My latest op/ed in Foreign Policy Journal explores some of the similarities between Thailand and Guatemala’s experience with coups, and the subsequent struggle to achieve historical memory.
The topic of historical memory has long been a core theme among many Red Shirt groups, and it’s a issue of vital importance to many countries which have experienced tragedy and civil war. But specifically, the comparative case with Guatemala that has struck my attention for its similarity to Thailand in recent days while reading the excellent book “Paper Cadavers” by the Canadian academic Kirsten Weld.
On the surface, there is very little that connects the tiny Central American republic of 15 million to the Southeast Asian juggernaut of 67 million people, with completely different societies, economies, and political systems. But what Guatemala and Thailand share is fascinating: a common history of repeated, violent military coups and heavy U.S. involvement as a result of the Cold War, creating a lingering distortion in each nation’s political culture.
Many passages from Weld’s book are chillingly applicable to today’s Thailand.
As part of her research examining the secret archives of Guatemala’s military dictatorship, she came across a former guerilla named Gustavo Meoño, who for a time served as the director of the archives. According to Weld:
“Meoño’s postwar objectives included the recovery of what he called ‘democratic memory’ – a focus on the history of political struggle, rescuing and restoring the stories of those who had resisted dictatorship, even if their alternative visions had failed or been flawed in their execution. Without protecting this ‘democratic memory,’ Meoño believed, Guatemala would never construct a democratic national identity; instead it would continue to criminalize those who fought for the right to think differently, discouraging future youth from politics and leadership. ‘The idea of the rights to memory, truth, and justice is not an issue of the left or of the right,’ he argued. ‘It’s an issue of fundamental human rights, independent of ideology or political militancy.’”
This article was originally published RealClearWorld:
In recent weeks, the military junta in Thailand has been working hard on rehabilitating its image. A battalion of soft-spoken diplomats has been dispatched on an international charm offensive, lecturing policymakers and journalists on their good intentions and popular support. Just don’t ask them to prove it in an election.
Their efforts are aimed at promoting a distorted understanding of events — an exercise that the United States and Europe seem all too willing to accept. They want the world to believe that the May 22, 2014, military coup is somehow a “normal” feature of Thailand’s political culture, and as such, the junta should get a free pass.
If things continue along this path, we are due to have a replay of the aftermath of the 2006 coup. At the time, Western governments eventually gave their support to the military’s plan to introduce a new constitution that severely watered down representation and allowed them to keep appointees permanently entrenched in the Constitutional Court and Senate. It’s little wonder why the situation has culminated in violence and repression once again several years later, and undoubtedly what will happen if they remain unchallenged in 2014.
The following op/ed article by Robert Amsterdam and Jakrapob Penkair was first published in the Diplomatic Courier:
Less than a month since Thailand’s military seized power by a coup d’etat, the junta has been quick in attempting to “normalise” their illegal power grab.
Seeking to shore up support, the junta has launched a charm offensive by sending a delegation to China, where they now claim to have support for their coup, and hosting visits of military leaders from neighboring states. This regional strategy could place extraordinary pressure on Washington to recognize the coup or risk watching a key ally drift into Chinese hands.
For anyone who remembers the 2006 coup, there may be a sense of déjà vu. At first, foreign governments made strong statements, followed by inaction, and later followed by resignation and acquiescence.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was firm in his initial comments, stating: “There is no justification for this military coup. (…) We are reviewing our military and other assistance and engagements, consistent with U.S. law.”
The law on this matter is clear—no U.S. aid can go to a government whose elected representative was deposed by a military coup. A large-scale joint exercise with the Thai military has already been cancelled, but still no sanctions have been tabled.
The European Union’s initial reaction was similar, but so far they have refused to suspend arms sales or discuss sanctions. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton urged the military to release the thousands of detained political prisoners and ease censorship, and said that they are following developments with “extreme caution.”
Unfortunately, more is needed.
Last time there was a coup in Thailand, Western nations failed to support the democratic will of the Thai people. The generals have clearly interpreted the message that a coup only poses short-term inconveniences instead of real consequences.
Before the May 2014 coup, Thailand had experienced 18 interruptions of it democracy by the military. It begs the question: if leading Western governments and trade partners with Thailand were less permissive and forgiving in response to military coups, would they continue to occur with such frequency? Have we lowered our expectations for Thailand?
