Thailand Emergency Rule under Fire

Demonstrators clash with police in Bangkok in April.

The retention of emergency law will be reviewed by the government on a week-by-week, district-by-district basis—a policy that is coming under increasing fire.

William Burns, the third most senior official in the U.S. State Department, spoke at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University on July 16, saying that the retention of emergency powers was "not healthy for a democratic system."

Thailand's already-shaky press freedom is coming under renewed pressure. According to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, 26 more radio stations were recently closed by authorities using the emergency powers. Many of these are linked to the Red Shirts and stand accused of fomenting protestors to come to Bangkok to take part in the March 12-19 May rallies, which turned violent on April 10.

One Black Shirt has been arrested, but otherwise there is little clarity on the 90 deaths and around 2,000 injuries sustained during the protests, amid numerous acts of violence apparently perpetrated by protestors and the army.

Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International representative in Thailand, said, "The decree is exacerbating the problem the government wants to eliminate. As the decree is the prime driver making the Red Shirt movement go underground, it is counterproductive to retain this. The government is suppressing legal and lawful dissent."

Under the terms of the emergency law, detainees are being held at military camps, but precise numbers and whereabouts are unknown.

Dubious deployment

While some argue that a protest movement would not be permitted to successively occupy two important districts of a major capital city anywhere in the world, others believe that the deployment of the army to disperse the protestors was wrong, perhaps illegal.

The government bases its case on its view that the protest was not peaceful, while Red Shirts try to disown any connection with the armed black-clad faction, which refused to stand down when the Red Shirt leaders called an end to the rally as the army advanced on their stronghold back on May 19.

While the government says it seeks reconciliation via a series of reform measures, there seems to be an inherent contradiction between the stated goal and the methods used—some of which seem likely to foster division and recrimination.

Thailand's Department of Special Investigation recently got the green light to investigate an anti-monarchy plot—which the government earlier alleged by way of a much-derided network mapped out on a diagram given to media before the Red Shirt protest was disbanded. The government says that it will seek to prevent politicization of the country's revered royal institutions, which officially transcend politics. In a country where lèse-majesté convictions can lead to double-digit prison sentences, such allegations may hinder any attempt to reconcile Thailand's divides.

In a letter sent to media on July 20, Red Shirt leader Jaran Dittapichai said that the government was "deceiving the world" with its creation of five committees for political-media reconciliation and reforms—committees he said were composed of the enemies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts.

Former PM under fire

The Thai government is homing in on the role of former PM Thaksin in financing and fomenting the protests. He is deemed a terrorist by the country's courts and faces a two-year jail sentence for corruption while in office. While he made history by winning successive elections in a country noted for fickle electorates, his administrations were marked by a combination of economic populism and draconian media curbs.

His ouster by a military coup, following Yellow Shirt protests in 2006, still rankles with Red Shirts, as does the circumstances—or machinations—behind how the current Democrat Party government led by Abhisit Vejajjiva came to power in late 2008. Although Abhisit's accession was legal and constitutional, Red Shirt leaders see a double standard.

Yellow Shirt protestors occupied the capital's two international airports in late 2008, days before Abhisit became prime minister. While Red Shirt leaders are currently incarcerated or on the run, Yellow Shirt leaders are not, and one, Kasit Piromya, is Thailand's foreign minister.

Economics and elections

Thailand's export-oriented economy seems to have come through the unrest relatively unscathed. Outgoing Bank of Thailand Governor Tarisa Watanagase said the unrest "was localized" and that "tourism, the most vulnerable sector, was not as badly hit as we feared."

Red Shirts sought early elections as a condition to ending their protest, and while a government offer of November 14 this year was rejected—an outcome the government blamed on Thaksin rather than the protest leaders in Thailand—there is still talk that voting could take place before the end of 2011.

The current administration may understandably prefer to hold the election when Thailand's economic recovery is having the greatest impact among ordinary Thais, and the government is making "pro-poor" social spending a key aspect of its reconciliation plans.

However, the incumbent Democrat Party faces two other legal challenges that might undermine all this. Charges that the party misused campaign donations could lead to its dissolution, while a gambit undertaken by PM Abhisit and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij in early 2009 is being reviewed—slowly—by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). They are accused of violating the Anti-Corruption Law by asking mobile-phone operators to send text messages to 17 million mobile numbers free of charge, in contravention of Article 103 of the Anti-Corruption Law, which prohibits office holders from accepting any gifts worth 3,000 Thai baht ($90) or more.

On July 20, the NACC said it could not decide on the case, which could automatically suspend Abhist and Korn from office. To Red Shirts it sounds like a reprise of the slow judicial processing of Yellow Shirt cases, given that the same NACC quickly ruled that Thaksin-proxy PM Samak Sunderavej was in breach of his terms of office by taking part in a TV cookery show, removing him from office in the tumultuous months leading up to the Democrat-led coalition's accession to power.

This article was originally published by the International Relations and Security Network:

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