The new military rulers in Thailand are not beholden to history. In fact, as part of their social “reconciliation” process, they would prefer everyone forget history altogether.
The military's Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), set up 50 years ago to ostensibly root out communists, has now been charged with helping parties separated by the political divide to "dissolve their differences” at “reform centers."
It’s time for Thais to stop “dwelling on the past,” says ISOC spokesman Banphot Poonpien. People in the north and northeast, strongholds of the red shirts — not coincidentally, those are also the poorest parts of the country — “should forget about everything that happened before the May 22 coup.”
There's a lot of history that would be hard for people in those regions to forget. In the past eight years alone, the will of the majority of voters has been thwarted by two annulled polls, the removal of three prime ministers by the courts, two military coups, and two abolished constitutions. Perhaps hardest to forget of all is the military crackdown on red shirt protesters in April and May of 2010 that resulted in more than 90 deaths and thousands of injuries.
The military declared martial law in the wee hours of May 20, and even though rumors of a coup had been floating around for months, most people seemed taken by surprise. The military had called members of the government, the yellow alliance, the opposition, and the red shirts to a negotiation that lasted a few hours that day, and a few hours the next. But the negotiations came to an abrupt end after the mediator and head of the army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, roared, “I’m sorry. I have to seize the ruling power.”
Many of the negotiation participants assumed he was joking — until they were escorted by soldiers to waiting vehicles and whisked off to detention areas.
That set the brutish tone with which the military junta was to resolve conflicts in the coming days. At first it tried to preserve the veneer of legitimacy by merely suspending the constitution, leaving the senate in place. Six hours after it did so, the junta gave up those pretensions and abolished the constitution and the senate. The country was now a military dictatorship.
All radio and television stations were compelled to broadcast military marches and nationalistic songs for days, interrupted only by solemn announcements of new decrees and lists of people who were to report to the military to answer for their beliefs. Within days, 3,000 community radio stations were closed. CNN and BBC were blocked. Some normal programming was eventually allowed, but discussion of politics was made illegal. A curfew was declared everywhere from 10PM to 5AM.
The new junta issued its coup decrees as laws, then said anyone violating them was acting illegally. The only authority they claimed to have could be found at the ends of their guns.
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Many Thais rejected the coup and moved to show their opposition. What the military does not seem to understand is that somewhere along the way, the red shirts were transformed from a movement focusing on Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister overthrown in the 2006 coup, into one fighting for political enfranchisement. A seismic change among red shirts, and indeed in Thai society as a whole, has created perhaps the most widespread and profound political consciousness Thailand has ever seen. Thaksin, although a potent symbol, became secondary in the struggle for social and political justice.
Since the latest coup, the internet has been the only source of information for most in Thailand. Upcountry, red shirt leaders quickly went underground or crossed into neighboring countries. But sporadic protests in major cities were still reported. In one northeastern city, as many as six separate groups independently planned protests at a shopping mall within a two-hour period. Even with the intimidating presence of soldiers, some of the groups actually pulled them off.
During the 1976 coup, there was a clear enemy. This time, the enemy simply seems to be the majority of Thailand's population.
But those opposing the coup did not expect the military junta to go so far in suppressing opposition. Prachatai revealed that almost 400 politicians, journalists, artists, academics, and activists have officially been summoned by the military. Many more may have been summoned unofficially, especially upcountry. Detentions have ranged from an hour to more than a week. To be released, those summoned must sign a statement that they will wash their hands of politics and stop any anti-coup activities.
Those who don’t show up when summoned risk arrest and imprisonment for up to two years. Although the military claims to be neutral, the overwhelming majority of those summoned are red shirts, pro-Thaksin politicians, and pro-democracy activists.
The coup makers have tried to justify their actions by saying they needed to stop widespread conflict and violence. While they have refrained from naming red shirts as the enemy, they are indirectly doing so by focusing on people accused of lèse majesté, or insulting the monarchy. Suspects of the crime are almost exclusively red shirts and outspoken academics.
Protection of the monarchy served as rationale for past coup makers as well. Tanks traditionally rolled out in coups have been adorned by portraits of the king — though this time the photos were noticeably absent. Even so, the junta needs an enemy, and so it tries to conjure up a conspiracy against the monarchy; it is speeding up pending lèse majesté cases. Suspects are taken directly to a military court where they have no access to legal counsel, and where trials may be held in camera. There are no appeals.
Even as the military relies on threats to silence opponents, it's attempting to get its own message to the outside world. At first, coup leaders thought that they could persuade Facebook, Google, and Line to suppress opposition statements. It has asked the international community to understand that the junta has “clear evidence and strong reasons” for its actions. Those reasons resemble the ones the military gave after its 2006 coup — that while the military supports democracy, it has been “under democratic principles” that “both individuals and groups had caused a loss of life and damage many times.”
The military's argument that it must therefore suppress freedom of expression is utter nonsense.
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That kind of suppression actually harkens back not to the coups of 2006 or 1991, but rather to the 1976 coup, when the penalty for lèse majesté was increased to a maximum of 15 years in prison per count, and when thousands fled into the countryside to join the communist insurgency. Then, there was a clear enemy. This time, the enemy simply seems to be the majority of Thailand's population.
But this coup might actually be most closely compared to 1958's, when all vestiges of democracy were eliminated and normal rule of law was completely suspended. Now, a man sitting alone yells again and again that he is ashamed of Thailand, and soldiers swarm him and try to lead him away. A lone woman wears a mask with the word “People” on it, and she is taken away. A foreigner buys a t-shirt that says “Peace Please” and is whisked off by the military.
Expression of the words democracy, freedom, elections, and peace have been made illegal.
On Sunday, protesters adopted the Hunger Games three-finger salute. One group’s members protest by sitting down in public places and reading books on freedom of speech. In response, the panicked coup leaders deploy thousands of troops throughout Bangkok.
And every day, more and people believing in democracy and human rights are being marched off to detention centers or prisons. Foreign governments have of course condemned the coup — retired US Congressman Barney Frank wrote on Sunday that “basic democratic values are more explicitly violated” in Thailand than in any other country — but it's unclear whether the international community is truly aware of the gravity of the situation.
The military junta has asked for “more time to think.” In the meantime, it is silencing all opposition and closing Thailand off from the world.
Follow David Streckfuss on Twitter: @dstreckfuss