There is no ambiguity about the repression taking place in Thailand today. The junta’s soldiers have arrested and held thousands of detainees at gunpoint and beyond the reach of their families (or lawyers) or weeks. Thai citizens can face arrest for almost anything, for example giving the “three-finger” anti-coup salute from the Hunger Games film, while the military is threatening to jail people based on “liking” social media content. The ugly spectre of lese majeste is flourishing, while even people outside of Thailand have been threatened by the coup leadership.
For generals such as Prayuth Chan-ocha, an architect of the massacre that murdered more than 90 unarmed protesters four years ago, the coup represents both an economic opportunity (military budgets have already been increased with zero transparency) as well as an engine of impunity—an obligatory exercise taking place once every decade or so to cover up responsibility for human rights crimes. There are unfortunately a class of citizens in Thailand who do not believe that their fellow countrymen enjoy equal rights to representation. This kind of tyranny poses a chilling image of what could happen next.
The coup began long before the Army’s declaration of martial law. It was forged under the so-called People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) of former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who had been charged with murder. Any other government would have arrested and convicted this man, Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration was stripped of its most basic powers typically endowed to an elected government.
If the international community wants to see Thailand successfully emerge from the coup, strong action is required, beginning with and not limited to actions such as a steadfast refusal to recognise the junta as a legitimate government of Thailand, halting of all arms sales and military cooperation, targeted sanctions against assets and travel privileges of coup leaders, sanctions and public boycotts of the main business conglomerates who financially sponsored Suthep’s overthrow of the elected government and demanding the immediate restoration of democratic governance.
A failure to respond to this coup in a much stronger way than the past will only perpetuate this destructive cycle. It is time to expect more from Thailand and stand behind democratic values. It may be our last opportunity to do so.
Robert Amsterdam of Amsterdam & Partners LLP serves as international defence counsel to the United National Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), and prominent Red Shirt group in Thailand. Jakrapob Penkair is a founder of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and former Minister and Member of Thailand’s Parliament. He resigned from the government after criticisms of his 2007 comments against the nation’s patronage culture and left the country after a military crackdown on protesters against the 2008 judicial ouster of the government he had served. The views expressed are their own.
Following a speech delivered yesterday by lawyer Robert Amsterdam to a massive Red Shirt rally in Bangkok, the former Democrat Party member and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban issued an aggressive attack quoted by local media.
“He is a bloody farang, why does he interfere in Thai politics?,” Suthep said, repeatedly referring to Mr. Amsterdam as a “bastard” for suggesting that individual members of anti-democracy network should face international sanctions. “They want to convince the world to be on their side and force us to accept the opinion of international community. But what does the international community know about Thailand?”
In response to Suthep’s statement, Mr. Amsterdam issued the following comment:
“It’s a great disappointment that this is what passes for dialogue among the PDRC. Under Suthep’s leadership, his organization has threatened and attacked voters much like a Thai Taliban. Using the language of ‘reform,’ the Democrat Party network of senators, judges, and bureaucrats are conspiring to deprive millions of Thai citizens of their right to vote by seeking the unlawful removal of yet another elected government.”
“It’s clear that Suthep is deeply concerned by the recent news that the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) is looking into alleged interference by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in parliamentary affairs by probing of 308 senators and former members of parliament for voting for a constitutional amendment. The international community should continue to remind these anti-government Thai elites that another judicial coup shall not be tolerated.”
The purpose of this White Paper is to alert the international community to an ongoing assault on democracy and the rule of law in Thailand, carried out by a coalition that includes members of the military, the courts, the public administration, the business world, the Democrat Party, among others. Further, it calls on the international community to throw its full-throated support behind the Yingluck government, aiding in its efforts to protect Thailand’s civilian population against the denial of its right to self-determination and against the imminent prospect of widespread violence.
As detailed in the report, the arbitrary and discriminatory administration of justice in pursuit of an anti-democratic agenda is at the center of Thailand’s political instability.
The continuing breakdown in the rule of law can be directly attributed to the abolishment of the democratic “People’s Constitution” of 1997 and its replacement with the “Coup Constitution” of 2007, which perpetuates restrictions to democratic rule by giving the judiciary and the bureaucracy the power to alter the results of freely conducted elections and to interfere in the activities of the legislative and executive branches.
The likely removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the hands of the upper house, the courts, or the military, based on either the misapplication or nonobservance of the law, is almost sure to be followed by violence on a scale never before seen. This places the civilian population in Bangkok and in provinces where the government is strongly supported at an extreme risk of murder, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture, for which the PDRC already has a long track record.
