By Dan Waites
Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. And for once, I am inclined to agree with Thailand’s esteemed and forever “in trend” national daily, The Nation. In a front-page analysis piece on Friday, the paper fretted over rumours of a coup intended to derail Thailand’s next general election, which is expected to take place in late June or early July. It noted: “This means whoever’s plotting the coup may want to silence half or so of Thailand, an impossible task unless the coup-makers are capable of turning the country into another Burma or North Korea.”
The Nation was right about one thing. The Royal Thai Army would need to unleash an unholy amount of repression to crush opposition to another coup, which would likely face widespread resistance. Leaders of the red-shirt United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) including Natthawut Saikua and Arisman Pongruangrong have urged their supporters to “burn the whole country down” if the army tries to seize power. A number of observers have written about the militant response the coup-makers can likely expect in such a scenario, including Reuters’ Andrew Marshall and Bangkok Pundit.
But there was no lack of irony in the royalist paper’s comments. Because The Nation – along with its rival the Bangkok Post – has failed to draw proper attention to the way in which Thailand has already regressed back towards military dictatorship in the four and a half years since the September 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra.
Indeed, the comparison with Burma was particularly interesting. Because now that the Burmese military has erected a faux-democratic facade over its continuing control of that country, the two neighbours’ political systems arguably bear more of a resemblance today than they have done in decades. (See new Asian Correspondent writer Francis Wade’s blog for quality Burma coverage.)
Thaksin’s international lawyer Robert Amsterdam has written extensively on the subject of the Thai military’s growing influence, particularly as it relates to the forthcoming elections (see here and here). From a more objective perspective, here was Paul Chambers, an academic specialising in the Thai military, last year:
In terms of the future of civil-military relations in Thailand, we are already witnessing the dilution of civilian control and growing military sway. Except for the two brief periods of military dictatorship (1991-92 and 2006-07), the armed forces in 2009 possessed greater legal privileges and informal authority than they had in two decades. Institutionally, their increased influence in the Senate, enhanced power through the Internal Security Act, augmented budget and heightened autonomy regarding decisions in military reshuffles all attest to the renewed political strength of soldiers (Chang Noi 2009). Informally, since 2007, soldiers have threatened, cajoled, indirectly supported anti-government yellow shirts and sometimes refused to guarantee security for civilian governments. But the armed forces have learned from experience that direct governance (and direct force in the streets) will only create negative perceptions of them from society. These enhanced prerogatives and realization of the need to camouflage their clout has given the military today an even better deal than the soldiers under the Suchinda dictatorship twenty years ago. Indirect domination of civilian governments allows soldiers to augment their autonomy from civilian authority. Civilian prime ministers also bear the brunt of public criticism of poor administration. Furthermore, weak civilian governments come and go while a strong military institution can endure if it able to protect its legitimacy as a force for national unity against threatening enemies, internal and external…
In the Shadow of the Soldier’s Boot”, Paul Chambers, Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand, 2010
Both the Thai and Burmese militaries have seemingly learned the same lesson: why govern directly? It’s much smarter to retain heavy influence and let civilians do it for you. The Thai army would be crazy to stage a coup before the next election. If its chosen ruling party, the Democrat Party, can form a government – with or without coalition partners – the army can continue to exert the control it wants over national security and its budgets. If the opposition wins – well, there is always the party dissolution clause in the 2007 Constitution to take care of that.
But it hardly ends there. While Burma already boasts more than 2,000 political prisoners, Thailand seems to be doing its best to boost its own tally of prisoners of conscience through Article 112 – the increasingly abused lese majeste law. Only last month, the web designer of a red-shirt-affiliated website was sentenced to 13 years in jail for lese majeste and breaking the draconian Computer Crimes Act. Even in Burma, sentences of such length are rare.
In the latest case, it has emerged that lese majeste charges have been filed against Thammasat University academic Somsak Jiamteerasakul. Only one Nation reporter, Pravit Rojanaphruk, appears to care about these extremely disturbing developments (here’s his report from yesterday):
Political activists and associates of high-profile Thammasat University historian Somsak Jiamteerasakul have reacted with shock to the lese-majeste charge filed against him.
They warned that charging one of the Kingdom’s best-known critics of the lese-majeste law by using that law is “short-sighted” and will “backfire”.
Vipar Daomanee, a fellow academic at Thammasat University, said: “Somsak has always been careful [in expressing himself] and the fact that the ruling class is using this law is short-sighted, blind and dictatorial.”
Vipar warned that the issue would likely become “internationalised” and widen the current political division. She added that Somsak always cited detailed academic texts and facts whenever he criticised the law or the institution.
It has yet to be reported who filed the charge against Somsak. But as many observers have noted, the increasingly crazed application of Article 112 is the best possible way to undermine the institution it’s supposed to protect. Is that what these people want?
Thailand obviously has a long way to go before it turns into Burma. But it’s already gone a lot further than many people realise.

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