Does Thailand need another coup?

Soldiers of the Royal Thai Army take cover next to a Type-85 AFV near the Red Shirt barricade at Chulalongkorn Hospital.

The coup was the easy part. Source: Wikimedia

Incompetent economic policies and repression of any form of protest appear to be dominating the Thai news agenda, despite the fact that the country’s tourist market continues to thrive.

The embattled junta that has been running Thailand since the May 2014 coup appears to be running out of friends and is taking increasingly authoritarian action to stifle its adversaries.

Amnesty International has condemned the detention of 37 Thai activists ahead of an anti-corruption protest as the latest evidence of the junta’s use of arbitrary powers of detention to silence activism.

The 36 students and a lawyer were arrested on Monday while travelling by train to Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin, central Thailand, to demonstrate against alleged military graft.

“These heavy-handed and completely unjustifiable arrests highlight Thailand’s need to remove the military’s powers of arbitrary detention, which are being used to harass and criminalise peaceful dissent,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty’s regional office director

The authorities detached their train carriage during the journey and dragged the students out. All the activists were later released.

According to the New York Times, at least three people arrested on the criminal charge of lèse-majesté, or insulting the monarchy, have died in custody since last May’s coup. The government has given insufficient explanations for the fatalities, saying the men died from suicide or illness. In each case, the bodies were cremated before an inquest was conducted.

On the student protesters, Patel continued: “This group, some of whom were also denied access to lawyers, were detained merely for peacefully exercising their right to speak out against alleged corruption.”

Those arrested include democracy campaigners from the Resistant Citizens group, along with lawyer Anon Numpa.
The military has denied financial wrongdoing over the construction of the park on military-owned land in the popular seaside resort.

The park, in honour of former Thai kings, opened in September at an estimated cost of Bt1 billion (US$28 million) or US$1.7 million per 14-metre statue. It was closed “for renovations” on the day of the detentions.

The authorities’ actions follow the arrest of two former opposition MPs last week while they were also travelling to Rajabhakti Park. They were released the same day.

“This is the second time in a week that authorities have used arbitrary powers of detention to silence peaceful dissent,” said Champa Patel.

“The Thai authorities are also increasingly trampling on safeguards for detainees, which puts them at risk of further human rights violations such as torture and other ill-treatment.

“Authorities must also drop all charges of illegal political assembly and treason, laid against some of these activists for their role in peaceful protests earlier this year.”

A junta spokesman said the group had violated a ban on public meetings of more than five people for political reasons.

Thais looking to relax at the Hua Hin park on the public holiday to mark their king’s 88th holiday were left disappointed.

While the scandal-tainted complex was temporarily closed “for maintenance” two months after it opened, no official connection was made with the arrest of the student activists. There were roadblocks manned by soldiers outside the park just to make sure no protesters reached the site that was intended to be a prestige project for the military.

Philip Sherwell in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper writes that the park had “instead become a symbol for growing anti-junta sentiment after allegations of rampant corruption were aired last month”.

He said: “The controversy has prompted a series of contradictory defences from the ruling generals and been fuelled by the military’s efforts to quash the protests.

“The relentless leak of information about the normally highly secretive world of military affairs has fuelled speculation about splits within the junta or the higher echelons of Thai society.”

The background is the growing unease as the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej draws to an end. He has not been seen publicly for several months and did not give his traditional birthday address at the weekend.

Neighbouring Myanmar’s moves towards democracy are also galling for many Thai voters who have long viewed their oppressed neighbour with something approaching contempt.

Over Rajabhakti, rumours persist of a middleman described only as an amulet trader demanding lucrative commissions from the foundries contracted to cast the seven giant statues.

Last month the junta had absolved its officers of any wrongdoing after an internal inquiry but has now launched a second probe in response to renewed public anger.

Two senior army officers accused of pocketing cash during the construction process have disappeared.

William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia in Tokyo, has also condemned the junta, this time for its economic policy.

“The junta’s amateurish shot at censorship is a timely metaphor for Thailand’s own disappearing act on the world stage.

“General Prayuth Chan-ocha justified his power grab in ways coup leaders often do: we’ll restore order, stability and competence to a government that’s lost its way. Yet 565 days on, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy is in disarray, investors are fleeing and Prayuth’s regime looks increasingly desperate.

“When you topple a government, even one with tenuous legitimacy, it’s best to have a plan. Prayuth and his men with guns are devoid of one, making things up as they go along,” Pesek writes.

“Assurances that Thailand would have held an election or restored civilian rule by now have fallen by the wayside, as have economic reforms. Growth is slowing, exports are shrinking, household debt is surging and deflation risks are increasing. Consumer prices fell 0.97 per cent in November, the 11th-straight monthly drop as domestic consumption weakens. Private debt has increased by more than 30 per cent of gross domestic product since 2008.”

Thailand is also proving particularly vulnerable to China’s economic slowdown and weakening the junta’s resolve to push through vital reforms in areas of education or reducing red tape.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are upgrading operations in an attempt to bypass Thailand.

The junta’s attempt to block the New York Times last week only helps to reinforce the overall impression of a junta squandering its nation’s wealth and trampling on her freedoms.

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