In the long run, hopes for a durable peace in Thailand rest on the abolishment of the 2007 “Coup Constitution” and either the reinstatement of the 1997 “People’s Constitution” or the introduction of a new Constitution consistent with basic procedural and substantive requirements of democracy.
In the short run, however, the international community must act to defend Thailand’s beleaguered democracy based on its Responsibility to Protect. Further, if an individual state is failing in its duty, the concept of Responsibility to Protect calls upon the international community to take collective action within the framework of the UN Charter.
Protecting innocent civilians from brutal slaughter is no simple task in Thailand, as doing so requires breaking a cycle of lawless coups and killings that dates back decades. Now that the same groups responsible for this cycle of impunity are using every conceivable method to remove a duly elected government and destroy democracy, the international community must act to defend the lives and freedoms of the Thai civilian population from imminent danger. It should do so by coming to the aid and support of the Yingluck government, as it stands up to a coalition that has acted illegally and with such impunity for so long that it is simply blind to any semblance of the rule of law.
In the last few days Thailand’s UDD Red Shirt movement appointed a new leader – the combative, energetic and principled, Jatuporn Promphan. Long a thorn in the side of the Thai establishment, Jatuporn exemplifies the struggle to secure Thailand’s democracy and his appointment marks a shift to a more assertive position for the UDD/Red Shirts.
As expected it didn’t take long for Thailand’s military chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, to respond to Jatuporn’s appointment.
Prayuth, a figure noted for his thin-skinned responses to any criticism, attacked Jatuporn for being “rude” and lacking “honor”. General Prayuth then told the hastily convened press conference that he “won’t be talking” to Jatuporn. Some might believe that Prayuth’s comments are not really befitting a respected, senior military leader. However, such tone is very much in keeping with Prayuth’s often amateurish yet sometimes sinister comments.
Like much of the rest of Thailand’s military, Prayuth has never seen or taken part in combat. The main target of the leadership of the Thai Army is Thailand’s own population, a group for whom it seems to have very little respect, despite this population funding the military’s existence.
Threats towards civilian rule, threats of violence and threats to the safety and well-being of Thai democracy are all part of Prayuth’s mindset.
Just don’t be “rude” to him. Otherwise he’ll get really upset.
There is something deeply sinister about the legal moves of Thailand’s Election Commission and Army over the last 24hours.
Both are engaging in a process to suppress views they consider counter to the power of Thailand’s shadowy “Deep State” and both are stepping far beyond what would be considered the internationally accepted norms for democratic and civilian governance.
On the one hand the Thai Army are filing criminal charges against those they suspect of allegedly daringly to voice any kind of regional aspirations – however weakly formed and incoherent those aspirations may yet be. What must not be forgotten is that the millions of ordinary voters that live in Thailand’s regions have seen their legitimately elected leaders removed, illegally, time after time. The only persons engaged, at present, in a “separation” process are the Thai Army generals, Suthep and Abhisit’s thugs on Bangkok’s streets and other unaccountable and anti-democratic elements in Thailand’s Deep State who seek to overthrow the entirely legitimate civilian government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra.
It is simply incredible to witness the Thai Army setting up “monitoring” units, dedicated to launching legal and extra-legal campaigns, against the very Thai taxpayers that fund the Army itself. So intolerant has the Thai Army become that the target of its military might is not a viable external threat but the opinions of the very population it is mandated to protect. It is clear that the Army is now deeply politicised and engaged directly in political repression.
Alongside the Army’s moves the Election Commission (EC) has also deemed that its new role is to engage in suppressing the legitimate political views of the Thai population it is meant to serve.
Stepping far beyond its brief to be an independent, neutral civil service body designed only to organise Thai elections, the EC has set-up “cyber monitoring” groups to track down the views of ordinary Thais that it considers “criminal”.
Many in Thailand have been critical of the EC, citing their poor handling of this year’s General Election, their seeming sympathy for Suthep’s anti-democratic PDRC movement and the EC’s failure to deliver a coherent election process.
The EC’s reaction to this negative criticism has been to “monitor” social media, with the result being that they’ve filed criminal charges against 688 persons whose views they deem as “defamatory accusations”. By intervening in this heavy-handed, discriminatory and politicised manner, the EC are now part of the tools of repression enacted and utilised by Thailand’s Deep State against ordinary Thai citizens.
