Junta’s Desperate Quest for Legitimacy

PM Prayuth teasingly pokes a 'buffalo' during traditional Mon play 'Kra-ua Stabs Buffalo', April 19 at Government House.

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

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Dictatorial power can be crude and rude as student activist Rattaphol Supasopon found out recently.

Rattaphol, a member of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy, complained that some junta men paid an unannounced visit to his grandfather’s house, where his address is also registered. They just walked inside and started shooting photos of the home’s interior.

“I mean like, you guys don’t work for ‘Home & Decor’ magazine right? And you didn’t even ask for permission. You just use power. Try thinking what it would be like if it’s your parent’s home or your home and having [me] holding weapons claiming this is legal…” he wrote Wednesday on Facebook.

Obviously the move didn’t impress Rattaphol or those like him into thinking the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, has any legitimacy.

When the use of harassment, force and detention won’t suffice, propaganda and attempt at telling a convincing story are necessary tools.

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The use of the first, force, is blatantly visible to any casual observer.

Detention in secret locations without charge (or “invitation for attitude adjustment,” to junta wordsmiths) was immediately adopted in the hours after the May 22, 2014, coup when an ongoing stream of names were announced on TV and radio to report to detention on military bases.

One month shy of its two-year anniversary, the junta has brought back seven day detention for those who have refused to “learn their lesson” and silence their criticism.

Repeat offender Watana Muangsook, who served as a Pheu Thai MP, has been charged with violating the agreement made with the junta before being released from his attitude adjustment session and now faces a military tribunal and two years in prison.

Being a two-time veteran of junta’s “attitude adjustment” program, I can confirm the experience is psychologically disturbing. Being blindfolded and driven away to a secret location without knowing one’s fate does not leave a warm memory.

Arbitrary prosecution for sedition and computer crimes have also been used against dissidents, as have bureaucratic measures such as canceling passports and banning travel abroad,  not to mention assembling in public with more than four other people for a purpose that might be interpreted as “political.”

Mid-ranking military officers were recently granted alarming police powers under junta order No. 13/2016, meaning they can use their own judgment to search, seize property from, arrest and detain people without court approval.

Such powers instill fear among those not fond of their inevitable abuse.

The most recent tactic came April 7 when the junta-appointed legislature approved 10 years in prison for anyone who spreads “false information” to voters in the run-up to the Aug. 8 referendum on the draft charter.

Because crude threats of detention and other repression won’t bring the air of legitimacy it desires, a story or propaganda is necessary.

The military’s attempt to write a convincing narrative is both juvenile and paternalistic at the same time: Out of altruism and a selfless desire to save us from ourselves, it staged a coup without which we would have become a failed state slaughtering one another by now.

Different variations of this tale have been repeated by junta leaders time and again. Basically Thai people ought to be grateful that they saved us by imposing military rule on us. Junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha first framed it this way through a song he claimed to have penned.

Of course that song promised his rule would not last long, and now and almost two years later many wonder how many more years the interregnum will continue? And whether cementing a system of military rule, one way or the other, was the goal all along.

Presenting Prayuth as a benign and reluctant dictator must be a difficult job for his chief publicist and apologist on world stage, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. Don must be adept at inhabiting a parallel Thailand where there are no human rights problems, despite all the repressive tools employed by the junta.

Don’s argument is that when it comes to human rights, only a handful of people are affected while the majority of the Thai people have no issue with the junta.

If Don truly believes what he says, he should recommend immediately lifting the ban on political gatherings of five or more people and seeing how many people take to the streets to express their appreciation for the junta which appointed him: thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands?

If only a handful of Thais are upset, why the need to threaten everyone with detention without charge, frozen assets, canceled passports and banned travel? Can’t the mighty military handle a few dozen malcontents?

According to their twisted logic, the junta claims arbitrary detentions up to seven days do not violate human rights. Freezing their opponents’ bank accounts or a ban on travelling abroad are also apparently not human rights violations.

And there’s more. Prayuth who himself violated the supreme law by staging a coup often reminds people to be law abiding and to accept his orders as lawful.

Failing to achieve legitimacy by using such twisted logic and propaganda, Prayuth resorts to repeatedly reminding the public through reporters that he has absolute authority and that people should understand the special nature of his power.

When I was detained for the second time last September by the junta, one of the colonels who wanted to search my house reminded me that Prayuth wields absolute power under Article 44 of the provisional military charter and the junta can do whatever they want.

I said I understood what they are trying to convey but I can neither agree with it nor can I accept such power as legitimate, so I’ll need my lawyer, a UN officer and a police officer to accompany me if they want to search my place.

To some, no amount of dictatorial power or propaganda can make the junta legitimate. This explains why the junta are very keen to see the draft charter succeed in the promised August referendum because they may finally attain a veneer of legitimacy.

 

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