Has it been 15, 16 or perhaps 17 months we’ve lived under military rule? Some, myself included, have begun to lose track of how long we’ve lived under the junta since the May 2014 coup. And we have no idea how many more years we’ll have to endure.
As rule under Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha stretches on far past the year originally promised, many now feel resigned and helpless, accepting a new “normal” for the nation. Threatening to execute journalists once provoked surprise, in the early months. Recently a threat to shut the nation off from the rest of the world was met with only a few shrugs.
However, this is the last thing that we ought to feel.
I know there are millions who support the junta and have no qualms about having their rights or those of others restricted, but let’s not overgeneralize and assume all Thais love it.
Under this new “normal,” some of our very basic civic and political rights have been deprived against our will.
Yet can we truly accept military trials for civilians charged with security-related offenses as normal?
Can the detention of critics and political opponents without charge, disguised in euphemism as “attitude adjustment,” or revocation of passports belonging to critics ever be condoned?
Can jailing university students merely for staging peaceful protests against the junta be regarded as normal?
Can curtailing rights of local villagers to protest or air grievances about their failing crops be treated as normal?
Can regular “visits” by military officers in uniform to junta critics be considered sane?
And how can the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, invite editors for meetings to “ask for cooperation” and then expect to be tolerated by journalists as “normal?”
This is truly an abnormal time.
Last week this writer was invited to give a lecture at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication. Midway through my lecture, the American instructor who kindly invited me, asked a question. As I myself have twice been detained without charge by the junta, he asked, was it legal for me to be speaking to his class?
How did we get to this point?
Don’t get Joel Gershon, the Thammasat academic, wrong. He later replied after I raised the issue on my Facebook page:
“I asked you that question during the class because of this crazy situation that Thailand is in, under a dictatorship with ever increasing compromised freedom of speech. I wanted to sincerely find out whether you – who has been detained twice – officially were not supposed to engage in a setting like this.”
The “normal” we must not lose sight of, even after 30 months or 40 months of military rule, is the one in which no one would question why a journalist was in a journalism classroom talking about journalism.
But this is Thailand, and increasingly, Juntaland.
Despite this, some media continue to cover the military government as any other “normal” administration, pretending the abnormal is just another form of normal.
The question of whether the regime is legitimate is no longer an issue to many, who now shrug it off as fait accompli.
Those of us trying to keep our sanity by reminding ourselves there’s nothing normal about the new norm must rely on certain tactics. Some protest on the streets, despite risk of arrest or detention. Others use social media to air their grievances and angst, despite risk of arrest or detention.
If people stop reminding themselves they should not accept military rule as normal, Thailand runs the risk of permanently becoming Juntaland, a place where they will be demoted from citizens, with basic rights and liberties, into subordinates to be arbitrarily lorded over by unelected generals.
Remember, we can.
To not end this first column on such a downer, here’s a bittersweet joke someone recently wrote on Facebook. They were responding sarcastically to what they’d say if police asked for their ID card:
“Why should I carry it when my [rights] as a citizen are no longer there?” someone wrote under the name Supachai Saibut. “I have been completely robbed.”