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January 12, 2013

Political Prisoners and Thailand’s Deep State

Political conflict inevitably produces political prisoners. In this respect Thailand is no different. Those incarcerated in Thailand’s prisons for acts connected to their political beliefs are as much victims of upheaval as the grieving relatives of the dead of April/May 2010.

Another inevitability for those seeking to settle political conflict is the release of such rank and file political prisoners. An amnesty granted to similar who are awaiting trial or who are on the run must also be established. Yet, at this stage in Thailand’s ongoing process of political settlement and stabilisation, the release of these prisoners hasn’t taken on the significance it should. For anyone committed to a full restoration of ordinary Thais’ democratic rights this is simply unacceptable. It is my firm belief that the release of the rank and file Red Shirts and the lese majeste prisoners must be a priority for the government. To ignore this pressing issue will only alienate a key element of the Pheu Thai leadership’s support.

Some observers may wonder why an administration with such an overwhelming democratic mandate as that enjoyed by Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai Party can’t begin to take steps to rectify these circumstances. After all the 2011 election made it very clear the Thai people want the Pheu Thai Party to be in power.

However, such a situation, where a democratically elected government is unable to enact policy that promotes political rights, hints at one of the major conundrums of Thai politics. A properly mandated authority may be in office but might often find itself having to kowtow to powerful forces that coalesce around what could be referred to as either a “dual” or “deep” state.

I’ve explored some of the themes of the dual state before here. The Deep State was a term coined in Turkey and used to describe forces within the Turkish military, judiciary and bureaucracy who used their power to subvert democracy and protect their vested interests. According to Serdar Kaya in an article entitled “The Rise and Decline of the Turkish Deep State: The Ergenekon Case” the political programme that underpins the Deep State is marked by “(1) ultranationalism, (2) military involvement/intervention in politics, and (3) justification of extrajudicial activities and violence in the name of the fatherland.” Turkey, much like Thailand, has been subject to interventions by unaccountable forces that seek to waylay the democrat process. More recently this process of democratization in Turkey has been strengthened with the imprisoning of army officers who plotted to overthrow a democratically elected government. This points to one direction Thailand may have to take in order to secure its democracy and establish full political rights for its citizens – the network behind the Thai version of the Deep State must become subject to the rule of law.

But where does all this leave Thailand’s political prisoners? Can any democracy deserve that title when people can be held in prison at the whim of unaccountable elements operating beyond the rule of law? Why should Thailand’s democratically elected representatives kowtow to these elements, with the continued price being the denial of basic freedoms to any of Thailand’s sons and daughters?

Thankfully, the Nitirat group of academics have now produced a possible route for the freeing of Thai political prisoners. They have produced a draft document entitled “Amnesty and Conflict Resolution” which suggests an amendment to the present Thai constitution. This amendment would acquit everyone “except the authorities” who faces criminal prosecution in regard to acts involving politics from the date of the military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Thaksin government, September 19 2006, until former PM Abhisit called the most recent Thai general election on May 9 2011.

Regardless of whether the Pheu Thai leadership adopts Nitirat’s proposals or not the impasse on prisoners must end. There can be no more Wanchai Raksa-nguansilps and Ampol Tangnoppakuls, both left to die lonely deaths for “crimes” of conscience inside Thai prisons. Those shadowy elements within Thailand’s Deep State must not be allowed to dictate the limitations of the freedoms of ordinary Thais. A clear and definable process must be established to free the Red Shirts. It is time for this government to stand up and be counted.

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