The combined efforts of both the EC and the Thai Army now point towards yet greater threats to Thailand’s democracy and its stability. Their actions attack the most basic political rights of Thais and are affront to international accepted norms of a properly accountable civilian government.
General Prayuth and the Thai Army’s furious response to my recent oped, Life Under A Coup, is typical of a mindset that refuses any notion of democratic accountability or civilian control. That he missed the glaring irony of denying involvement in Thailand’s civil governance whilst unilaterally threatening to bar a critic from the country adds to Prayuth’s image of operating beyond the reach of ordinary, legally sanctioned jurisdiction. It seems as though just speaking the truth to Thailand’s military elicits only threats and venom from them. By such methods – backed up with the constant menace of implied and actual violence – the Thai Army have sustained an atmosphere of fear and loathing in Thailand.
This careful cultivation of fear – built, most recently, upon the corpses of unarmed Thai civilians who died during the 2010 Bangkok Massacre – has now reached such a level of intimidation that only a few voices remain who will confront the Thai Army’s malfeasance openly and directly.
The international and diplomatic community have remained almost silent as the Thai Army have racked up the tension in Bangkok – this taciturn approach is made even more remarkable given the Thai Army’s unparalleled appetite for coup. Well-known and widely respected human rights NGOs, many of whom have regional HQs in Bangkok, seem almost willfully silent as Prayuth rolls his tanks into Bangkok, and verbally admonishes Thailand’s popular and democratically-elected leaders. Much of the international press and media corps in Bangkok may privately express views considered adverse to the Thai Army but almost none would dare make any public comment against them and instead choose targets that are unable to project similar power and force.
One only has to look back over the last 80years of Thai history to see the role the Thai Army has played in destabilizing democracy. As stated in Life Under A Coup, Prayuth’s charges have never defended a democratically elected government and always sided with those who view ordinary Thais as less than equal.
For the entire range of international voices – from NGOs and the press through to Bangkok’s diplomatic community – to remain silent in the face of the Thai Army’s recent conduct offers a case study in genuflection. Where are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others? Where are the truth-seekers of the international press, determined to hold power to account? The simple fact they are not singled out by Prayuth for attack – despite the mountains of evidence that implicate the Thai Army – reveals their failings. It is time for them to step up to the plate.
The Thai Army have a long and ignoble tradition of stymying democracy, attacking Thai civilians and meddling in politics. When it has suited their interests – as it did during the Bangkok Massacre in 2010 when they acted without hesitation to support the Abhist Vejjajiva-led regime, despite that regime having no meaningful democratic mandate – they have proved willing and able actors, sending their snipers to kill unarmed civilians and creating “live fire zones” to project their power. That the projection of this power is always used to attack democracy is an undeniable historical fact. The numerous coups that have enforced the suspension of Thai citizens’ political and democratic rights have become such a natural occurrence that the constant threat of coup now seems to be an accepted part of Thailand’s political life.
Conversely, when called upon by democratically-elected Thai governments to help defend the political rights of the country’s citizens the Thai Army routinely go missing. Their sordid cast of generals (there are literally 100s of “generals” of different rank supposedly serving in the Thai Army) and Army chiefs then appear at press conferences, making veiled threats to Thailand’s elected lawmakers and rather pathetic mealy-mouthed excuses about why they cannot be under accountable, democratic civilian control and why they must maintain “neutrality”. Of course “neutral”, in the Thai context, means that you tacitly and explicitly accept anti-democratic forces as a given, natural part of the political discourse. Neutrality, in this instance, is a non-existent opportunistic chimera created purely to divert a proper analysis of the real conditions within which the Thai Army operate.
The result of this military-inspired process of coups, massacres and inaction is that Thai democracy remains on thin, ill-formed ice, ready to crack and unable to sustain the struggles and debates associated with a healthy body politic. Therefore Abhisit’s undemocratic regime was able to impose itself on an unwilling Thai public through the use of Army-organised violence whilst in recent weeks a democratically-elected and popular government has to dissolve itself in an attempt to stall possible Army intervention to overthrow it. With every cycle of this process Thai democracy weakens. How much longer will it be before an even more severe crisis requires the immediate attention of an international community that has armed and supported Thailand’s Army for decades?
What is clear is that until the Thai Army is brought under lawful, accountable, democratic and civilian control it will act as a force hindering Thailand’s struggling – yet burgeoning – democracy.