Thailand’s Junta Grinds Exceeding Fine

Army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha presented Thailand’s 2015 budget to his handpicked National Legislative Assembly on Monday, 183 of 197 of whom promptly voted in favor.

“Nobody had any problems. Nobody disagreed,” Prayuth told reporters.

If that sounds like an ironic statement, it should. In fact, disagreement is rapidly disappearing as the junta, which came to power on May 22, spreads its tentacles deeper and deeper into Thai life, most recently arresting two university students on charges of insulting the monarchy for appearing in a play almost a year ago.

In fact, the junta is grinding exceedingly fine. Countless irritations that plague daily life in what has traditionally been a fairly permissive society are apparently being pushed upwards through some sort of filtering mechanism, then decided by top leaders, probably Prayuth himself, a Bangkok-based source said.

They don’t have much to do with an overriding national philosophy, but they are extremely popular. The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known, scored an approval rating of around 88 percent in a recent poll. Some 65 percent want the military to stay in power for good, discarding the country’s traditionally messy and usually corrupt approach to democracy.

But there are long-term risks as the junta tightens down. Historically, juntas don’t know where to stop. And in the human rights arena, this one has already gone a long way. Public protest in any form, including eating sandwiches in a certain way, or reading George Orwell in public, is banned. Famously, as has been widely reported, raising three fingers a la the Hunger Games to officials gets their owners dragged away.

“I think you’ll find that all of these varied reforms and bans that are being undertaken could be classified as no-brainers, low-hanging fruit,” said a western businessman. “They are obvious abuses, often related to busting vested interests of one sort or another, not requiring deep study and more often than not eminently needed and highly popular.”

In recent weeks, for instance, the National Council for Peace and Order has demanded a crackdown on teenage road racing, prohibited electronic cigarettes as well as the smoking of “shisha” pipes – hookahs – and demanded that taxi drivers use meters and forbid them from refusing fares. Stricter laws are being proposed to allow the seizure and forfeiture of any cash over US$20,000 brought into the country and not declared.

It has cut back on visas to the point where local language schools are having trouble finding and keeping expatriate teachers. Girlie bars are being cleaned up. It recently ordered Amnesty International Thailand to stop calling for peace in the Gaza Strip, citing martial law.

The NCPO, as it is known, has used soldiers to take away weapons from notoriously bullying vocational students on public transit. The junta has ordered the confiscation of illegally parked cars in a city in which previously if the driver could get away from his vehicle before somebody yelled, it was fine. It has moved to outlaw commercial surrogacy – paying women to carry other couples’ implanted ova to birth -- in the wake of a scandal over the apparent abandonment of a surrogate baby with Down’s Syndrome. Soldiers have evicted food stalls on the beach in the resort town of Hua Hin and issued orders to make food prices reasonable and prevent profiteering

The arrests of the two students is a troubling case in point on how far the crackdown goes. The two, who were identified as Patiwat Sarrayamt, a fine arts student at Khon Kaen University, and Porntip Mungkong, a social activist, appeared in October 2013 in a play called the Wolf Bride commemorating the 40th anniversary of unrest at Thammasat University in 1973. Arrested on Aug. 15 and 16, they are the latest in an unknown number of Thais who have been jailed for long prison terms under the country’s lese majeste laws. The arrests have spurred a wide range of human rights organizations to issue complaints that have been simply ignored.

“The lese majeste charges are really hammering down freedom of expression here,” said a longtime social activist in Bangkok. “They are now arresting drama students for the production of the Wolf Bride.”

Authorities are also seeking the extradition of Thais living overseas for allegedly offending the monarchy, something that hasn’t happened anywhere else in the wake of military takeovers, as nearly as can be determined. Prayuth recently named Choopong Thithuan, Anek Chaichana, Saneh Thinsaen, Amnuay Kaewchompoo and Ong-art Thanakamolnan, saying they had fled the country after their arrest warrants were issued although he acknowledged that foreign governments, almost none of which have lese majeste laws, will not send them back.

One academic outside the country said “The ministry of foreign affairs and the embassy continue to make my life difficult. They are not supporting us at all.”

Mostly, both local and international human rights organizations working in the country have been cowed into silence. The media has similarly been silenced, with reporters and editors ordered to report to the junta for instructions in the immediate aftermath of the coup. While some organizations including Human Rights Watch and others have fired back from outside the borders, there have been few loud complaints inside them.

“Since the coup on 22 May, there have been a number of rampant exercises of power and legal actions to stifle political activism," said the Thai Human Rights Legal Association in connection with the arrests of the two students. “Such a practice is a violation of people’s rights, freedom and liberties. It has imposed limits on the spaces in which a person can express themselves and participate in political process peacefully. It is also detrimental to any possible effort to nurture and sustain reconciliation which truly reflects the root causes of the conflicts."

The association urged that arrests, detentions or other legal actions threatening freedom of expression be stopped, that the judicial process be used to prevent abuse against individuals or groups, and that the courts respect the presumption of innocence. In the current climate, it’s hard to imagine that the association’s request has any chance of being honored.