High stakes

No coup. Photo by AFP.
29 May 2014
No coup. Photo by AFP.

More than democracy is at stake after Thailand’s latest coup, reports JAMES GIGGACHER.

It claims that its hands were forced and that it was preventing more bloodshed.

But a coup by Thailand’s military under Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha last Thursday could deeply scar an already broken country and its fragile grip on a fast disappearing democracy; and in more ways than one.

Since the coup, General Prayuth has been endorsed by Thailand’s king as the head of a military council charged with running the country – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

In that same time reports from journalists inside Thailand note that more than 250 people – including politicians, government officials, activists, and academics – have been summoned to appear before the NCPO.

According to a leading expert it’s not just Thailand’s democracy at stake – but people’s basic rights and even their lives.

Human rights and Thai politics researcher Dr Tyrell Haberkorn from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific says that those who refuse the summons could face up to two years in prison.

She says that a range of Thai people labelled as dissidents are being targeted.

“In official lists issued by public broadcast in Bangkok and official lists issued in the provinces, professors and students continue to be targeted,” she explains.

“Some of the professors and students are those who have been politically active, either in the red shirt movement or progressive groups, such as the Khana Nitirat or the Assembly for the Defense of Democracy.

“In other cases they are not activists and it is clear that they are being targeted for being critical of the establishment or the military.”

Haberkorn has no doubt that detention is arbitrary.

Further complicating the picture is that on 25 May the NCPO issued an order stating that all crimes against the crown and state would be trialled in military courts.

This includes Article 112, which sees speech or acts insulting, defaming or threatening to the monarchy carry a sentence of three to 15 years.

“This law has been used extensively since the 19 September 2006 coup to restrict speech and intimidate critics,” says Haberkorn.

“Some of the academics and activists being targeted by the junta are those who have tried to legally challenge this law, and there is concern by many that they may be charged and prosecuted under military courts.”

Haberkorn adds that “these kinds of repressive measures” are reminiscent of measures used after Thailand’s infamous 1976 massacre and coup. 

The law has also been applied in contradictory and unfair manners in the past.

The horror might not stop there. Faced with insurgency in the south of the country, the military has used the harshest of methods on some of its detainees.

“While the junta has claimed that those arrested will be treated fairly and without violence, there are no concrete assurances that this will be the case,” says Haberkorn.

“Detainees are being held under martial law, which creates significant risk of torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial execution. In southern Thailand, where martial law has been in force since 2004, there is vast documented evidence of these kinds of abuses.”   

No cases of abuse after this latest coup have been documented – yet. 

“But the very nature of the violations is that by the time there is evidence, the abuses will have already taken place,” warns Haberkorn.

“What needs to be noted is that the imposition of martial law and the use of arbitrary detention create the conditions in which citizens have been stripped of the legal protections that they would normally be granted.

“This creates a void in which abuses can be carried out.

“My assessment, as both a scholar and a long-time observer of human rights, is that there is a credible fear that these abuses are being carried out.”

Fellow academic and Thailand expert Professor Andrew Walker says that the military is definitely the wrong tool for resuscitating a democracy at death’s door.

He says that by seizing power, General Prayuth Chan-ocha showed Thai people that “might is right”. 

“Talk of a non-violent coup is nonsense. Prayuth succeeded because he could mobilise overwhelming force and issue a compelling threat of violence to anyone who opposed him,” says Walker.

“Ultimately the coup will achieve nothing, as it did in 2006. Heavy handed military action may succeed in driving former Prime Minister Thaksin and his allies out of politics once and for all.

“A meaningful transition to political stability will require a re-appraisal of the central role of the monarchy, a new culture of respect for electoral and parliamentary institutions, and the development of a modern opposition party that can provide the Thai electorate with real policy alternatives.

“That is an agenda that military men are incapable of pursuing.”

James Giggacher is Asia Pacific editor at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Related coverage

Updated:  16 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator