Mark of the Beast: Branding Opposition as “Terrorism” in Thailand
The following is the introduction from installment #4 of the Thailand 2011 General Election Report Series published by Amsterdam & Peroff LLP. Download the full PDF version of Mark of the Beast: Branding Opposition as “Terrorism” in Thailand here.
Days after deadly clashes with security forces on April 10, 2010 left twenty-six people dead and more than eight hundred injured, the Red Shirts dismantled their main rally site at the Phan Fa Bridge and concentrated their forces in the heart of Bangkok’s modern commercial district at the Ratchaprasong intersection. From then on, a large banner hung on the protest stage: “Peaceful Protesters, Not Terrorists.”
While the government had previously never missed an opportunity to warn of the danger presented by the Red Shirts, as justification for repeatedly imposing the Internal Security Act in advance of planned rallies, the designation as “terrorists” sprung directly from the events of April 10, 2010. The administration of Mark Abhisit Vejjajiva sought to justify the imposition of the Emergency Decree on April 7 and the volume of lethal force unleashed on protesters on April 10 by casting the Red Shirts as a violent threat to the life of the nation. The failure of the government’s first crackdown against the Red Shirts, moreover, led it to claim that the fight against domestic “terrorism” could justify the more incisive, more violent operation to disperse the Red Shirts and manage the difficult aftermath.
The labeling of the Red Shirts as “terrorists” figured prominently in the case made by the government to justify the week-long crackdown launched on May 13, 2010 in the area surrounding Ratchaprasong. On the eve of the crackdown, the government warned that it would shoot “armed terrorists,” estimating that approximately five hundred “armed elements” had infiltrated the Red Shirts. That number is consistent with the purportedly leaked internal government report that National United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leader Jatuporn Prompan had revealed to the press on April 19, indicating that the military planned to carry out the crackdown over a one-week period, setting the acceptable death toll of the operations at five hundred.2 On the evening of May 13, Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol (“Seh Daeng”), a renegade army officer and purported leader of the Red Shirt movement’s more extreme faction, was shot in the head by a sniper while he stood before the cameras and microphones of New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller at the edge of Lumphini Park.3 Despite having explicitly identified Seh Daeng as a “terrorist,” the government denied any involvement. As the crackdown unfolded, the Thai-language daily Matichon reported that officials in the “war room” set up by the Democrat Party were satisfied with the fact that “only” thirty-five people had died up to that point — much lower than the anticipated two to five hundred casualties.
Following the rallies’ dispersal on May 19, 2010, the government has clung to the accusation of “terrorism” to justify the continued abuse of emergency legislation, the indefinite detention of Red Shirt leaders, and the criminalization of opposition to Abhisit’s undemocratic rule by presenting it as a threat to national security. According to the government-appointed Truth and Reconciliation Committee, no less than 145 cases of terrorism were filed by the authorities in the wake of the rallies. In late July 2010, the Department of Special Investigations referred to the Office of the Attorney General charges of terrorism against twenty-four Red Shirt leaders as well as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Shortly thereafter, the Attorney General indicted nineteen of them, all of whom were in custody, and delayed its decision on the six who remained at large.6 All face possible death sentences if eventually convicted.
This report exposes the speciousness of the charges of terrorism lodged against the leaders of the UDD as well as the systematic denial of their rights to due process, which has turned the proceedings into little more than a show trial. In addition, the report situates these trials in the context of a broader strategy by the Abhisit government and its Establishment backers to rely on the country’s legal and judicial system to mask the suppression of political dissent and taint the opposition party Pheu Thai with “terrorist” leanings or associations in the lead-up to general elections scheduled for July 3, 2011.7 The government’s relentless media campaign serves both to deflect attention from the government’s failure to hold any state agent accountable for the 2010 Bangkok Massacres as well as to brand the political formation that has won every election since 2001 as an enemy of Thailand. Turning the charge of “terrorism” on its head, this report argues that the government’s actions in April and May 2010 fit the definition of “state terrorism” far better than the baseless accusations cooked up by the authorities against the Red Shirt leaders and supporters currently facing trial.