to the cause. An estimated number of 8,000 Thais attended the rally which lasted for eleven hours on Saturday.