Thai Lockdown of Liberties Worsens

If anybody thought Thai coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s announcement that he will lift martial law in the country means he intends to lighten up, they are wrong. He intends to replace martial law with one that maintains the military’s powers and, critics say, even expands them.

The lockdown of the country is already so severe that many observers fear it will eventually lead to an explosion of popular sentiment, as has happened with previous coups, particularly one in 1992 that resulted in scores of deaths before the military was forced back to the barracks.

The extent is numbing. According to one source, the military has established five committees to monitor all media content, including international outlets, and to report offenders to military leaders daily. All six television major stations and 525 radio frequencies are under constant threat of being closed. Any coverage of politics is out.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of offending websites have been closed or blocked if originating from overseas. By one count, 219 sites were blocked during May last year, when the coup took place. The police offer a US$15 bounty for internet users to inform on friends and co-workers who post anti-coup comments. Last week Prayuth threatened journalists with closing them down, arresting them or ordering them to be shot, which may have been in jest but which kicked off widespread local and international criticism.

Prayuth, the former army chief who took power in May of 2014 with a coup and subsequently named himself Prime Minister, said he would replace martial law with Article 44 of the interim constitution completed last July.

According to the official translated language, the measure “empowers the leader of the National Council for Peace and Order” – Prayuth himself – to issue any order "for the sake of the reforms in any field, the promotion of love and harmony amongst the people in the nation, or the prevention, abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security, royal throne, national economy or public administration, whether the act occurs inside or outside the kingdom."

The orders as issued are all deemed "lawful, constitutional and final" in advance. In a word, that empowers the former general to arrest anybody he wants, and to come up with the reasons to do it by citing his own version of the risk to national security, not only in the country but anywhere on the planet that he presumably could reach. Thailand has asked several nations including Japan and the United States to extradite critics of the regime, but has been rebuffed.

“Article 44 will be even more draconian,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai former diplomat and academic who has gone into exile in Japan in the face of lese majeste charges, or insulting the royal family. The Thai foreign office tried unsuccessfully to get the Japanese government to send him back. “It is difficult to understand the mentality of the military,” he said. “Surely the abolition of the martial law was driven by international pressure. Perhaps they think they can fool the international audience in abolishing it so that could mean Thailand will appear freer. Once Article 44 is in full flower, the West will put more pressure on the regime. Then we will know disaster is waiting for them.”

Pheu Thai, the democratically elected party that Prayuth ousted after months of demonstrations manufactured by royalists and Bangkok elites, tried Tuesday to talk the government out of invoking the article, warning that its impact on tourism and investment could be even worse than martial law.

Pheu Thai’s former leader, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is to be tried for her role in overseeing a disastrous rice-subsidy program that is said to have cost the government billions of dollars. The still-popular Yingluck has already been impeached by a parliament that she never led. Sources in Bangkok have theorized that the government’s aim is to induce her to flee the country, as her brother, former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra, was forced to do in 2008 ahead of charges of tax evasion, lese majeste and concealing his wealth.

“General Prayuth’s activation of constitution section 44 will mark Thailand’s deepening descent into dictatorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch. “Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers.”

Prayuth told reporters that once martial law is lifted it will be replaced with Article 44 of the interim constitution. “We are now waiting for the king to royally approve the disuse of martial law,” Prayuth said. “We have prepared Article 44 and will use it soon.”

The use of military tribunals, which the junta put in place to replace civilian courts three days after seizing power, has resulted in hundreds of people being called in and sent for trial including opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and others accused of supporting Pheu Thai, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities.

“General Prayuth’s action to tighten rather than loosen his grip on power puts the restoration of democratic civilian rule further into the future,” Human Rights Watch’s Adams said. “Concerted pressure from Thailand’s allies is urgently needed to reverse this dangerous course.”

Thailand’s economy is starting to take a beating from the crackdown. Indeed, the apparent dropping of martial law, according to Puangthong Pawakapan, an international relations professor at Chulalongkorn University, “is aimed at reducing pressure from the local business sector and international community. In recent months, the business sector has started to voice their worries over economic stagnation and dissatisfaction with the government's poor performance. Lifting martial law will at least help boost up the tourism industry. The presence of martial law concerns foreign investors as it has increased business risk due insurance coverage.”

Tourism, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of GDP, is up – or was, until the International Civil Aviation Organization cited “significant safety concerns,” forcing three budget carriers and the national flag carrier Thai Airways to cancel flights.

Economic growth, predicted at 3.6 percent to 4 percent, while positive, has been trending down and looks like continuing to do so. The junta’s purge of all SOE chiefs and technocrats suspected of being involved in corruption – and in many cases replacing them with their own corrupt officials – has slowed public spending as projects are delayed and funds are not disbursed. Less than 10 percent of budgeted spending was disbursed in the fourth quarter of 2014.

A plan to reform the property tax apparently has been botched, falling harder on the poor than on the well-to-do and falling not at all on the Crown Property Bureau, the plaything of the royalty and the richest entity in the country.

“The military has no clue,” a Thai banker told Asia Sentinel.” They chose the old-guard finance minister [Sommai Phasee], he’s pretty corrupt, he isn’t doing anything meaningful. There are a lot of voices rising concerning getting the economy moving. It doesn’t look good.”