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Thailand: Yingluck Shinawatra's government lines up with the military

Protesters gather outside the criminal court in Bangkok December 9, 2011. Protesters wore masks and hold pictures of Amphon Tangnoppaku, dubbed "Uncle SMS", outside the court protesting after he was jailed for 20 years last month for sending text messages deemed to have disparaged Thailand's Queen Sirikit. Photo by Damir Sagolj/Reuters.

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

December 11, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Since the July 2011 election we have seen Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai party government and the conservative elites move towards a settlement in the interests of the elites and at the expense of democracy and human rights.

This is a serious betrayal of the Red Shirts who fought and sacrificed for democracy over the last few years. In many ways this “sell-out” by the Yingluck government was hardly surprising. The vast majority of Pheu Thai politicians are not at all radical. Most never took part in the Red Shirt protests. Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party always made it clear that they were royalists as well.

Lèse majesté

If we look at the use of the lèse majesté law (which outlaws "insulting' the Thailand's monarchy), the government’s record of abusing freedom of speech is just as bad as the previous government of the  military-backed Democrat Party. The minister for information technology and communication, Anudit Nakorntup, has shown himself to be a rabid royalist censor, threatening Facebook users who so much as click “like” in response to a post deemed by the military to be insulting to the monarchy.

Worse still, deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung has been appointed as “lèse majesté supremo” to hunt down dissenters. Chalerm is known as an unsavoury gangster politician. His son murdered a policeman in a bar brawl a few years ago and Chalerm used his influence to get the charges dropped. There are unconfirmed rumours that Chalerm made his millions as a drug trader.

In the last month or so we have seen the disgraceful case of “Aa-Kong” or Umpon (Amphon Tangnoppaku, a 61-year-old shoe maker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail on lèse majesté charges for supposedly sending an SMS message. Those who have talked to him believe that he is incapable of sending SMS messages and his mobile phone was being repaired at the time the “offence” was supposed to have taken place.

We have also seen Jo Gordon, a US citizen, sentenced to two and a half years in jail for posting a Thai translation of the Yale University Press book The King Never Smiles on the internet.

Then there is the case of university lecturer Surapot Taweesuk, who is accused of  lèse majesté for writing philosophical articles on the Prachatai website.

Most lèse majesté prisoners awaiting trial, like Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Surachai Darnwattananusorn, are routinely refused bail. Recently Red Shirt leader Arisaman Pondruangrong re-entered Thailand and gave himself up to police, thinking that he would be bailed under the “reconciliation project”. He was promptly jailed and refused bail. ‘Da Torpedo’ and many others like "Red Eagle" are still in jail because of lèse majesté. They suffer terrible conditions.

Military

The Pheu Thai government’s defence of lèse majesté shows that it is prepared to accept the continuing influence of the military in politics and hopes that the military and royalists will stop accusing Thaksin and Pheu Thai of being against the monarchy.

Even the United Nations Human Rights Office has called for the cessation of the use of lèse majesté because it is having such a bad effect on freedom of expression in Thailand.

Army chief General Prayut Junocha previously campaigned openly against Pheu Thai in the run up to the election. By most democratic standards he ought to have been dismissed, but he is still in post. The government also given the go-ahead for middle-ranking officers from the Burapa Payak group, who were directly involved with the sniper shootings of unarmed Red Shirts, to be rewarded with promotions. Prime Minister Yingluck also went out of her way to be seen touring flood-affected areas alongside General Prayut.

Elite settlement

The “settlement” with the elites means that it will be harder to bring to justice those who were responsible for ordering the killings of civilians in 2010. The key perpetrators are former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, General Prayut Junocha, Sutep Tuagsuban and General Anupong Paojinda. This is a very important issue for the Red Shirts and for establishing standards of human rights. Recently, when questioned by police, Abhisit arrogantly said that his government had shown “tolerance” in dealing with the Red Shirt protests. In fact, his government deployed armed soldiers, tanks and snipers to shoot down unarmed civilians, reporters and paramedics. Abhisit and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must have shared the same finishing school!

The Pheu Thai government is well aware that if the Thai cabinet merely accepted the exercise of jurisdiction by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with respect to the crime of killing civilians last year, the ICC would be able to investigate the matter and possibly start proceedings against Abhisit and others. Yet the government is doing nothing.

It is also refusing to ratify the Rome Statute, which would help bring cases against any future state criminals. Instead there has been talk, by people like Chalerm Yubamrung and others, of a general amnesty, which would whitewash the politicians and army generals who have blood on their hands. Naturally Thaksin is against the use of the ICC in Thailand because it might backfire on his responsibility for massacres in the south in 2004.

Taken alongside the increased use of lèse majesté, we can see that the “settlement” with the elites is more than anything a settlement with the military. It is not about some deal with the weak willed and infirm king, who has never exercised any power independent of the military. The appointment of a military officer, with a dubious background in human rights, to the post of defence minister, also shows that the government has no intention of creating a culture in which elected civilians control the military. There is also no attempt to cut the military budget or remove them from control of the mass media.

The position of some Red Shirt UDD leaders is also extremely worrying. Tida Tawornset prefers lobbying those in power, in order to get political prisoners moved to a more comfortable “political jail”, than mobilising the Red Shirt movement to demand the release of all political prisoners. She talks vaguely about changing the constitution, while refusing to talk about lèse majesté or even concrete steps to implement the “Nitirat” proposals to scrap the legal legacy of the 2006 coup.

Earlier, Sombat Boonngarmanong, Natawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan all called for Red Shirts to be patient and to support “the people’s government”. Jatuporn himself is now facing disqualification as an elected MP by the royalist-denominated Electoral Commission (EC). The technicality used as an excuse for this disqualification is clearly motivated by political considerations. Yet he has called for calm. At the same time, the EC has never questioned the eligibility of General Sonti Boonyagarin, coup leader from 2006, to sit in parliament as an elected MP! The end result of all this is that the Red Shirt UDD leaders are trying to de-mobilise the movement.

Without activity the Red Shirts will wither away.

Progressive Red Shirts must organise independently of the government and the Red Shirt UDD leadership in order to campaign for the abolition of lèse majesté, the release of political prisoners and the bringing to justice those responsible for state crimes.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His latest book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at http://redthaisocialist.com/.]  

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