Intended or Not, Political Space Grows Under Junta's Nose

Pansak Srithep, third from left in front, members of Resistant Citizens and supporters demonstrate Oct. 31 on Ratchadamnoen Avenue in Bangkok.

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

BANGKOK — What may now be more remarkable than all the protests, marches and discussions shut down by the junta are those it has not.

Despite a proven ability to stop events deemed to violate its ban on political gatherings, the military government’s decision to allow several recent protests is either a calculated measure to ease political pressure or a sign of its slipping grip, depending on who you ask.

“They are adjusting their stance considerably in dealing with those who come out to demonstrate, particularly student groups who are not linked to a political party,” said Ekachai Chainuvati, a Siam University law lecturer who subscribes to the first perspective.

However, Rangsiman Rome, a leader of the New Democracy Movement, or NDM, disagrees, saying it reflects the inability of the junta, known officially as the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, to deal with its most tenacious critics.

\

“It’s not that [the junta] wants to open up political space,” Rangsiman said. “But the problem is that people like myself are persistent, and the NCPO doesn’t quite know how to deal with us anymore."

Two recent anti-coup demonstrations – one to commemorate the Sept. 19, 2006, coup and the other to commemorate the protest-suicide of pro-democracy taxi driver Nuamthong Praiwan on Oct. 31 – were allowed to proceed under the watch of a sizable police presence.

Ekachai said restrictions under the law are still in effect, but unlike before, there have been few arrests of demonstrators recently.

More often indirect – if drastic – measures are being taken. The electricity was shut off and chairs removed under junta pressure by a Kasetsart University administrator at an NDM-organized talk earlier this month. On Saturday security officers set up ropes to cordon off an exhibit the group set up at Thammasat University detailing alleged misspending by the army, including alleged corruption in a billion-baht “history park” it recently built.

“My analysis is that the security side [of the junta] looks at the number of people participating and allows topics they think they can deal with to proceed, but if the issue is hard to handle, then they will exert control,” Ekachai said.

He said that while no carrots are being offered, less sticks are being brought to bear.

“They weighed the costs and benefits and allowed people to talk a bit, and realized that through such tactics, they can in fact exert greater control,” he said.

 \
Student advocate and leader Rangsiman Rome at a Sept. 16 protest to commemorate the nine-year anniversary of the 2006 coup d'etat in Bangkok. Photo: Grace Moore

 

 

A Blurry Line

What worries Ekachai most is the arbitrary prosecution of activists by the junta, however. He said it’s difficult for people to know what actions will be deemed illegal.

“The legal predicament is that one is supposed to know when what one does is legal or not,” Ekachai said. “Right now, nobody seems to know whether what they do will lead to arrest or prosecution or not.”

For example, Preecha Kaewbanpaew, the 77-year-old former school teacher and supporter of activist Pansak Srithep, a co-founder of Resistant Citizens group, was charged with sedition and violating junta orders merely for giving a flower to Pansak as the latter marched in defiance of the junta on March 15.

The fault, Ekachai said, lies with the absolute and arbitrary power vested under Article 44 of the interim charter which effectively confers absolute power to junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.

 \
Police monitor the Sept. 19 rally in Bangkok. Photo: Grace Moore

 

All Politics Are Personal

Pansak’s own reading of any increased provision for the right to assemble and protest is that it depends on who you are, whom you are dealing with, and where you do it.

Pansak, who since Feb. 14 has been twice charged for violating the ban on gatherings of five or more people, has not seen any additional charges for more recent gatherings, such as those on Sept. 19 and Oct. 31, when 200 people marched from the Kok Wua Intersection to the front of Army Headquarters in Bangkok.

He said police commanders in districts such as Chana Songkram and Nang Lerng know him and other key protesters well and know they will not step beyond the bounds of peaceful protest, and therefore reluctantly permitted them to air their political grievances.

Pansak added that the same cannot be expected from police commanders in other districts or provinces, however.

“Right now [the junta] has categorized each [anti-junta] group in accordance with their importance through intelligence gathering,” he said, adding this was a big change from immediately after the May 2014 coup, when the junta and its apparatus had little idea who was who and cast a wide net to just take as many people off the streets as possible.

This combined with softer language about the right to political assembly from the likes of government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd suggests a change of stance, Pansak said.

“They choose to still deal with those whom they think are too daring,” Pansak said, referring to the shutdown of the Kasetsart University talk, and others summoned and detained without charges. “In the end you don’t really see overall change, as it only occur in some areas by some groups.”

He said Redshirts are particularly watched and their political rights remain severely curtailed.

“The policy is still harsh [against demonstrators]. And in the provinces, the repression is still unrelenting. We can say that there’s no equal application of [restrictive] policy,” Pansak said, adding that he sometimes feels more privileged than others to express himself because he’s a public figure.

On Nov. 11, Chiang Mai police summoned Chiang Mai University academic Attachak Sattayanurak and seven others for merely calling on the junta to respect academic freedom. Attachak, part of a group of scholar-activists, are accused of inciting unrest were ordered to report to police.
  

\
'Down with Dictatorship' read a banner at a Sept. 19 rally in Bangkok.
 

 

Not Granted – Fought and Won

Ultimately, both Pansak and Rangsiman believe the slightly larger space for political expression was not granted by the junta but fought and won by citizens.

Pansak recalled how both police and military officers recently failed to dissuade him from engaging in his latest political walk and ended up trailing him instead.

Rangsiman and his 13 comrades, mostly university students, went to prison for 12 days earlier this year and still face charges.

Locking them up unleashed a storm of domestic and international criticism which he believes taught the junta it was counterproductive to put them behind bars.

“We’ve been imprisoned, and they learned that nothing good came out of it,” he said. “Even if they arrest us anew and throw us into prison it would still be the same. This is why NDM can now engage in political activities.”

He said authorities have been unsure what to do when intimidation failed to silence people.

Some people, having been charged and facing military tribunals, were not afraid to continue denouncing the junta, which doesn’t quite know how to deal with that. He said that the story is quite different for grassroots activists and rural activists upcountry, where some are truly afraid for their lives.

Both Rangsiman and Pansak said their legal cases seem to have been put on the back burner.

Rangsiman said this reflects the realization by the NCPO that the charges against them are political in nature and can never reflect positively on the junta.

“They might use it [against us] when they have the opportunity, but they’re freezing it in the meantime because they believe it will do them no good,” Rangsiman said. “Although the cases are handled by the military court, it’s undeniably political in nature.”

 

Advice for Junta

Asked what he would want to convey to the junta on the issue, Pansak said it’s difficult to reason with them.

“I don’t think we can make sense with them. They must first try to understand basic rights and liberties instead of talking about ‘full democracy,’” said Pansak, in reference to Prayuth’s vow to return “full democracy” to Thailand.

Ekachai said he wants to remind the junta that, in the end, political conflicts can never be resolved through military means.

As for Rangsiman, the postgraduate student said it might do well for the junta to consider how to cede power without hurting themselves more than they already have, in light of how the army is now facing questions and possible investigations into alleged corruption relating to its construction of the Rajabhakti Historical Park.